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Learning to love diesel

Alex Miller

There’s a special place in hell, I’ve always thought, for people who drive big, noisy, stinky diesel pickup trucks. There, in the bowels of Hades, will they be compelled to sit forever at a stoplight behind several appallingly odoriferous diesels, payment for all the nastiness they inflicted on us here on Earth.It’s infuriating, then, to meet the drivers of these vehicles and realize that they are, for the most part, normal, decent folks who likely bought their truck for particular and valid reason. Scott Miller, our resident motorhead here in the newsroom of the Vail Daily, explained to me recently that people like diesels because they have more power and endurance than gasoline-fueled trucks. Diesels, I’m led to believe, also have a longer working life, making them more economical for fleets.Fine, then. Maybe I don’t want the diesel-truck owners to burn in hell. But their vehicles still stink, and I’d like to drive them all off a cliff. Speaking from the lofty moral ground of someone who owns a hybrid vehicle that emits very little in the way of noxious fumes, I can say these things with the easy air of a Tim Robbins or a Janeane Garofalo.Recently, however, I listened to a Podcast from Dan Neil, one of my favorite working journalists. Neil writes about cars for the L.A. Times, and his recent piece had to do with the man, Rudolph Diesel, and how his original concept for the engine he created was for it to be fueled with organic material – what we know today as “biodiesel.” Neil said Diesel’s vision may soon be coming true, and he cited a few reasons why this might be the case:– The technology for creating diesel fuel from organic sources such as vegetable oil is becoming more commonplace. Ski areas, for example, are starting to use biodiesel to fuel their snowcat fleets, and the town of Breckenridge has been using it for some of its vehicles.– Vehicle manufacturers are introducing new, cleaner-burning diesel engines in some of their vehicles. Volkswagen and Mercedes are on the vanguard of introducing such vehicles in the U.S. In Europe, where nearly half of the vehicles on the road are diesels, there’s a lot more acceptance. It’s going to take some doing here.– In 2006, new regulations will go into effect that mandate a cleaner, low-sulfur form of diesel to be sold in the U.S. I think that means it won’t be as smelly, which goes in the “plus” column.– Diesels are 20-40 percent more efficient as gasoline engines, putting them in the hybrid realm of efficiency without all that complicated battery stuff.There are other factors at work here, as well. At some point, it seems inevitable that the U.S. will wake up to the fact that buying oil from unstable countries half a world away is, at best, a ruinous and stupid practice. While the energy bill just passed by Congress is mostly old school, head-in-the-sand politics, the market will begin to dictate terms of a move away from petroleum, and Washington will someday follow. (Wouldn’t it be nice if our government led, though? Never mind.)As Neil pointed out in his Podcast, if you look at a future full of clean-burning diesel engines and biodiesel fuel, then the American Midwest starts to look an awful lot like … Saudi Arabia! Imagine a day when half or more of the vehicles on the road in the U.S. were clean-burning diesels fueled on Iowa corn and, I don’t know, Colorado sugar beets. The Mideast could be tearing itself to pieces and, while we’d help if we could, we wouldn’t have to get involved because of oil.Now, I’d have to get a good sniff of some of these new vehicles with the new-and-improved fuel. I’d have to drive one to make sure it would go up and over Vail Pass all right, and I’d need to know a lot more about the fuel-delivery system that would see biodiesel go from kernel to pump. But isn’t it a wonderful thing to contemplate? Wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. threw its intellectual, political and manufacturing capacity behind a “Manhattan Project” style initiative to make this a reality?The technology is there, the corn is there, the reason and desire is there. Even if this turns out to be a pipe dream, there must be something else besides foreign – or even domestic – oil to fuel our transportation. Why not go after it?I just look forward to the day when I can sit idling behind a big Ford diesel with dual wheels and all and say, a la Homer Simpson: “Mmmm … diesel!”Assistant Managing Editor Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com. This column, as in the case of all personal columns, does not necessarily reflect the views of the Vail Daily.


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