The end of oil

As Earth Day approaches, things are looking glum for the environment, right? Well, yes and no.

Yes, our new president is hip deep in oil money and wants to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s also scrapped a number of environmental regulations and gone back on a campaign pledge to reduce greenhouse gases. And, in the Western U.S., energy prices are going through the roof, threatening rolling blackouts and economic disaster.

Sounds bad, eh? It is. But there are silver linings to these clouds. Environmentalists are awake and ticked off again after eight years of slumber during the Clinton administration. And energy conservation is again part of the environmental gospel. That’s good news twice over.

But the really good news, and the cause for celebration on this Earth Day, is that it’s now possible to glimpse an alternative energy future. As no less a personage than Sheik Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister, warned members of OPEC last year, the age of oil is coming to an end. It was not news OPEC wanted to hear, but the sheik was insistent: The enemy, he said, is technology.

He could have been talking about the Prius, Toyota’s new gas/electric hybrid car. The company has sold 50,000 of them so far, mainly in Japan, and, after introducing them in the U.S. this year, expects to sell 12,000 or more here. The nifty little cars have all the creature comforts and zip of a Corolla but get 50 miles or more to a gallon of gas, produce 90 percent fewer emissions than the average car, cost only $20,000 fully loaded, and are a delight to drive. Toyota can’t keep up with the demand.

Toyota is also close to releasing a hybrid minivan as well as a hybrid version of its popular Camry sedan. Honda has come out with a 70-miles-per-gallon two-seat hybrid, the Insight, and plans eventually to offer all its models as hybrids; Ford is building a hybrid 40-mpg SUV; and DaimlerChrysler expects to have its hybrid, the HyPer, in production before 2005.

As terrific as the hybrids are, however, they will serve primarily as a transition to the coming generation of fuel-cell vehicles, which will run on liquid hydrogen and produce only water as exhaust. Ford expects to have a fuel-cell prototype by 2003, and other automakers are developing models. As Ford’s chairman, William Ford Jr., has said, “Fuel cells could be the predominant automotive power source in 25 years.”

It’s not just cars that are changing. For years the U.S. Department of Defense has been applying fuel-cell technology to a wide range of uses, from heating and cooling buildings to powering Bradley Fighting Vehicles. As with solar energy, the cost will come down as commercial use increases.

Yes, we’re in the midst of an energy crisis and we’ve got a Texas oilman as president. But change is coming. If you don’t believe us, just talk with a Prius or Insight owner.