Experts debate government role in alternative fuels

Transportation and energy experts debated whether the federal government has a role in encouraging the development and adoption of alternative fuel vehicles Tuesday, disagreeing over how such policies affect the economy and environment.

Pat Davis, director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) vehicle technology office, offered the Obama administration’s support for funding research and development of alternative fuel vehicles, among other actions.

“It’s important to the Obama administration for the same reason it’s been important to almost every administration in the last two decades,” Davis said at the event organized by The Hill.

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“It’s that we have a petroleum dependency problem in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re spending almost a billion dollars a day just on importing petroleum we consume.”

Davis’ office funds research with a goal of lowering the costs of alternative vehicle technologies, such as batteries for electric vehicles or combustion engines.

“We’re working on solving technical problems that bring these alt fuel vehicle technologies to the marketplace,” he said. “It’s cost reduction, it’s improvements in efficiency.”

DOE does not pick winners and losers in terms of fuel, he said. Officials work toward all alternative fuels and their research into lightweight materials and how improving engine efficiency can benefit all vehicles.

“We’re not picking winners, because we don’t know what’s going to win,” he said. “Ultimately, the market’s going to decide.”

Emil Frankel, a scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, called for some limited government involvement in helping alternative fuel vehicles.

“I think the government’s role … is really building on what we’ve done in the past,” said Frankel, who worked at the Department of Transportation under President Bush

He said the government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have driven much of the private sector’s development into alternative fuels.

Under CAFE, automakers will have to produce car fleets that achieve a higher average mile-per-gallon each year beginning in 2017, culminating in a 54.5 miles per gallon requirement in 2025. The standard that has been in place since 2011 calls for cars to achieve to 35.5 miles-per-gallon by the end of the 2016 fiscal year.

The standards also incentivize certain alternative fuel vehicles by providing more credit to companies that sell them.

“It shows that the private sector, under the pressure of the regulatory regime, can and has developed and deployed technologies which are making a huge difference in the long run in reducing the dependence on oil,” he said.

Sam Ori, the executive vice president of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), said government policies should be targeted at the problems with traditional transportation fuels.

“As an organization, we find the problem as the need to reduce the role of oil in the economy and reduce U.S. oil dependence for economic and national security reasons,” Ori said. “We’re looking at alternative fuel vehicles as a way to diversify transportation fuels in the U.S.”

Alternative fuel vehicles could improve the United States’ energy security and protect it from volatility in the oil market.

But Myron Ebel, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s energy and environment center, disagreed.

“I’m very much for rapid technological progress, and for more advanced vehicles. And therefore, I’m for less government involvement,” he said.

“I think that the federal government’s track record in trying to force innovation is not good, and I think the best thing that can be done is to try to minimize the role of government in the transportation and energy sector.”

Ebel cited the ethanol blending mandate as a poor policy that will ultimately cost the country more than its benefits.

Ebel also called for an end to the CAFE standards, which he said will cause vehicles to become to expensive, and will collapse when consumers cannot afford the cars anymore.