Yesterday’s Technologies, Forever: The Fight to Keep America Dependent on Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuel and allied interests should not be permitted to turn America into a living museum of obsolete, pollution-spewing technologies.

The Renewable Fuels Association, the lead lobbying group for the ethanol industry, has reportedly made the strategic decision to ally with the oil industry against a common enemy: the electric car. The head of the association, according to a Reuters report, told oil industry representatives at a recent conference that “[o]ur objectives will align more times than not,” with representatives of the oil industry concurring that, in the words of one, “we should be working to promote the longevity of the internal combustion engine.”

The irony is thick here. First, electric vehicles can be an important tool for getting lots more truly clean energy – energy from the wind and the sun – into our energy system. Unlike corn ethanol, whose climate benefits are marginal to non-existent, wind and solar power can speed America’s progress in cutting the carbon pollution that causes global warming. Moreover, corn ethanol is an industry that would not exist today were it not for lucrative government subsidies and policy supports. For the industry to call for a “level playing field” for electric vehicles now, after having run the ball downhill for decades, is ridiculous.

Nevertheless, the push to prolong the lifespan of the internal combustion engine is – like efforts to stamp out the growth of solar power, slow wind power development, or prop up coal-fired power plants – real, and not to be ignored. Coinciding with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, which was built at least in part around promises to resurrect the coal industry, they represent a concerted effort to keep America tied to the fuels that powered its 20th century growth.

Even if you believe that reliance on coal-fired power plants and internal combustion engines is economically necessary right now (and we should have a vigorous debate in the U.S. about just how necessary they really are), those technologies are also inherently problematic. Having spent my teen years living in a housing development built atop an abandoned coal mine, where the creek still ran orange from mine drainage, I’m skeptical of the notion that coal can ever be made truly “clean,” or that it would be worth the trouble and expense of doing so if it could. The internal combustion engine, meanwhile, is a tremendously inefficient tool for turning energy into motion, and, despite decades of technological advances to make it cleaner, still pollutes enough to make our air unhealthy to breathe.

Few reasonable people would argue that we should remain dependent on those deeply flawed technologies longer than is truly necessary – especially if better alternatives exist. The Stone Age, it has long been said, didn’t end for lack of stones; it ended because better options came along. And better options – in the form of wind power, solar power, electric vehicles, highly energy efficient buildings and equipment, and a thousand others – are either here today or on their way. For more than a decade, local, state and federal public policies have worked to both bring these technologies to maturity and to make sure that the United States is among the first – not the last – to gain the necessary experience with how to make them work and to reap the environmental, economic and social benefits of adopting them on a wide scale.

The current push to slow or reverse America’s clean energy progress threatens to undermine all that. I believe that the transition to clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy is inevitable. It is *not* inevitable, however, that the United States will lead it, nor that it will occur quickly enough on a global scale to avoid the preventable and long-lasting damage to result from dangerous climate change. Delaying the clean energy transition one second longer than necessary is to choose to put our people and the future of our planet at risk.

Fossil fuel and allied interests should not be permitted to turn America into a living museum of obsolete, pollution-spewing technologies. The American people understand this – it is why, for example, wind and solar energy receive nearly universal support from people of all political persuasions. Let’s hope that our public officials understand it as well.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.