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Hijacking hydrogen


President Bush was born again as an environmentalist during his State of the Union address, promising to "dramatically" improve our planet’s faltering health. Never mind that his "Healthy Forests Initiative" is a prescription to cut down more trees, or that his "Clear Skies" legislation guts the Clean Air Act and is essentially a giveaway to his friends in the energy business.

The speech’s environmental centerpiece was clearly the proposed $1.2 billion in funding for hydrogen-powered cars. Even Howard Stern was talking about it. "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free," Bush said. Of course, the commitment is not "new" — it’s simply an extension of the Clinton-era Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which also contained hydrogen funding.

Bush’s speech was eloquent for what it left out. He didn’t mention federal incentives for gas-electric hybrid cars (so far produced by Japanese companies only) and said nothing at all about reforms to federal fuel economy standards. Instead, he has proposed tax incentives for the largest sport-utility vehicles, which would be a considerable setback for fuel economy. And he kept fuel-cell cars safely in the distant future, as a technology to be enjoyed "by a child born today."

That strategy plays right into Detroit’s hands. "The auto industry is brandishing the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to dramatically cut our oil dependence and pollution today," says Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. "We can’t afford for a single year to slack off on efforts to curb our appetite for energy," adds energy analyst Therese Langer.

Further, there’s the likelihood that the Bush administration will try to use hydrogen as a back-door way to revive the ailing nuclear power industry. At the annual meeting of the World Nuclear Association in London last September, the group’s director general, John Ritch, touted what he called the "hydrogen-nuclear economy."

Speaking at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in South Korea last April, Dr. Leon Walters, former director of engineering at Argonne National Laboratory, estimated that nuclear power — now just 7 percent of U.S. power production — could leap to 50 percent if it were harnessed to produce hydrogen for transportation. L.M. Wagner of Boeing says that hydrogen could be profitably produced in off-peak hours from fusion reactors. (Unfortunately, fusion reactors don’t exist yet.)

Speaking anonymously, a high-ranking official in the Department of Energy’s Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies says many DOE scientists had concluded that nuclear generation of hydrogen "is the way to go." Let’s keep a close watch on "George Bush, environmentalist."

Potent Passat

Unlike their American counterparts, European carmakers emphasize technological innovation over constant model changes. Their ranges consist of identical-looking cars with vastly different underpinnings (and numbers for names). Volkswagen, a prime example, has come a long way from the dark days of the Fox and Dasher. Its new cars are technical tour de forces on a par with stablemate Audi. The W8 Passat I’m driving this week sports a unique compact eight-cylinder engine, the result of essentially fusing two narrow-angle V-4s in a staggered pattern. With that layout you get a super-smooth 270-horsepower power plant that fits under the hood of a Passat.

The near-luxury $37,900 W8 Passat, which also comes with Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system and a Tiptronic automatic box for gearless shifting, offers far more security in adverse conditions than a comparably priced SUV. And for an eight, the W8 is a gas miser, getting a respectable 25 on the highway. The in-town 18 mpg needs improvement, however.

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