It was the humble electric starter motor that confirmed the victory of fossil fuel over the electric car one hundred years ago. Once reciprocating combustion engines no longer required hand-cranking to start them, car buyers then voted with their wallets for petrol power en masse because of the more convenient energy storage and distribution that use of the fossil fuel enabled. A century later, the old war between fossil fuel and electricity has been reignited in the automotive sector. Wired motors have been making such a comeback that some of the old fossil fuel warriors are now so worried about their futures that they’re forming powerful lobby groups in the US to look after their interests. Their mission: to kill off the electric car (once again).
Such initiatives could be compared to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. For sooner or later, electricity will become the prime motivator of the automotive world. That’s provided some technical gee-wizardry that’s inconceivable today doesn’t come along in the next forty years or so. We might be enjoying record-low fuel prices at present but they result from geo-political shifts in crude oil extraction, rather than from some huge breakthrough in oil exploration or conservation.
Oil production in high-consuming nations like the USA has increased dramatically over the two-term Obama presidency, and the lifting of sanctions against Iran has added another huge source of supply for the commodity, sending prices into freefall. The global oil market has never been so flush with flow, to the point that fields with high levels of contaminants like sulphur are now shutting down as the cost of refining and distributing such oil outweighs the prices that will be paid for it. However fossil fuel will always be a finite source of energy. Most energy pundits predict that we’ll burn through the planet’s reserves of it by the middle of the 21st Century, just thirty years later than they were saying the pumps would start to run dry a decade ago.
Into this backdrop step three American billionaires, each worthy of a place on the list of the most influential men in the world. On the fossil fuel side you have the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who have just formed a lobby group aimed at removing government incentives on electric vehicles. The Kochs are evidently prepared to spend $US10 million a week to achieve this aim, and they’re not the only oil industry oligarchs prepared to stump up dollars to kill off, or at least severely disable, demand for electric vehicles.
The Kochs have a huge oil distribution business to protect, Flint Hill Resources, and they consider the $US7500 tax credit that the present US government hands out to buyers of zero-emission vehicles to be a threat to that activity. Although the anti-electric lobby group is still in the formation stage, an unnamed spokesperson said the goal was to “make the public aware of all the benefits of petroleum-based transportation fuels” and express “concern over electric vehicles and their subsidies.”
Enter the third player in this automotive energy war, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Cars and active promoter of electric vehicle advances via his offer of cost-free technology sharing with all the world’s car makers. When first made aware of the new lobby group being set up by the Kochs, Musk hit the twitter-sphere, pointing his millions of followers in the direction of a report by the International Monetary Fund that showed the oil industry was being subsidised to tune of $US10 million per minute. The IMF report, released in May, stated that post-tax subsidies to global oil, coal, and gas industries totalled some $US5.3 trillion annually.
Putting this stoush into a New Zealand context, the position of our government to offer no incentives on electric vehicles other than an exemption from Road User Charges until 2020 seems a little naïve. Given the huge global subsidies offered to the fossil fuel producers, it would seem fair for our government to promote the adoption of EVs in this country by offering a similar tax credit to that offered to US consumers. As a country with 80 per cent of its electricity generated from renewable sources, we have more to gain environmentally than just about every other bar Norway from widespread acceptance of EVs.
Applying a tax credit to EVs sold here would in no way be unfair to the oil industry given the huge grants and incentives the latter already receives, albeit overseas. As the IMF has found, any statement to the contrary is just a load of Koch.