The White House wants to put more natural gas powered trucks on the road. To do it, he'll have to create a whole infrastructure network and a commercial market from scratch.
If you haven't spent much of your life thinking about the future of natural gas-powered vehicles, don't worry, you're not alone. Less sexy than electric car, and in many ways even more impractical, they've never been much more than a footnote in the long debate about how to wean the United States off its oil dependence.
But these days, natural gas vehicles have a big fan in the White House. President Obama is making a hard push for them, and he spent part of a campaign stop Thursday in Las Vegas plugging his plans. His strategy focuses on providing incentives for companies with large truck fleets to buy natural gas-powered models while encouraging the construction of more fueling stations along major highways.
There's logic to promoting natural gas at this juncture. Oil prices are high. As the world gets richer, there will be more drivers, and prices will keep going up. Meanwhile, massive shale discoveries have turned the U.S. into the world's top producer of natural gas. We've drilled for so much of the stuff that prices are now at historic lows. Why wouldn't we want to put it in our cars?
There might be some policy reasons to argue against it. Natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat homes. If it were to become a popular vehicle fuel, its price would likely rise along with consumers' utility bills. Manufacturers, which are heavy users of natural gas,
would also like to keep prices of their fuel stock low.
But there's a much more practical issue to consider: Logistics.
THE CATCH-22 OF NATURAL GAS
Right now, there isn't an infrastructure network to support the widespread adoption of natural gas powered cars or large trucks. There are two major problems standing in the way of creating one. And both of them are nasty Catch-22s.
First, companies don't buy natural gas trucks because they're expensive. And they're expensive, in part, because not enough companies buy them. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are fewer than 1,000 natural gas-powered 18-wheeler tractors rolling in the United States. As one source told the paper, the market is so small that they are "just about being hand-built, much like a Rolls Royce." Prices won't come down until there's enough demand to jumpstart mass production.
The second Catch-22 is that nobody wants to drive a natural gas vehicle unless there's a place to refuel it. And almost nobody wants to build a re-fueling station until there are people driving natural gas vehicles.
These problems aren't unique to natural gas. Electric cars have faced almost the exact same hurdles. But electric car makers have found creative ways to get around the infrastructure issue, either by marketing their vehicles to commuters or adding small gas engines for extended range. And some well-off car buyers are willing to pay a premium for an environmentally friendly ride.
With natural gas, there's less wiggle room. For 18-wheelers to use it, you need fueling stations along the route, plain and simple.* And companies aren't likely pay for an expensive truck unless it makes strict economic sense.
WHAT DO WE NEED: SUBSIDIES OR CERTAINTIES?
The administration seems to think it can overcome those obstacles with a generous round of subsidies. After receiving a $5.5 million stimulus grant, UPS purchased 48 new natural gas trucks and partnered with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company part-owned by billionaire natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens, to build a refueling station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. On Thursday, Obama spoke at a UPS plant, where he advocated tax incentives for companies that buy natural gas trucks and promised to work with the private sector to develop five "natural gas corridors" along U.S. highways where the vehicles will be able to easily fill up their tanks.
The president's proposal is similar to the Nat Gas Act, a pending bipartisan bill that would provide large tax breaks for investments in both natural gas trucks and fueling equipment. Cost estimates range between $5 billion and $9 billion, and Pickens, one of the legislation's most vocal public supporters, claims it would put 140,000 trucks on the road along with enough fueling stations to service them. But pulling that off would almost certainly require an incredible amount of coordination along the lines of what his company achieved with UPS. After all, how many businesses will take advantage of a tax deduction for a large capital investment based on the mere possibility that someone else will build out the infrastructure necessary to use it? Meanwhile, even with a write-off for the initial investment, gas station owners might not want a little used pump taking up real estate on their property. It sounds minor, but it's an actual concern I heard while reporting on this topic a few years ago.
No, to make natural gas take off, both sides will need a degree of certainty. The subsidies alone won't do it.
Obama's natural gas plan does have a second, more easily achievable half. He wants federal agencies and local governments to buy more natural gas vehicles for their fleets. Think natural gas powered post office trucks and school buses, for instance. That goal is simpler, since most government fleets are fueled at a central location, where they return each day. Install a pump, and you're good to go.
But encouraging natural gas fleets won't influence what happens in the long-haul trucking industry. That's because post office trucks, school buses, and secret-service SUVs would run on compressed natural gas. That's a different form of fuel than the liquified natural gas cargo trucks use and requires a separate pump to deliver. Encouraging truck stops to carry liquefied natural gas will take its own separate effort.
Cooperation between the public and private sector has become the Obama administration's big rallying cry of late. Getting natural gas trucks on the road would be a small but tough test of his ability to actually make it happen.
*There are bi-fuel vehicles available, which can run on diesel or natural gas. But, as the Department of Energy points out, they perform worse than dedicated natural gas vehicles.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard on Monday night, "to address the growing violence and unrest in Baltimore City." Later Monday night, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a week-long curfew would be imposed on the city. Maryland State Police said they would request an additional 5,000 officers from the mid-Atlantic region to restore order.
Earlier in the day, police clashed with demonstrators during protests over the death of a young black man in police custody. Video footage showed a handful of protesters and bystanders throwing rocks and bottles at police officers in full riot gear, who responded with pepper spray and tear gas. City officials said at a press conference on Monday night that 15 officers had been injured and two were hospitalized, including one officer who was reportedly “unresponsive,” although further details about his or her condition were not immediately available. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.