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Marginal: Land of the Lost?

Is the country that landed a man on the moon now incapable of making technological advances?

One of the examples that’s often brought out during discussions of stretch goal-setting is John Kennedy’s commitment—certainly it wasn’t a plan, per se—to make a manned lunar landing and return to Earth within a decade from when he made a speech at Rice University in Texas. With time we forget that what he was proposing was truly outlandish. The comparative level of technological capability and development was arguably closer to the 19th century than to our own day. Beyond the pure technical challenge, there were also the naysayers of varying levels of sophistication and reason who were working to inhibit the realization of the goal. (What’s interesting to note is that the president knew that there would be such people, because he stated, in part, “But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.” And they were.) While certainly not as conceptual a stretch as JFK’s moonshot, President Bush’s plans, stated during his State of the Union Address, to:

  • Reduce gasoline usage by 20% in the next 10 years
  • To require “35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017”
  • “To reform and modernize gasoline standards for cars the way we did for light trucks—and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.”

are met with the same sort of nay-saying chorus who can describe, chapter and verse, why this can’t be done, or why, at the very least, it would be foolhardy and/or devastating to the auto industry (to say nothing of the petroleum industry) as we know it to do so. When it comes to the availability of oil, someone recently told me, “There are no more dinosaurs,” referring, of course, to the feedstock for the petroleum supplies. Oh, yes, there are still dinos around: Those naysayers who are against change.

Let’s be clear. Gasoline is an ideal fuel for cars and trucks. But there are issues with gasoline. Like the facts that the U.S. imports about 60% of its petroleum (which is certainly better than Japan, which imports 100%), and the places from which that petroleum comes are not places where there is necessarily great fondness to the U.S. Some might say: “Yes, but those people need to sell us that product in order to get money.” Which may have been true in the past, but then there is the Giant Mastodon in the room: China. The Chinese are becoming increasingly thirsty for petroleum products as their auto industry undergoes seemingly on-going explosive growth. So our oil sourcing is now, and will continue to be, at some risk. E-85 is not as ideal as gasoline. Some say that it takes a gallon’s worth of energy in order to produce a gallon of E-85. While I don’t know that is so, let’s say for the sake of argument that it is. If the gallon of E-85 is predicated on another gallon of E-85 that is sourced from some field that is within the lower 48, then the fuel doesn’t come from some potentially—or actually—unfriendly place. Some people are decrying the fact that E-85 provides 25% less mileage than G-100 (i.e., 100% gasoline). True. But isn’t some sacrifice in order as we work toward if not energy independence, then at least a reasonable energy strategy? Then there is the complaint that the corn should be used for feeding people. So maybe there needs to be a real focus on cellulosic-based ethanol, produced from things that people don’t eat. “Oh, but wait a minute, oil prices are falling, why would we want to invest in that?” Because going forward there will be a need for alternative fuels. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but if the auto industry is going to be sustained, then there cannot be this singular focus. Some companies—most notably Honda and Toyota—were ahead of the curve with their hybrids. GM is showing vision with its e-Flex strategy. And the Detroit Three deserve credit for their E-85 initiatives. But we must all get behind the president’s call to action with regard to reducing gasoline usage and for finding alternatives. 

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