Arnold in fantasyland

Nothing is more comical than the notion of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a born-again environmentalist and champion of the fuel-cell car. If the man ever had an environmental thought before he decided to run for governor of California, I missed it.

But here he is issuing prepared statements like, "More than a decade of hard work by a broad variety of stakeholders resulted in the Sierra Nevada Framework, which has been widely hailed as a model of forest ecosystem resource protection." Can you picture Schwarzenegger actually saying the word "stakeholder?"

Schwarzenegger is running against, among others, Arianna Huffington, founder of the SUV-baiting Detroit Project. But Huffington has a few skeletons in her closet, including former ownership of a Lincoln Navigator.

For his part, Schwarzenegger owns a reported six pre- and post-GM Hummers, not to mention (according to a Porsche 911 Carrera convertible, Mercedes SL600, Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Gulfstream III private jet. The emissions from that last one are enough to blanket the whole state of California in smog.

Schwarzenegger also has actively promoted the V-8-powered Hummer, which gets just eight to 10 miles per gallon, weighs 6,400 pounds and is 7 feet wide. He reportedly consults with Hummer designers, and joined with GM in giving away an "incredibly superior" (his words) Hummer H2 for the Inner City Games last year. The winner got a "special surprise" from Arnold in the glove compartment. An absentee ballot?

But now the movie personality wants a green image, which is necessary to win in a state where polls show a high level of environmental awareness among voters. He’s huddling with relative-by-marriage and legitimate environmentalist Bobby Kennedy Jr., and worked up a platform that includes paying people to junk aging gross polluters. He wants to establish a network of hydrogen refueling stations in the state. And he also told reporters he’s putting a fuel cell in his Hummer.

The idea is ridiculous on its face. The first reason is that the few fuel-cell cars on the road today are rarefied and highly experimental prototypes worth millions of dollars each. The second is that fuel-cell cars need to be as light as possible to perform acceptably, and the Hummer is probably the world’s worst candidate. The third is that (at least until Schwarzenegger builds it) there’s no hydrogen infrastructure.

Nonetheless, he’s somehow persuaded Terry Tamminen, the mechanically inclined executive director of the Santa Monica-based Environment Now foundation, to "measure" the Hummer to see whether he can "quickly get the needed parts."

Tamminen told the Los Angeles Times that this "ultimate alternative energy vehicle" will run either on natural gas or on hydrogen. Later, he told "Wheels" that he was talking about an internal-combustion engine burning hydrogen, though fuel cells were specifically cited in a Reuters report.

Converting a Hummer to run on natural gas would not be that difficult, but the environmental savings would be much less than if it were fuel-cell powered. A natural gas Hummer would still be a significant polluter. There’s no free lunch.

The way this whole episode was handled in the press suggests a yawning chasm between reality and the public’s knowledge about alternative fuels. Fuel cells are wonderful, but they’re an embryonic technology. It is not possible, people, to go out and buy a fuel cell for your car. That’s probably 10 to 15 years down the road, if we’re lucky.

Environment Now is a private foundation created by the late Frank Wells, former president of Disney. It seems appropriate that the movie star would turn to the movie mogul’s foundation to create a vision out of fantasyland, the green, fuel-cell-powered H2 Hummer.