If zero isn't zero, then let's recalculate everything

Don Runkle spoke a few days ago at a New York technical conference on emerging transportation technologies. At one point during his remarks, the audience squirmed when he noted that zero-emission electric cars aren't really zero-emission.

Runkle has been one of the brightest stars of the American auto industry for decades. He spent most of his career at General Motors mastering basically everything GM asked him to master. He's now CEO of EcoMotors, a promising venture that hopes to make internal combustion engines more efficient.

But this argument, that "zero isn't really zero" on EVs, has become a tiresome piece of anti-EV propaganda.

The argument goes like this: EV owners charge their cars through an electrical outlet. The outlet is connected to a local utility company's power grid. The power grid is supplied by massive power plants. And those plants are often powered by the burning of coal.

So if someone wanted to discourage Americans from driving an EV, it would be clever logic to point out that the car is causing coal soot and sulfur to come out of a tall smokestack somewhere.

But come on.

By this logic, we should go back and restate all the EPA calculations of every Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Honda Fit because someone neglected to include the emissions generated throughout the entire supply chain in the math.

To fill up a Cruze, the gasoline pump has to access an underground tank and pull up fuel that was delivered by a big fuel truck. The fuel truck had to drive from a fuel storage center, spewing diesel smoke from its exhaust pipe for perhaps hundreds of miles.

The storage facility, in turn, received the fuel from a refinery somewhere that produced it from oil delivered from across the ocean on giant tankers. Tankers and cargo ships spew harmful emissions, even when they sit idling in a port waiting to unload. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the oceangoing ships using the port of Houston, by itself, in a given year emit the smog equivalent of 6 million automobiles.

So … zero emission isn't really zero emission?

Be careful with that one.

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