Europe and America, Partners (Sort of)

Reprinted from New York Times, July 27, 2003, Week in Review

FRANKFURT - Europeans and Americans have clashed over issues as old as how to end the bloodshed in the Middle East and as new as whether to pursue nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level.

So it is little surprise that they would disagree over the future of hydrogen, that most basic and ubiquitous of elements, which advocates believe will someday replace oil as the world's main energy source.

The surprise is that the United States and the European Union recently joined forces to develop hydrogen as an energy alternative that could fuel cars, buses, trucks and, down the road, virtually everything else.

"There's a genuine good-faith effort, and desire, to find common ground on how to power the future," said Spencer Abraham, the secretary of energy, who helped broker the trans-Atlantic agreement.

But have the United States and Europe - stubbornly divided on the Kyoto Protocol, genetically-modified food and other issues having to do with the environment - really found a common cause?

Don't bet on it, say critics of the agreement, both here and in the United States. A statement issued by President Bush and Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, in Washington last month was vague. The two pledged to "collaborate on accelerating the development of the hydrogen economy as part of our broadening cooperation on energy."

Such bland promises of teamwork, these critics say, paper over profound differences about what a hydrogen future will look like. Despite the Bush administration's commitment of $1.7 billion over five years for hydrogen research, many energy specialists say its goals are less ambitious and more commercially minded than Europe's. And American environmentalists say Mr. Bush has seized on hydrogen, a technology whose gains are far off, to avoid taking measures that would rein in fossil fuels now. As a result, the critics say, Europe risks having its own vision compromised.

"It's a potential hijacking," said Jeremy Rifkin, an adviser to Mr. Prodi and the author of "The Hydrogen Economy," (Tarcher, 2003) which extols the potential of hydrogen. "Europe is leading in the development of a hydrogen road map for the world. This is Bush's attempt to take the lead back from Europe. It's his answer to Kyoto."

Actually, the debate over hydrogen is more complicated than that, with sometimes contradictory political and economic interests on each side. Still, Europe and the United States approach hydrogen from fundamentally different perspectives.

Europe, a signatory to the Kyoto treaty, must sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To do that, it has set a goal of obtaining 22 percent of its electricity, and 12 percent of all its energy, from renewable sources by 2010. Hydrogen is critical to this goal, since it offers an efficient way of storing energy captured from renewable sources, like windmills or solar panels.

The United States has rejected setting benchmarks for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But it is interested in hydrogen as a way to to wean itself off imported oil. That is why it is less focused than Europe is on renewable energy, and more interested in extracting hydrogen from coal or through the use of nuclear power.

To skeptics in Europe, the American policy looks like a backdoor way to bolster two old energy industries. "We don't trust the U.S. government," said Stephan Singer, the head of climate policy at the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels.

In the Bush administration's energy bill, which is scheduled to be debated in the Senate this week, the coal and nuclear-power industries stand to gain far more money in subsidies than would be earmarked for research on renewable energy. Europe's spending on renewable energy dwarfs that of the United States.

But this picture of a fuel-addicted Uncle Sam, so popular in Europe, misses some nuances. The American auto industry certainly seems serious about developing hydrogen-powered cars. And America is leading Europe in the development of fuel cells, which convert hydrogen into electricity.

Nor is Europe immune from those with an essentially commercial (as opposed to environmental) interest in developing the use of hydrogen. France and Spain have deeply rooted nuclear industries, influential at the European Commission. Europe has also lagged in giving incentives for the development of fuel cells.

European officials reject the accusation that they are ceding the initiative in hydrogen development to the United States. The Americans and Europeans differ only on approach, not substance, they say. Indeed, they note that Brussels has already persuaded Washington to include the commitment to renewable energy in the statement issued by Mr. Bush and Mr. Prodi.

"We can fight about Kyoto another time," said Alessandro Ovi, a senior advisor to Mr. Prodi. "There shouldn't be competition on how to get to the hydrogen age."

Mr. Abraham also denies that Americans will dictate the agenda. "We're going to work together where it makes sense to work together," he said. "Nothing in what we've agreed to requires collaboration in every area of the hydrogen economy."

The good news, perhaps, is that arcane discussions about how best to extract hydrogen or what standards to impose on it tend to cause less rancor than, say, the Middle East. "We're the problem solvers," Mr. Abraham said. "We're not fighting. That's for the foreign ministries."



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