msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/28/2005 1:20:45 PM ET 2005-02-28T18:20:45

A transition to a pollution-free, hydrogen economy is possible but not for several decades, and efforts should be made in the meantime to curb pollution and reduce fossil fuel dependency via other methods, a panel of experts concluded in a new report for the National Academy of Sciences.

“In the best-case scenario, the transition to a hydrogen economy would take many decades, and any reductions in oil imports and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years,” said the academy, an independent group that makes scientific recommendations to Congress.

President Bush has launched a $1.2 billion initiative to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by developing hydrogen-powered fuel cells to run cars and trucks as well as homes and businesses.

Turning wheelsThe administration wants to have the hydrogen cars on the market and available to consumers at an affordable price by 2020. Automobiles currently emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that scientists have linked to global warming.

"Our study suggests that while hydrogen is a potential long-term energy approach for the nation, the government should keep a balanced portfolio of research and development efforts to enhance U.S. energy efficiency and develop alternative energy sources," committee chair Michael Ramage, a retired ExxonMobil executive, said in a statement accompanying the report.

'Chicken and egg' problem
Obstacles to a hydrogen economy, Ramage added, include how to extract the hydrogen and who will bill fueling stations. "We are facing a 'chicken and egg' problem that will be difficult to overcome," he said. "Who will invest in the manufacture of fuel cell vehicles if there is no widespread hydrogen supply? At the same time, who will invest in facilities to produce hydrogen if there are not enough fuel cell vehicles to create sufficient income for the hydrogen producers?"

Energy map of AmericaThe Bush administration’s 2005 budget request asked Congress for $228 million to develop cars that run on hydrogen fuel and the service stations to support them, up 43 percent from the 2004 request.

A spokesman at the Energy Department, which sponsored the report, was not available to comment on the report.

Activists want action now
Environmental groups said the government needs to take quicker action to reduce gasoline use by boosting mileage requirements and curb growing emissions from new gas-guzzling SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans -- steps resisted by industry and the Bush administration.

Fueling the future“We simply can’t bank on hydrogen alone to cut our dependence on Middle East oil or fix the global warming problem,” said Antonia Herzog a Natural Resources Defense Council staffer who served on the academy panel. "Americans will buy 450 million new cars and trucks over the next 25 years. Every one of them should be using the cleanest, most efficient technology possible."

The full report is online at www.nas.edu.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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