Just before Holy Week this year, our House of Representatives did something useful. They finally passed on the third and final reading a bill giving tax breaks for hybrid, electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. And while I’m glad it’s finally approved, it’s a long overdue law.
Toyota Motor Philippines has been waiting for this since they launched the Prius here in our market in 2009. And while still waiting they introduced the smaller Prius C early this year—to the surprise of almost everyone considering how tepid the response to the Prius was. A big reason for the underwhelming market response was criticism for the Prius’ price; an amount that put it squarely above Toyota’s popular Camry midsize sedan. So it’s no surprise that Filipino motorists opted to go for the larger, flashier and more powerful midsize sedan.
Can Camry buyers be blamed? The Prius has a liftback body shape—an automotive body type that has never sold well in our country, regrettably—it’s not particularly fast, it’s comfortable but not luxurious, it’s pleasant looking but not sleek, and a lot of people still don’t understand what a hybrid is.
That’s a shame because we in the Top Gear team, and I believe I speak for most of us, really like the Prius. I won’t go into detail about our fondness for the car, we’ve written several stories about it already. But for me it boils down to it being able to do what we want cars to do, which is to get us from point A to point B, and it does so very well.
Because it’s a hybrid and it utilizes two sources of power, namely a gasoline engine and an electric motor, it moves differently than a regular car. Torque from an electric motor is instant; you get all of its pull instantly. There’s a smoothness and immediacy to its power delivery.
We got reacquainted with this recently when we took the Prius and its Prius C sibling to Baguio for this month’s fun road trip. (Grab a copy of the May 2012 issue now). I’ve driven the Prius several times before but it was the first time I would be taking it up to Baguio; a route that usually tests a vehicle’s power. To make a long story short, the hybrid acquitted itself very well.
But beyond being an interesting mode of transportation, a big part of the Prius’ appeal is still its fuel efficiency, and because of that, its smaller environmental footprint. Now the long-standing reason for this emphasis on saving the environment is that crude oil, that precious black gold that countries have been willing to go to war for, has always been a finite resource. Crude oil is also bad for the planet because the burning of fossil fuels results in carbon dioxide, the infamous greenhouse gas that is a big factor in global warming. And to make things worse, as the resource dwindles, tensions in the Middle East will escalate, the cost of fuel will rise, and this will negatively affect the motoring lifestyle we now enjoy.
However recent developments in drilling have opened up new reserves of crude oil. I read a feature story in an issue of Time magazine that came out early last month. It outlined the new frontiers of oil exploration that have opened up. The catch is, it they won’t be cheap to extract because getting to them is not easy.
The Time article outlined several new ways in which oil is being extracted:
Tight oil – This is crude that is bound to shale, a soft sedimentary rock. Getting to the oil requires fracking. It sounds like a cuss word but it’s a process of injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals to separate the oil from the rock. These chemicals can contaminate groundwater if the process is done wrong, but no cases have been documented yet.
Arctic offshore – In a bit of irony, because global warming is melting the polar ice caps, areas that were once inaccessible due to ice have opened up for offshore drilling. But it’s still the Arctic, if drilling in the middle of the ocean is hard, try it in an environment filled with icebergs and dangerous storms.
Presalt deepwater – This means drilling deeper for oil to tap reservoirs under thick layers of salt below the ocean floor. It means tunneling through 3,000 meters of water and 1,500 meters of salt. These wells are deeper than the ones involved in the infamous BP oil spill in 2010. No one wants to imagine the consequences of a blowout at that depth.
Oil shale – This is shale that contains something called kerogen. The rock is mined and then heated to separate oil from the shale. The problem is there are toxic byproducts to this method, plus the mining and processing cost is still too high to make it feasible. But the potential payoff is huge. By some estimates there are 800 billion barrels of oil reserves that can be derived from oil shale. That’s three times the size of Saudi Arabia’s current reserves.
Oil sands – In Canada, the bitumen that we use as asphalt for our roads can be further refined into crude oil. But it is a process that leaves large piles of toxic byproducts. The gasoline that can be derived from this has 10 to 15 percent more emissions than regular oil because of the extra energy needed to refine it.
So oil might not be running out after all. It’s just harder to get, which makes it more expensive to source. And so we need smart, fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prii more than ever to lessen our dependence on oil. Because the biggest threat isn’t that we’ll run out of fossil fuel, it’s what will happen to the planet if we burn it all with our cars.