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Will Gulf oil spill change the way we think about cars?

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Friday, June 4, 2010
Posted: 2 pm ET

I took a long road trip up to Tennessee over the Memorial Day weekend, and one thing that struck me was how much the Gulf oil spill has changed the way I think about cars. There's always been a tension between my love of cars (especially cars with powerful engines) and my conviction that our relationship with them will have to change if we're going to preserve the environment in its current form.

Being that I live on the Florida coast, the spill has raised that tension to the point where I can't pass a BP station without thinking about heart-wrenching images coming out of the Gulf right now. Simply put, the spill makes me want to drive less, avoid long commutes to work, cancel road trips and take a second look at the local bus system. It's sad in a way, because I'm fortunate enough to have a car I really enjoy driving, the type of vehicle I dreamed about when I was driving my first car, a 12-year-old Civic wagon.

But I can't look at the pictures coming out of the Gulf and not feel a twinge of guilt with every fill-up. It's changed my platonic ideal of the perfect vehicle; I doubt I'll ever buy that V-8 sports car I've wanted since I got my first Car and Driver subscription at 10 years old.

Percent of U.S. population between 16 and 19 with driver's licenses

Percent of U.S. population between 16 and 19 with driver's licenses. Graph courtesy: Ad Age.

And I don't think I'm alone in re-examining the automobile. Jack Neff of Ad Age recently wrote a really interesting article on how Americans under 30 are less invested in the car culture, waiting much longer to get their licenses than previous generations. Many cite environmental concerns as the main reason for their lack of enthusiasm for cars, according to the article.

There might be something to that. In light of what's happened, it's hard not to wonder if the freedom and fun a car can afford us are worth the cost of having to watch clots of brown crude ravage the ecology and economy of the Gulf region and possibly the whole Eastern seaboard. It's possible the electric car will allow us to have our cake and eat it, too (you can still burn rubber on battery power), but right now it's too early to tell whether they'll catch on.

Even if they do, the electricity they're charged with will probably come from burning diesel or fuel oil in a utility generator somewhere. The answer probably lies somewhere between cutting individual consumption and technological advancement -- I doubt all of us could drive full-size SUVs or blazingly fast sports cars, even electric ones, and still reduce the country's appetite for fossil fuels.

What do you think? Has the Gulf oil spill changed the way you think about cars? Will it affect your next car purchase?

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6 Comments
Tori Purnell
July 13, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I also have a dream that perhaps the changes in our job supply (which I believe are mostly permanent) may spawn a new rise in the "retrofitting" business. Repair shops have become more and more difficult to find, but with the economic downturn as well as greater environmental awareness, I hope there is enough impetus (a growing market and those motivated to be suppliers) to bring them back. Last year I attended a local symposium on alternative fuels and many entreprenuers were advocating development and/or sales of "kits" to convert engines. Almost all of them were modeled on vehicles that were over ten years old!

Tori Purnell
July 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm

To answer your question, yes. The Gulf Spill has had an impact on my feelings about cars, and driving. Moreover, I have always had an appreciation of how the car culture has harmed our world, and I have worked all my life to reduce what is now called my "carbon footprint".
I was thrilled to read that "It's changed my platonic ideal of the perfect vehicle; I doubt I'll ever buy that V-8 sports car I've wanted since I got my first Car and Driver subscription at 10 years old." If men in your position are changing your mind about the car culture, then there is hope for us all!
I am so excited to read: "Jack Neff of Ad Age recently wrote a really interesting article on how Americans under 30 are less invested in the car culture, waiting much longer to get their licenses than previous generations. Many cite environmental concerns as the main reason for their lack of enthusiasm for cars, according to the article."
This is GOOD NEWS. Yea! Thank you for writing it!

Claes Bell
June 18, 2010 at 11:58 am

Chuck, this is a great and very thoughtful comment. I think you're right that if you're talking about achieving some semblance of energy independence with present technology, you're talking about natural gas. You're right that many automakers market LPG vehicles all over the world, including Ford. Your thoughts about LPG have inspired me to write a post on it in the near future, and I thank you for reading.

