BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you sail down the highway this weekend, fill 'er up. The Energy Information Administration announced on Wednesday that, quote, "Even if the summer driving season does begin in earnest following the July 4th holiday, as possibly evident by the record 9.5 million barrel level of gasoline demand last week, supplies are expected to be adequate for the remainder of the travel season." But not forever, which is why last week President Bush and the European Council issued a joint statement underscoring their commitment to a hydrogen economy fueled in part by hydrogen-powered cars. As the president said back in January in his state of the union address: [CLIP PLAYS]
GEORGE W. BUSH: With the new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Our growing oil use threatens the nation's economic, environmental and geopolitical health. So hydrogen looms large in the media, alternately portrayed as savior, bandaid and red herring. Here to unmask this very political element is Dr. Daniel Kamman, professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley. Dan, welcome to On the Media.
DANIEL KAMMAN: Well, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's start with the hardest part. Hydrogen is not a renewable source of energy like wind or water, and it's not a fossil fuel like oil or coal. It's not even accessible. It's bound up in water! So how does it even work as a fuel?
DANIEL KAMMAN: Well it's bound up in water, but it also is the most common element in the universe, and hydrogen atoms, when you separate them, give off a lot of energy. And so hydrogen is an excellent source of fuel, but it is one that you need to prepare. You need to get it in the right form and that does take energy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In other words you have to use energy to get the energy, and that's where a lot of the controversy is now -- how do you get the energy? Where do you get it from? Do you get it from oil?
DANIEL KAMMAN: Well that's right. It's point of scientific debate, but it's also a point where hydrogen as a fuel or more accurately as an energy-carrier is something that's debated in the media, sometimes accurately and sometimes inaccurately. You get it from all kinds of sources. Today we produce lots and lots of excess hydrogen from refining hydrocarbons into gasoline. So we have an abundant source today, but most people who think about a hydrogen economy are thinking down the road when we wouldn't use fossil fuels to get our hydrogen which sounds sort of backwards -- we would use clean sources of energy to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen and give us that hydrogen fuel we want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When you read articles about the issue of hydrogen and the issue of hydrogen cars, do you think that it's being given a full and fair treatment or do you think that the reporters are being buffeted by various political winds?
DANIEL KAMMAN: Well I certainly think that reporters are getting very disparate views on what hydrogen vehicles might do, but this is not a case where I think the media is doing a dis-service. I think this is a case where the scientific and the policy debate is going at loggerheads and that the reporters are simply trying to do a good job in reporting that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you mean that essentially the policies that are emanating from Washington don't really make sense in terms of science, and so when reporters are writing this story, a mixed message is invariably sent? Or am I putting words in your mouth?
DANIEL KAMMAN: No, I think I agree with that completely. The policies we're seeing from Washington on hydrogen are ones that ask us to hold our breath -- keep going with the fossil fuel economy for quite a number of years -- and then hope our science generates some wonderful hydrogen solutions 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 years from now -- as opposed to what the science says --is that we have ways to use hydrogen well today. You can have small fuel cells to run your car. You can fuel cells in the basement of your home or business that can generate electricity for you and when you - when you're not using them for example in your business, you can then sell power into the grid. That's a good use of hydrogen today, and it's one that builds what I would consider energy security, meaning that it helps to diversify our energy mix away from fossil fuels. That story I actually think is one piece that has not been covered well in the media, and the reason is that it's not a very simple story to tell. What I'm basically saying is that the best energy policy isn't one that looks for some great innovation -- cold fusion or a hundred percent nuclear power or a hundred percent hydrogen -- but it's one where a more diverse set of resources is going to win the day and that's the kind of story that's like watching paint dry -- it doesn't sell [LAUGHTER] newspapers -- as opposed to saying--: researchers in Utah have developed cold fusion; we can all use as much energy as we want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Amory Lovins wrote a recent white paper called Twenty Hydrogen Myths. He said of hydrogen's critics: "Some are skeptical because the president endorsed it; others because environmentalists did."
DANIEL KAMMAN: I wouldn't characterize it quite the way Amory did. I think that the number of myths out there about hydrogen are very large and that correcting those is the job of scientists and then the media to transmit that message. But the real undercurrent here is that hydrogen as an energy-carrier threatens what is the biggest business in America, and that is the petrochemical industry. And so every time we think about ways to build out the market for fuel cells cars, hydrogen fuel cells in your basement -- all kinds of things that make sense -- we see real people who may be losers -- GM and Ford unless they get on the hydrogen bandwagon may be losers in that -- and the winners are likely to be smaller startups that don't have a constituency yet. So I think that you are seeing much more a battle between those who are making money today and those who might make money down the road.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And, and that's why you can be in the peculiar position of supporting the development of hydrogen cars and opposing the policy by which the president means to develop it.
DANIEL KAMMAN: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So what's the media to do?
DANIEL KAMMAN: Well I think that the number one thing is that the United States does not engage in much at all of a debate about energy policy. For example, right now the House and Senate are debating major energy bills, and those deserve huge amounts of coverage. But I think that the real approach is that energy should be a front line item for national campaigns, and recently several of the Democratic candidates have rolled out bits of different energy platforms. Gephardt has Apollo 21; Kerry just did his, etc. But the real issue is that people aren't letting the public know how central our energy decisions are to almost everything else in the economy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Dr. Kamman, thank you so much.
DANIEL KAMMAN: Sure enough!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Daniel Kamman joined me from the University of California at Berkeley. [MUSIC]