For Post-Election EVs, From "Yes, We Can" to "Maybe, We Can"

Last Updated Nov 2, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT -- When the election results are in, chances are we'll wake up to a slightly chillier political climate for electric cars. And that's not just because more Republicans were elected -- green vehicles tend to get bipartisan support, especially because they free us from imported oil. No, the problem will be nasty political infighting, which will prevent even popular legislation reaching the floor for a straight up or down vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's assertion that "the single most important thing" Congressional Republicans want is to make Barack Obama a one-term President will have resonance when he tries to get environmental, green job legislation passed. After a strong early start that saw huge TARP appropriations for EVs and batteries to be made in U.S.A., plus widely hailed 2012 to 2016 fuel economy/greenhouse gas standards, supporting green car legislation has stalled, and may stay in limbo unless Obama really expends some political capital next year. If he wants this to be a defining issue for his presidency, he'll have to push really hard, both in the upcoming lame-duck session and in the new, realigned Congress.

Obama came to a hockey arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut last Saturday, part of a last-minute campaign sweep that also took him to Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago. He did look a bit like a rock star who starts a concert with "Hello, Bridgeport," but he gamely hit his marks, invoked the names of the struggling politicians sharing the podium with him, and got a pretty good cheer from the folks in the "Yes, We Can" shirts when he mentioned that one of his priorities is creating green jobs to make electric cars.

Bridgeport is a gritty city that's been in slow decline since its glory days making armaments during World War II. There are signs of revitalization, renovated downtown apartment complexes with geothermal heating that stress their convenience to public transit, and a trendy new restaurant district. It also has 9.9 percent unemployment, and 31 percent job loss since March of 2009. So the concept green jobs resonate here.

Obama is popular in Bridgeport, and the turnout here really matters to Democrats in tough election fights. Bridgeport is Obama country, but increasingly the rest of the country isn't, so he's going to have to forge new tactical alliances and us guerrilla strategies to get his policies enacted.

Obama wins if he ties green cars into reducing foreign oil dependence and rebuilding America's crumbling industrial base (and Bridgeport is ground zero for that). He loses if his green car/green job bills are seen as budget busters, or tax increases. He also wins if oil prices go up. I'm actually fairly optimistic that he can prevail, but not if he's distracted by partisan politics. Who, red or blue, will ultimately want to vote against establishing battery manufacturing beachheads in the U.S. against withering, and heavily subsidized, Asian competition?

A few priorities for Obama in the next Congress:

  • Extend the 50 percent or up-to-$2,000 federal tax credit for installation of home EV chargers. This law is set to expire December 31, which is really bad timing since it's the very time the first battery cars are hitting the market. It's been hard to schedule a vote on this even with the current Congressional alignment.
  • Enact S. 3815, the "Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010." The bill provides strategic subsidies for consumers to buy EVs in targeted cities, helping the pricey cars over the hump and enabling charging infrastructure to be concentrated there.
  • Complete the process to enact tough 2017 to 2025 fuel economy/greenhouse gas standards, which could get cars to as much as 60 mpg by 2025. That latter goal is widely hailed by environmentalists, but carmakers (who have been remarkably supportive of this process so far) are skeptical of that goal.
I've yet to see any politician, including those affiliated with the Tea Party, say anything negative about electric cars. President Bush championed them, and created a $25 billion fund to help make them here. There's fierce rhetoric about TARP spending, of course, but little of it has been directed at successful Obama funding efforts that have made another hard-hit region, Michigan, a major center of EV battery plants.

From the perspective of Election Day in Bridgeport, it's easy to be short-term pessimistic about federal support for green cars, but optimistic in the long run. Here's the Obama motorcade leaving Bridgeport; you decide if that's an enthusiastic, fired up crowd or not:

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Photos: Jim Motavalli