Chuck Heppner
June 18, 2010 at 10:04 am

My 1972 F-150 3/4 ton p/u has been using LPG as fuel for the past 40 years w/ no problems.
I installed the 80 gal. tank, the heat exchanger,
4-barrel carburetor adapter, hoses, wiring & electrical toggle switch, all in about 3 hours.
I still have the capability to use gasoline by simply flipping an electrical toggle switch.
The unit sans tank, was built by Impco, an American company who has big deals w/ China, India & Argentina Ford.

Any automotive vehicle can use LPG or natural gas, even butane works in a pinch, but not nearly as efficiently.
LPG gas burns so clean that I don't have to change my oil near as often as if I started it on gasoline.

As most of you are aware, until the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) reaches operating temperatures, a small amount of gasoline gets by the piston rings, until they have expanded due to heat. Consequently, gasoline ends up in the crankcase where it helps shear out the viscosity as it decreases the lubricity of the motor oil.
LPG is in a gaseous form, so there are no liquid hydrocarbons present, that could pollute the crankcase oil.

LPG doesn't have as many BTUs as gasoline so there is a very slight decrease in horsepower, but if dual fuel capabilities exist, just switch over to gasoline if you're pulling a heavy load up a long hill.
Many of the big truck makers are now manufacturing tractors that utilize LPG. I've worked in the oilpatch on drilling rigs for the last 35 years, so I got my propane for free as a fringe benefit for driving so far to get to the job. When I 1st started, many of the draworks & mudpump motors were the big LeRoi, & Waukesha diesels, that could also burn propane.

All electric generating plants will soon be fuel-switched from coal to natural gas & most long-haul trucks will soon be using LPG ICE or the new HTHP clean diesel engines.

75% of our automobiles could be electric or electric-hybrid, & we wouldn't even need to construct another electrical utility aka additional power source to charge all of them, if the majority of the units were charged @ night during normal, off-peak hours. That means the electric power generators could run full-tilt boogie, 24 hrs./day & they are much more efficient in that mode.

Oh I almost forgot, we have more natural gas than any other country in the world, we are a veritable Saudi Arabia of natural gas, & we haven't even touched the deep gas in the huge Overthrust Belt that runs from Mexico to Canada, because the oil & gas companies get more tax incentives for drilling offshore.

Plus they didn't have to pay for royalties on deep offshore wells during the Bu$h Administration. In other words, the government under Bu$hCo's rule, didn't collect any royalty money for the gas & oil that the multinationals produced & sold. Our oil.
Oil companies can drill 4 or 5 wells on land, for the same cost as "1" offshore well.
Plus, they get more of our oil to sell on the world market because those deep wells in the GOM have very high returns on investment as they are big producers.

The majority of oil that we use, is refined into gasoline & diesel fuel.
I agree, we should create a national oil company & be totally free of the OPEC cartel. Why pay for both sides of the war?
We could be completely independent, if not for the American based, multinational oil corporations that owe no allegiance to the home of the free & the land of the brave.
We wouldn't need to lose any more lives or have to pay for any more oil wars to win drilling rights, for the International Oil Companies (IOCs).

The IOCs used to have 85-90% of all the oil on Earth, but they got greedy &; the countries w/ the oil started nationalizing it to avoid being ripped-off by the greedy Americans.
now the IOCs have just a drop in the bucket of reserves, compared to what they once had.
But we really are stupid if we don't use our natural gas to help us stop importing oil.

Ridge Albaugh
June 08, 2010 at 12:00 pm

NO, NO!! You miss the point. EXXON et al have been merrily gouging us forever. They are pumping, buying and refining less for the past year and a half to create an artificial short supply to deal with the smaller demand to feed themselves and stockholders profits and dividends. They DO NOT LIKE DECREASED DEMAND which means DECREASED PROFITS!

Besides shifting to alternatives, we need to stop the greedy so and so's. They only need to break even, like citizens!!!

May be time to nationalize, hate to say it, but we aren't stopping their GREED!

Debra James
June 07, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I recently read an article about what type of footprint is created with buying one the of the new hybrid or electrical cars. The argument was that it is more environmentally friendly to buy a used car (even a clunker), because re-buying it doesn't have the manufacturing impact that a new car does. Although a new car may use less fossil fuel to run, the manufacturing of that car and replacement parts may negate its ecological positives. Whereas, buying a used car and using used parts saves the environment, because they don't require new manufacturing to use them.