Lend an Ear

President Bush came painfully close to talking about transportation during his State of the Union address. He came so close, in fact, that one group concerned with the nation's roads issued a statement praising the president's bold moves.

But that wasn't how it worked out. In fact, whatever the White House was planning to say about congestion was buried, and the closest the president came to the topic was when he announced his ambitious plan to make the United States energy independent. 

That should have a big impact on transportation, of course, and plenty of people and businesses in the transportation industry are ready to do their part. Unfortunately, the president's call for alternative energy, including a goal of producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017, doesn't offer much promise for energy independence or even much energy.

In fact, the president's attention to such schemes has everything to do with politics and very little to do with the realities of alternative energy sources, Michael J. Economides, an influential petroleum industry consultant and author of the book "The Color of Oil," told a gathering of truckers the morning after Bush's address.

It takes at least as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as the energy that the ethanol produces, and that energy would come from the fossil fuels we are trying to replace. And that gallon of ethanol would produce only about two-thirds the energy of today's gasoline, so engines would have to work harder to move the same distance, and consume more of the fuel.

And what would it take to produce enough ethanol to make a difference? Of course, vast farmland would have to be turned over to the effort, and the diversion of corn into the fuel economy would drive up the price of food. As the president told farmers in Illinois last week, "It turns out corn is needed for more than just ethanol. You got to feed your cows and feed your hogs," Bush said, touting cellulosic ethanol that would produce ethanol from other products.

We could import the ethanol, of course, but there's already a push to make sure we are, well, ethanol independent. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from, well, just guess, last week called on Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to reverse his decision to let the tariff on ethanol imports expire.

The problem is, the bow to ethanol comes at the expense of things transportation companies already are doing.

William J. Logue, an executive vice president at FedEx Express, told a congressional committee last week about FedEx's use of 93 package vans with hybrid engines that operate 40 percent more efficiently than standard trucks and produce 90 percent less particulate emissions. "This shows that significant gains can be made now," Logue said.

But the trucks also are far more expensive to buy than standard vans and FedEx wants a tax credit that was included in the 2005 Energy Policy Act tax but has not yet been finalized by the Treasury Department.

It's something like a tax cut, in other words, and it would help promote greater energy efficiency. There's the seed of an idea.

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