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Thomas Friedman makes the case for an Apollo program to develop electric cars and get off oil in an editorial in the New York Times. He makes that case with a contrast between two large public investments in China and the US. China is investing trillions in modernizing its air transportation sector, creating a web of high speed trains, creating research and development infrastructure for biotechnology, and focusing on a growth industry for the future - electric cars.

Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.

And the U.S. moonshot?

Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.

Ouch.

Friedman may have been spectacularly wrong about Iraq, but he hits the mark with this editorial. He is really just saying what should already be obvious. The signs of climate change are all around us. Getting off oil will reduce emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source for greenhouse gas emissions in our country. We have been hearing about Peak Oil for some time and most analysts predict that gas prices at the pump will start to skyrocket by the end of this decade, with devastating economic consequences. We have also been hearing about China's investment in clean energy technology as their economic growth engine for the future.

Our climate, energy, and economic policies seem to be dictated by the oil, gas, and coal companies. Our Tea Party Republican brethren even let the oil companies write their pledge points on energy, which is basically more of the same. Conservatives are intent upon maintaining the status quo until we are no longer an economic power. Unfortunately, the Democrats have been far too timid in pursing clean energy and driving down demand for dirty energy with carbon pricing.

Europe is using $7-a-gallon gasoline to stimulate the market for electric cars; China is using $5-a-gallon and naming electric cars as one of the industrial pillars for its five-year growth plan. And America? President Obama has directed stimulus money at electric cars, but he is unwilling to do the one thing that would create the sustained consumer pull required to grow an electric car industry here: raise taxes on gasoline. Price matters. Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.

Even if climate change were not a consideration, inaction or ineffective action on creating the infrastructure for electric cars and limiting the economic impact of escalating oil prices is foolhardy and inexcusable.

The backbone of the modern U.S. economy was locally made cars powered by locally produced oil. It started us on a huge growth spurt. In recent decades, though, that industry was supplanted by foreign-made cars run on foreign oil, so “now every time we buy a car we’re exporting $15,000 of capital, paying for it with borrowed money and running it on foreign energy sources,” says Czinger. “We’ve gone from autos being a middle-class-making-machine to a middle-class-destroying-machine.” A U.S. electric car/battery industry would reverse that.

It is not rocket science. It does not take a Ph.D. and Nobel Prize in economics to figure out. We are falling behind. Our political leadership has been corrupted by money from Big Oil or lacks the courage to speak out forcefully.

I  give Obama credit for taking some steps to promote research and development in the electric car technology, but he cannot do it alone. I cannot help but ask why Republicans are able to promote tax cuts, corporate deregulation, and climate change denial in lockstep, but Democrats don't promote clean energy and related infrastructure with the same fervor and messaging discipline. We tried, but failed on clean energy and climate change (shrug, shrug) is not likely to win friends and influence enemies.

However, if only China puts the gasoline prices and infrastructure in place, the industry will gravitate there. It will be a moon shot for them, a hobby for us, and you’ll import your new electric car from China just like you’re now importing your oil from Saudi Arabia.

In other words, we're screwed and deserve to be if we let Big Oil con us into letting the world pass us by. At least we have nation-building in Afghanistan to keep us busy. It does simplify job training for future generations of Americans. "Would you like fries with that?"

Originally posted to DWG on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 10:28 AM PDT.

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