Wall Street Journal: Time to Plug In Electric Cars

Posted on June 17, 2010

It's fair to say that President Barack Obama's speech to the nation on the oil spill this week didn't exactly get rave reviews. It was variously described as flat and vague—and that was by his friends.

And maybe there was just nothing he could say at this moment of helplessness in the face of the gushing oil that could have made it otherwise.

Perhaps, though, the president should have uttered two words: electric cars.

One of Mr. Obama's goals, in the speech and beyond, is to turn the BP crisis into a clarion call for moving more quickly to a post-oil energy future. Indeed, the White House believes that, once the trauma of the spill subsides, the chances of passing broad energy legislation—suspended in a partisan coma before the spill—actually will have improved, because the crisis will have a galvanizing effect on America's yearning for a different energy future.

If that's the case, there may well be broader support for building that future around electric cars than any other approach. In short, perhaps electric vehicles are something both parties can agree to ride into a new and brighter energy future.

Already, similar bills are pending in both houses of Congress to push electric cars, and they have bipartisan support from real, live Democrats and Republicans. A blue-ribbon group of corporate leaders has formed to push the bills; they also are backed by retired military leaders who see electric cars as a way to ease the national-security concerns of dependence on Mideast oil.

So maybe this is the rallying point the president was seeking in his Oval Office address. "When the president got to the end, it seemed to me he should have said, 'Let's have a mini-Manhattan Project. Let's electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years.' " said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, third-ranking Republican in the Senate and a kind of missionary for electric cars. "That's a very ambitious goal, but it's a goal that cries out for presidential leadership."

That doesn't mean electric cars are an easy answer; if they were, we'd all be driving them, and oil wouldn't be lapping up on the Louisiana coast. The technology to produce batteries long-lasting enough to satisfy American drivers, and the infrastructure to recharge them, aren't there yet.

But the point is that smart people with a real stake in the outcome of the quest think the answers are close enough to make this the centerpiece of a new energy equation. "You have a chance in the next two years to make a real difference," said Fred Smith, chief executive of FedEx Corp., the shipping giant. His company already is operating some all-electric vehicles.

"I'm a free-market person," Mr. Smith says. "I'd prefer that all of this take place with nothing but the free market. But the reality is that, to push things down the cost-price curve, the government is sometimes important."

Which is where the legislation already pending in Congress comes in. The main Senate sponsors are Mr. Alexander and Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Their bill would designate five to 15 cities or towns to become model communities proving electric cars can work. Those communities would get funds to build recharging stations, for example, and residents would get an increase in an existing tax credit for buying electric cars, to $10,000 from $7,500.

WSJ's Jerry Seib explains how the push for electric cars could garner strength in the aftermath of the BP oil spill as an answer to America's oil addiction.

But Mr. Alexander thinks the most important parts of the bill are the provisions providing money for public and private research on improving batteries, the crucial link in making electric cars broadly popular. The government would sink $1.5 billion into such research, and establish a $10 million prize for whoever can develop a battery with a 500-mile range.

Total cost of the legislation, its sponsors say, would be less than $10 billion over five years—half of the $20 billion BP is putting up for a fund for spill victims.

The other attraction of electric cars is that, unlike so many big ideas today, they don't seem to divide Americans. A poll conducted by the firms of Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Whit Ayres shows that Democrats and independents clearly support the kind of incentives in the proposed legislation, and that nearly half of Republicans do as well.

The Obama administration wants far more than a bill pushing electric cars, of course; it still hopes to pass this year a broader piece of legislation attacking both oil dependency and global warming. But the chances, in this strained political climate, of pushing through the Senate the kind of big and ambitious bill the House passed last year, which included a legal cap on greenhouse gases, are essentially zero.

Meanwhile, one other way to move down the path toward an energy bill may be to hitch a ride in an electric car.