Commentary

Love is blind. Environmental policy should not be.

Falling in love and being monogamous usually is a good thing, but when it comes to public policy, it should not be allowed.

Nowhere is it clearer than with the Obama Admin.’s head-over-heels infatuation with electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. It continues to lavish money and attention on everything electric while it appears to forsake all others that also can play a role in reducing U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions.

Incentives aimed at encouraging EV development and sales are crucial to their success, and we support them, but the U.S. government should not be settling down with only one technology just yet.

“I understand why political leaders have fallen in love with hybrids and electrics. But this may be the one time you’ll hear someone in Washington say it shouldn’t be a monogamous relationship,” says Johan de Nysschen, president-Audi of America.

Audi and parent Volkswagen AG have EVs and HEVs in the pipeline, but that doesn’t stop de Nysschen from dissing cars such as the Chevy Volt and declaring himself “the world’s biggest diesel advocate.”

De Nysschen’s point is that EVs are too expensive and impractical for the average consumer, and their widespread use is decades away. He adds that with most U.S. electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, EVs’ benefit to the environment is overrated.

Meanwhile, de Nysschen says diesels can provide big carbon-dioxide reductions almost immediately without big sacrifices by consumers.

Like most executives of auto makers based in Europe, de Nysschen is chagrined by diesel’s lack of acceptance in the U.S. About half of all new vehicles sold in Europe are powered by compression-ignition engines.

Because they are 25%-30% more efficient than comparable gasoline engines, diesels have had a profound impact on Europe’s fleet fuel economy and CO2 emissions.

Yet even though the newest diesels debuting in the U.S. on Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes vehicles are proving oil burners can meet California’s emissions regulations for oxides of nitrogen and particulates, the toughest in the world, the Obama Admin. can’t bring itself to introduce the “D word” into the public dialog on climate change.

Even worse, California air-quality regulators, who are aggressively pursuing local state initiatives to curb greenhouse gases, continue to devise new regulatory hurdles that hurt diesels rather than make them part of the solution.

As it stands now, the California Air Resources Board’s LEV III (low emissions vehicle) mandate will make it nearly impossible to sell diesel-powered vehicles in California beginning in 2014, just one new-product cycle away. Auto makers are hoping to convince CARB to bend.

After another round of Ward’s 10 Best Engines testing where we drove three incredibly good new diesels and named two to our 2010 list (as well as two HEVs), we have to insist the Obama Admin. back away from its singular devotion to electricity and at the very least tell CARB to moderate LEV III standards to accommodate diesels.

Long ago, Europe decided the fuel-economy and CO2-reduction benefits of diesel were more important than its drawback of higher NOx emissions. The Obama Admin. should do the same.

Love is blind. Environmental policy should not be.