The U.S. presidential election, energy and saving America: In the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, one defining difference in the two major candidates was their approach to energy. Barack Obama promised green jobs and a cleantech-based manufacturing resurgence, and John McCain's supporters retorted "Drill, baby, drill." So far, the signs are that these themes will be reprised just as volubly four years later. For their part, the Republican candidates are pounding the table that, though faced with almost 9 percent unemployment, Obama is failing to tap a fail-safe job creator --the oil patch. So far, the cream of the U.S. energy braintrust is more in line with Republican thinking. This week, BP joined prior forecasts by Goldman Sachs, Edward Morse, Daniel Yergin and others in suggesting that the U.S. is on the cusp of a new industrial revolution based on a shift that, as far as I can tell, none of them was talking about until about four or five months ago. At once, say these Wise Men, the U.S. along with the whole of the Western Hemisphere is about to be saturated in fresh oil reserves on top of the shale gas already in abundance. This fossil fuel bonanza - in the ultra-deepwater Gulf of Mexico, the shale of North Dakota, the sands of Canada and elsewhere -- will put millions to work, and activate a boom in energy-intensive industries, they say. In Alberta a few days ago, Citibank's Morse, the most formidable intellect in the bunch, described a generations-long, petro-driven economic boom built on petrochemicals, fertilizers, steel, housewares, pantyhose and more. Social thinker Joel Kotkin places these energy developments within a larger narrative that he calls "America's Moment." This group is battling it out for when it all begins, ranging somewhere in the next five to 30 years.
One Republican talking point is to scorn Obama's rejection of the 800,000-barrel-a-day Keystone bitumen pipeline from Canada to Texas. Here is Newt Gingrich, the winner of today's GOP primary in South Carolina (also pictured above):
Read on for more on American reindustrialization, and the rest of the Wrap.
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What do you do if you are a carmaker, and your vehicles keep self-combusting? If you are General Motors, you write and call your customers personally, offer all of them free loaners, throw your resources into an intense examination of the problem, and hold a press conference to announce all these steps to the public.
We are discussing GM's response this week to three fires during extreme stress-testing of its plug-in hybrid Volt. The get-out-in-front strategy may yet prove vain: A joint company-federal investigation may turn up evidence requiring major over-hauling of the Volt, and public opinion meanwhile could turn against GM. Already the knives are out in the hyper-politicized sector of the media long eager to vilify this early-experimental car, devised four years ago by GM CEO Bob Lutz as an answer to the Toyota Prius, as a decidedly wrong-headed and socialist creation of President Barack Obama. At Fox Business, columnist Gerry Davis writes that the fires show that the Volt is a "lemon" and an "utter disaster."
Yet, back on planet Earth, the bulk of the early reception is positive. GM said it is willing even to lend Corvettes to its Volt owners (pictured above, comedian Jay Leno with his Volt), writes the car blog Jalopnik, but the Wall Street Journal's Sharon Terlep reports that few appear to have asked for any replacement. One reason for the lack of hysteria: No consumer has had a vehicle burst into flames, reports Ben Wojdyla at Popular Mechanics, who notes that the fires instead occurred under brutal crash conditions set up deliberately by federal vehicle safety examiners. Wojdyla writes:
Back in May, [Federal inspectors] conducted a severe side-impact crash test that smashed a Volt against a pole-shaped barrier. [They] found the Volt to meet [their] five-star crash rating. After the test they stashed the mangled Volt outside, and three weeks later the vehicle's battery pack shorted and caught fire.
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Electric cars -- already on a steep climb because of price and distance anxiety -- will have a greater commercial challenge if consumers fear their car could catch fire. So that the news that a General Motors Volt burst into flames in a testing-center parking lot is going to raise alarm bells. In fact, the incident is not reason for distress-- the vehicle was undergoing crash tests, and as GM points out, any car is subject to fire should a crash be sufficiently severe. The important thing -- and the one that GM will have to figure out -- is that it caught fire three weeks after the latest test crash.
The fire occurred back in May and has come to light only now through press reports, such as this one from Bloomberg. The Volt was parked at a government testing center after undergoing a series of side impacts. Investigators tracked the fire to the lithium-ion battery.
This reminds one of the laptop fires of just a few years ago. At the time, Sony had to work fast and recall millions of batteries and laptops since consumers were unlikely to countenance a fire as they worked, not to mention how, say, airlines would respond if they regarded your laptop as a potential weapon.
GM says that the problem surrounds the crash tests. The federal examiners failed to follow a set of procedures regarding disengagement of the battery after a severe crash, the company says. The federal agency itself reinforced a need for firemen, police and ambulance drivers to understand the specific safety protocol for electric vehicles.
The lithium-ion battery has come a long way, and that the Volt fire did not occur while in use is comforting, but only to a limit. All things being equal, one would not be at ease with the image of one's car bursting into flames while parked in the garage. An ongoing federal investigation will be monitored by the host of carmakers around the world piling in to the electric car race.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.