News Story

May 12, 2008

Senator, Auto Executive Square Off over the Future of Energy

The Future of Energy capped off the 2007-08 season with a pair of speakers who offered markedly different perspectives on a similar issue: the role of policy versus technology in addressing the problem of climate change. 

On April 21, Representative Edward J. Markey of the 7th Congressional District, Mass., delivered a talk on the subject of “Reclaiming U.S. Leadership on Global Warming.” Susan Cischke, group vice president of Ford Motor Company’s Sustainability, Environment, and Safety engineering division, followed on May 5 with a presentation on “Sustainable Mobility: An Automaker Perspective on Transportation Energy and Climate Policy.”

Markey, who is chairman of the newly formed House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, has been a consistent leader in the effort to increase federal fuel economy standards and energy efficiency provisions. He began his presentation lauding the fact that Congress had recently achieved the first major increase in vehicle fuel economy standards since 1975—the year before Markey took office.

The legislation Markey referred to, labeled a “landmark” energy bill and signed into law in late 2007, requires automakers to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars, light trucks, and SUVs to 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. Lesser publicized provisions of the law include a ban on the sale of 100-watt incandescent light bulbs by 2012, along with a significant increase of the production of biofuels over the next 15 years.

Markey credited the passage of the bill to the Democratic takeover of both chambers of Congress in the previous midterm elections, and criticized the Bush administration for its extreme reluctance to acknowledge, let alone address, the problem of climate change. “We still don’t have an administration which has responded to the issue that reflects the magnitude of the challenge to the planet,” Markey said.

Though he called the energy bill a “good first step” and a “down payment” toward solving the world’s energy crisis, Markey argued that the implementation of a carbon tax is the key. “Most of the CO2 that’s up there right now is red, white, and blue,” he said, explaining that nations such as India and China, which are entering phases of heavy industrial development, are looking to the U.S. and Europe to take the lead on developing policy for carbon trading systems.

As he underscored government’s responsibility to take on this leadership role, Markey expressed confidence that industry would ultimately rise to the challenge: “[Energy technologies] are the last great, blocked technological revolution,” he said. “Once you get the policy right, then the private sector responds.”

In her presentation two weeks later, Cischke, representing a major segment of the private sector—one of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers—offered a response in the form of Ford’s perspective on transportation energy use and climate policy. According to Cischke, Ford’s drive toward sustainability is motivated by concerns of profitability, product safety and energy security, and environmental stewardship. She asserted that the solution to the world’s energy problems requires collaboration among government, consumers, and the fuel and auto industries. “We’re not an island when it comes to sustainable mobility,” Cischke said.

The similarities between Cischke’s and Markey’s respective views ended there, however, as Cischke explained that Ford—as with all major automakers—must be able to see sufficient consumer demand to make it worthwhile to develop new technology. In direct contrast to Markey’s previous contention that policy should guide industry, Cischke alternately argued that technology and consumer demand must propel the standards: “not arbitrary numbers by politicians.”

Cischke acknowledged that Ford has a fleet of more than 50 vehicles around the world that achieve better than 30 miles per gallon, but for various reasons, most of them do not figure to sell well in the United States. “We have the vehicles; we’ll bring them over when the demand is there,” she said.

In the more immediate term, Cischke explained that the company is concentrating the bulk of its domestic efforts on developing new technologies such as plug-in hybrids and drivable fuel cells, while also increasing the efficiency of existing technology by downsizing and turbo-charging engines, reducing vehicle weight, and switching from gasoline to diesel engines.

While calling on the energy sector to develop the hydrogen infrastructure and pleading with policymakers to “bend us, but don’t break us” with industry regulations, Cischke also appealed to consumers to do their part by adopting “eco-driving” habits. Simple actions such as keeping tire pressure up accelerating and decelerating more smoothly can drastically improve a car’s fuel economy, and save significant amounts of gasoline.

As Cischke repeatedly emphasized throughout her talk, ultimately there is no silver bullet. “It’s going to [take] a whole bunch of solutions for us to deliver the future.”

Research Areas: 

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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