WASHINGTON – Edwin Black is on a mission. He wants to go head-to-head with the head of General Motors in a showdown at Starbucks.
The best-selling author has nothing against the coffee chain, but says he wants a public venue to confront the nation's largest car industry with his charges that GM has addicted the U.S. to the internal combustion engine — and hence oil — and is spelling doom for America.
"These are the cigarettes of individual movements. These are the cigarettes of technology. These are eight-cylinder cigarettes. They are killing us," Black said recently in a one-on-one interview.
"Stop allowing these health-harming, climate-killing, treasury-destroying, terrorism-enabling, petroleum guzzlers to be made," he beseeched.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the conflict over greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Click here to see the previous article on the debate over whether the federal or state governments should take the lead on global warming policy.
At General Motors, predictably, they see things differently.
"We've been very consistent about what we've said," said GM spokesman Scott Forsgard, who is familiar with Black's assaults.
"Our internal goal is to convince our chairman by 2010 that we can make a business model" that will show GM-made alternative fuel vehicles can be as affordable, "as reliable and as durable and would perform like an internal combustion engine or better," he said.
"We stated that goal in 2000. It hasn't changed, even though Edwin Black would like to think it did," Forsgard said.
Blame to Go Around
Black is on a 50-city book tour promoting his latest epic, "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives." The full-maned, white-bearded firecracker — who dresses by surname and carries a black business card with just the white-lettered Internet address EdwinBlack.com printed on it — admits his provocative assault on one of America's institutions — the automobile — has helped drive book sales.
But that's not the point anymore for Black, whose six books, including mega-seller "IBM and the Holocaust," have been published in 50 editions in 13 languages in 60 countries.
"I am trying to find a way of talking sense to power," he said, demanding that GM come clean about what he claims was its role in squashing electric car production, killing mass transportation, dividing cities along highway routes and exploiting its own wealth and influence to keep gas guzzlers on the road.
"They are shameless, they can not be shamed. If they had shame, they would not be foisting Hummers on women," Black said of what he deems the American auto industry's efforts to create customer dependence on gas-run vehicles.
"Nobody woke up and said 'I want a Hummer.' Nobody woke up and said, 'We have to have Escalades.' What about corporate leadership? How about the right thing?"
But with 232 million cars on the road, and 17 million new vehicles produced each year, Americans are not easily swayed to give up their autos, say members of the industry.
"I don't believe the American public is so gullible they are told what they want and then go line up and buy it like lemmings," Forsgard said, adding that 3 million vehicles sold each year in America are pick-up trucks that meet the demands of construction workers, farmers and other small business operations.
"People still buy them because they think they need them," he said
"We are going to be dependent on fossil fuels for quite some time, and we don't see the automotive fleet switching overnight," said Tim O'Leary of Shell Oil. He said for alternative fuel engines to work, they have to be affordable and refuelable and have to operate in a way that's familiar to consumers making the shift.
"It's like going from a 76 RPM Victrola to an iPod," O'Leary said.
Still, Black isn't about to let up. He blames GM, Ford and Chrysler for the anti-American attitudes in the Middle East that led to the World Trade Center attacks and, ultimately, the U.S. war in Iraq.
"We got an oil shock in 1973. They've had almost two generations, a generation and a half to get it right and what did they reward us with? Escalade, Navigator," he said.
Forsgard responded: "I have a problem with saying GM is at fault for all the world's problems."
After the oil shock, the public was serious about raising fuel efficiency standards, concurred John DiCicco, senior fellow for automotive strategies at Environmental Defense. As a result, car efficiency is now 50 percent higher than a generation ago.
But the public is still voting with its wallets for "land yachts," said DiCicco, who calls himself a "hydrogen skeptic."
"The country has not really decided it wants to solve" the problems of oil dependency, he said. adding that the debate over alternative fuel engines has included a lot of "smoke and mirrors."
Forsgard said his company is in business to profit, and GM is happy to take the socially responsible route when those interests collide.
GM is working on "all fronts furiously," Forsgard said. "You know why? Because we see a way to clean up the environment while making money. ... You know why you could believe us? Because we make lots of money and that's why we exist."
"We invest millions upon millions in alternative fuel research," added Jennifer Moore, manager of corporate news for Ford Motor Company. "We don't believe there is a silver bullet" to ending foreign oil dependency.
"Internal Combustion" looks at the monopolization of energy by reviewing 5,000 years of history, dating to the Stone Age and early efforts to control wood distribution.
"In every generation, fuel and energy has been the domain of monarchs, monopolists and manipulators," Black said, expanding the blame for today's global warming and exploitative geopolitics beyond automakers.
