It's like a nonsensical scene from Alice in Wonderland: The U.S. desperately wants to wean off imported oil, yet every alternative is attacked as unworkable, too expensive, too dirty or an outright scam.
Hydrogen was an early victim. Despite billions in research and development by most of the world's top auto makers, plus impressive hydrogen-powered test fleets from General Motors, Honda and BMW, most environment groups continue to dismiss hydrogen as a scam.
Proponents estimate a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure that serves about 70% of the U.S. could be built for about $14 billion, what it costs to fund the war in Iraq for about seven weeks. Yet naysayers continue to sneer and try to eliminate hydrogen from the national discussion of petroleum alternatives.
Likewise, plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt have been singled out as another auto industry fraud by skeptics that say the necessary battery technology won't be available for many years.
GM disagrees. It's linking up with key battery suppliers and moving ahead with the Volt, aiming for a 2010 intro date.
But even GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is trying to lower expectations for diesels, which offer as much as 30% better fuel economy than conventional gasoline engines. He warns that cleaning up their tailpipe emissions to meet U.S. standards will make them so expensive, most of their fuel-efficiency benefits will be nullified.
Now, renewable biofuels are under assault as yet another “scam” that will enrich a few corporations and farmers while starving hundreds of millions of the world's poor, as greed causes fuel crops to displace food crops.
One study claims rising food prices caused by the demand for biofuels could cause as many as 600 million more people to go hungry worldwide by 2025.
All these critics do is confirm the obvious: There is no perfect substitute for gasoline. It has been our fuel for the past 100 years because it is the cheapest, most energy-dense choice available.
All alternatives likely will be, at least at first, more expensive and less convenient.
Yet, diesels are the engine of choice in Europe, and Brazil's oil independence — fueled by ethanol — is no scam.
Is any single one of these technologies the answer for U.S. energy problems? No. But if we wait for the ideal solution, we will be trapped in Wonderland forever, doing nothing and listening to the whiners and complainers.
Dependence on imported fossil fuels hurts the U.S. economically, politically and environmentally.
America's policy for alternative fuels should be summed up with seven words: “No pain, no gain. Just do it.”
There still is time to argue about when we will run out of oil, and how to balance food crops and fuel crops. But the sooner we start building our ability to use alternative fuels — if only by a small amount — the better.
Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld.