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BP disaster spurs call for electrifying transportation

Proponents of wider electric vehicle use for both everyday motorists and commercial vehicle operators alike are renewing their call for more government investment dollars, pointing to BP's massive oil-rig collapse

Proponents of wider electric vehicle use for both everyday motorists and commercial vehicle operators alike are renewing their call for more government investment dollars, pointing to BP’s massive oil-rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico as but the latest reason why a shift to electrification is necessary.

“It is my belief that after terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, our increased dependence on petroleum represents the biggest single threat to our nation’s economy and national security,” said Frederick Smith, chairman, president & CEO of FedEx Corp. and co-chairman of the Energy Security Leadership Council in testimony before the U.S. Senate
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this week.

“Oil is the lifeblood of a mobile, global economy. We are all dependent upon it, and that dependence brings with it inherent and serious risks,” Smith pointed out. “At the crux of America’s oil dependence is the energy demand of the transportation sector. Transportation accounted for almost 70% of American oil consumption in 2008. Cars and trucks were 94% reliant on oil-based fuel for their energy, with no substitutes immediately available in anything approaching sufficient quantities.”

Now, however, the environmental damage oil can cause is taking center stage, in light of the havoc being wreaked by the explosion and eventual collapse of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20.

Drilling at water depths of 5,000 feet in the Gulf, the Deepwater Horizon well is spewing out oil at the rate of roughly 30,000 to 65,000 barrels per day, according to the Flow Rate Technical Group in charge of monitoring the site. That translates into 2.5-million gallons of oil per day at the top end of the flow estimates, the group said. By contrast, the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill in Alaska spilled a total of 10.8-million gallons of crude oil.

Preventing such environmental catastrophes in the future is why the U.S. should invest heavily in electrifying the nation’s transportation system, said Robbie Diamond, president of the Electrification Coalition (EC) – a group to which FedEx’s Smith also belongs.

“Every president since Richard Nixon has pledged to end this nation’s addiction to oil, and all of them have failed,” said Diamond. “President Obama can break that cycle of failure, but only if he and Congressional leaders implement policies to electrify our cars and trucks.”

Back on May 27, he noted, Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation designed to advance the wide-scale deployment of electric vehicles and to develop the infrastructure needed to support them.

The Senate bill, titled the “Electric Vehicle Deployment Act of 2010,” was introduced with bipartisan support by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) The House legislation, titled the “Electric Drive Vehicle Deployment Act of 2010,” was also introduced with support from both sides of the aisle. It was co-sponsored by House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL).

“The reality is this: oil dependence threatens our economy, our national security, and our environment, and until we fundamentally transform our petroleum-based transportation system that will never change,” EC’s Diamond said. “The framework put forward [in these bills] – targeted investment designed to drive electric vehicles and infrastructure in select communities – represents a major change of course to a safer, stronger nation.”

“The lynchpin of any plan that is serious about confronting oil dependence must be the transformation of [the] transportation system that today is almost entirely dependent on petroleum,” added FedEx’s Smith. “Lithium ion [batteries] can one day form the nucleus of an electrified transportation sector that is powered by a wide variety of domestic sources: natural gas, nuclear, coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal. No one fuel source—or producer—would be able to hold our transportation system and our economy hostage the way a single nation can disrupt the flow of petroleum today.”

Smith cautioned, however, that electrification won’t be easy or cheap. “It has now been more than 10 years since traditional hybrids were first introduced in the U.S. And despite government support and record high gas prices for part of that time, there are still only 1.6 million of them on the road out of more than 250-million vehicles in the light duty fleet,” Smith noted.

“It is not as simple as flipping a switch,” he continued. “Electrification on a mass scale is an enormously complex undertaking. [But] we cannot let electric vehicles turn into another niche product. To make our nation’s investment worthwhile – and, more importantly, to truly combat our oil dependence – we must put ourselves on the pathway toward millions, then tens of millions, and then hundreds of millions of electric cars and trucks,” Smith added.

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