NZ Autocar - - Contents -

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.

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