WASHINGTON - President Bush made clear Thursday that his interest in developing hydrogen as a future fuel for cars and trucks is more than a passing fancy.
Following up on his State of the Union remarks of Jan. 28 and his budget presentation of Feb. 3, the president told nearly 500 people, some of them top automobile industry executives, that shifting the nation to hydrogen "would be a fantastic legacy to leave for future generations."
Critics of the administration, including some environmental groups, question Bush's motives. He is, they note, a former oil man who is threatening to invade petroleum-rich Iraq. And his environmental record is considered spotty at best, they say.
But industry leaders appear to accept his sincerity - and they support his plan to spend $1.7 billion of taxpayer money over the next five years to advance fuel cells for vehicles and develop better methods of producing, delivering and storing hydrogen fuel.
"This will bring together all of the parties that have been working in different corners and different garages to focus on solving the real problems, which is the infrastructure, which is bringing costs down, which is cooperative research, which is educating the public," said Jim Press.
He is executive vice president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc and was one of the industry leaders on hand Thursday at the National Building Museum event.
It was more pep rally than policy forum.
Bush toured a hastily assembled display of six fuel-cell-powered vehicles, shipped to Washington by six major automakers just for the occasion, and visited trade show-like booths put up by supplier companies, such as Plug Power and Energy Conversion Devices.
He addressed the crowd for about 20 minutes.
And then it was over.
Yet, despite the absence of any more details about the administration's plans to support fuel cell and hydrogen research, the rally spawned a large wave of related events and announcements by industry players.
On the flip side, the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement that Bush's focus on future energy sources means the United States is ignoring current environmental and national security threats posed by its oil dependence.
The statement said, "We don't have to wait 15 or 20 years to produce cleaner cars and wean the country off of oil."