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When Energy Secretary Spence Abraham came to town last week for the big auto show, fuel cells took center stage. We’re talking h-y-p-e, and the media lapped it up.

The concept of using hydrogen to create electricity, with only water vapor as the byproduct, indeed offers the promise of an automotive future freed from the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine and all its negative impacts.

So we should all be breathing easier, right? Especially since Spence was here to announce that the feds are ready to pump money into what they’re calling the Freedom CAR, a spiffy acronym standing for the Council for Automotive Research. The council will be a joint venture between the government, the Big 2-1/2 and other parts of the private sector. Our former senator didn’t say exactly how much taxpayer money is going to be kicked in, but he was nonetheless starry-eyed about the prospects.

“The long-term results of this cooperative effort,” said Spence, “will be cars and trucks that are more efficient, cheaper to operate, pollution-free and competitive in the showroom.”

In announcing the plan, Abraham also noted that the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was being whacked. That program, a pet project of Al Gore’s that was intended to produce highly fuel-efficient gas burners that could get up to 80 miles per gallon by 2004, has consumed $1.5 billion in federal funds since its launch in 1993.

The problem with the Freedom CAR (aside from the cloying name), say environmentalists, is that it’s going to take at least a decade (and possibly decades) before affordable fuel cell vehicles are available and an infrastructure is in place to support them. In the meantime, the Bush administration appears content to place its focus on the future while ignoring the here and now.

That’s not a new development. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards haven’t been upgraded in more than 20 years. And, because of a consumer shift toward SUVs and light trucks, which are subject to more lenient standards (20.5 mpg instead of the 27.5 required of passenger cars) our average mpg is at its lowest point since 1980.

In other words, while the Bush administration has its eyes on the distant horizon, we’re actually going backward.

Which is why folks like Meagan Owens, spokesperson for the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group in Michigan (PIRGM), received Abraham’s announcement with mixed emotions.

“We don’t feel like this should be in place of increasing fuel efficiency standards,” Owens told us. For one thing, there’s no guarantee the program is actually going to produce the promised results. After all, as Owens pointed out, none of us are driving around in those 80-mpg supercars Al Gore envisioned, are we? Moreover, without immediate attention, our dependency on foreign oil will continue, as will the internal combustion engine’s significant contributions to the problems of smog, global warming and acid rain.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), average fuel economy of 40 mpg can be achieved within the next 10 years using conventional technology. Hell, Toyota already has a four-door, hybrid gas/electric vehicle that averages 45 miles per gallon, and Honda has a two-door that gets 55 mpg.

So its not like those scientists at the UCS are talking about achieving some impossible dream. The government just has to lay down the law. And a good place to start is closing the SUV loophole.

So, what do you think, Spence — is the future now, or are you and the other Bushies just blowing hot air about cutting our dependence on Big Oil?

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette, Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com

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