Congress and the administration can make up for lost time, Black said, if they "tobacco-nize" the industry. Just as the government can legislate that smoking is not permitted in public buildings, so too, he said, can it prevent certain vehicles from driving on certain roads.
"The government owns the complete infrastructure for automobiles — every road, every highway, every alley is government-owned," Black said, adding that such authority gives the federal government the ability to dictate what forms of fuel should be located alongside the roads and which cars should be allowed on them.
Internal combustion vehicles "should not be permitted on the road. They should be taxed out of existence right now," Black said.
In the 2005 energy bill, Congress expanded the use of ethanol, and flex fuel vehicles, a simpler technology that enables cars to run on primarily corn-based fuel, is now a priority for the car companies. Moore said 250,000 flex fuel vehicles are on the road this year, and Ford is "committed to doubling (the number of) flex fuel vehicles by 2010."
But Black contends it takes more than a gallon of gasoline to create a gallon of corn ethanol, a widely held view among environmentalists that is loudly disputed by the automotive industry and corn-producing states.
"That's a wells to wheels kind of comparison" and it's wrong, said Moore. She pointed to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, which claims "a 38 percent gain in the overall energy input/output equation for the corn-to-ethanol process" over gasoline.
NEVC notes that its international partners are looking at using higher energy output crops such as switch grasses, timothy and sugar cane, all of which require less fuel to produce.
But lawmakers took efforts to tax sugar ethanol coming from Brazil, protecting the domestic corn industry even though sugar ethanol requires much less fuel to produce, Black said.
"We need to fire any legislator who voted to tax Brazilian ethanol and take no explanations," he said.
Jill Kozeny, spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a major proponent of corn ethanol and backer of the tax, said lifting the tariff on Brazilian ethanol would hurt Americans.
"It would discourage U.S. ethanol production, and the resulting decrease in supply will hurt consumers who want to increase their use of ethanol," she said. "Lifting the tariff would effectively have U.S. taxpayers give a tax credit to foreign producers of ethanol because the tariff offsets the excise tax credit that applies to both domestically produced and imported ethanol."
Black does give credit to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for wanting to create an environment for alternative fuel vehicle use by building a hydrogen fuel cell highway up and down the state.
In the last two fiscal years, California's budget has included $6.5 million each year to promote the hydrogen highway, offer seed money for new stations and to build a demonstration fleet, said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.
Martin said it's a high priority for Schwarzenegger, who wants to see greater production and lower cost alternative fuel vehicles soon.
"No car company was going to build a lot of cars that need to be refueled off of a servicing station that's not available," Martin said of the plan to create 20 to 50 stations clustered around urban areas before growing out along the state's major north-south corridors. "We expect that over time, hybrids will fully replace or nearly replace gas-fueled vehicles."
Martin noted that General Motors had been in the forefront of the alternative fuel car race in the 1990s, but when California began implementing a zero-emissions vehicles policy, GM abandoned its electric battery car.
They thought they would have the whole market to themselves, Martin said. "With our rule, we gave them six competitors ... and that sort of soured them on the whole idea."
For Black, the way forward now is a U.S.-government sponsored "Manhattan Project" to make alternative fuel accessible and affordable.
He estimated the project would take roughly a $20 billion investment — the same amount in World War II dollars that it took to develop the atomic bomb.
"They need a Katrina moment. They need a Dubai Ports moment," he said of the groundswell that forced government action in recent hurricane recovery and national security decisions.
The Department of Energy argues that President Bush is already taking aggressive steps to assist the private industry's movement toward alternative fuels, committing more than $1 billion to research and development funding.
"Hydrogen remains one of the largest single-funded program elements of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative to expand our fuel and vehicle options, to displace petroleum and carbon emissions, and to address our 'addiction' to oil," said Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Energy Department.
"This unprecedented commitment has in fact reduced the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell by more than 50 percent in just four years," he said.
But DiCicco said as long as current government administrators and company executives put off the hydrogen deadline to 2020 and beyond, no one will ever have to take responsibility for not getting the U.S. to its goal.
An adage in the business is that "hydrogen is the fuel of the future and it always will be," he said.
Black said the market can be pushed and consumers can help — not by buying alternative fuel cell cars themselves, but by convincing fleet companies to invest in them.
"There would be no mass production without mass purchases," he said, adding it should be the duty of mass purchasers to buy alternative fuel cars. "The government has 600,000 cars. The taxicab industry has 100,000 vehicles with a complete turnover every three years."
He suggests, for example, that consumers call up FedEx, DHL and UPS and tell them whichever shipping company changes its fleet to alternative fuels will get their business.
"Ship green," he said. "Don't drape a flag over your Hummer."