Hummer vs. hybrid report raises controversy

Hummer vs. hybrid report raises controversy »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - An Oregon researcher is at the center of a dispute between SUV lovers and haters, especially since one of the claims is that a Hummer beats a hybrid when it comes to 'going green.'

Art Spinella's controversial 'dust to dust' study ranks more than 300 vehicle models for their energy consumption - from the time the raw materials are extracted from the ground, the vehicle is built, the vehicle is driven and burns fuel, to recycling it at the end.

For Judy Harrington, getting good mileage is the reason she bought a Toyota Prius and for Larry Guldenzopf, his Hummer H3 was practical.

"I have a little bit of guilt," Guldenzopf said.

The question is - should Guldenzopf hold his environmental head high? Maybe so, according to Spinella.

"The Hummer over the lifetime of the vehicle ends up being less of a drain of energy on society in general than does the Prius," he told KATU News.

Spinella's automotive research marketing company out of Bandon, Oregon ranked every vehicle model on how much they cost to run over their lifetime. He ranks the Hummer H3 at $2.07 a mile and the Prius at $2.87 a mile.

"It certainly caused a stir, even inside our own company," Spinella said. "We went back and spent six months going over all the data again because some of the numbers looked so strange."

Spinella's strange numbers on the hybrid get their roots in Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. That is where the nickel for hybrid batteries is extracted from the ground.  For years, it was laid barren by acid rain, caused by pollution belching from the smokestacks.

"Without question, (it is) the biggest emitter of Sulfur Dioxide, the single largest point source in Canada and probably North America," said David Martin with Greenpeace Canada.

From Canada, the nickel is sent for processing to China, which has dismal environmental regulations, then on to Japan for manufacturing, where energy costs are some of the highest in the world.

Spinella did not stop there in his energy consumption calculations. He looked at 3,000 other factors, like how much energy was consumed by workers commuting to the factory.

He also determined the number of miles each vehicle is expected to go in its lifetime. For the Prius, he calculated just 109,000 miles. "The technology changes so quickly, that early versions wind up becoming obsolete very soon," Spinella said.

Not so he says for rigs like the Hummer and other SUVs based on tried and true truck technology. According to Spinella, SUVs will be in use for years, spreading their energy costs out, despite high fuel consumption.

"It raises in the rest of us some good questions," said Professor John Heywood with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

KATU asked Heywood to review Spinella's study. As the director of the prestigious automotive lab at MIT, Heywood does see merit in the study, but he has deep concerns that Spinella's plain language report that is meant as a buying guide for consumers who want to be earth friendly does not share any specific data.

"I can only guess at how they did the detailed arithmetic," Heywood said. "The danger is a report like this will discourage the kind of thinking we want consumers to do - should I invest in this new technology, should I help this new technology?"

Other experts on the life cycle of vehicles have not been as kind. One institution, the University of Chicago, Argonne, wrote to KATU "the study is so silly that it's not worth responding to."

"Have they peer reviewed every single step of it?" Spinella asked. "No, because again we don't want to release everything we have for competitive reasons. And number two, it gets in the way of doing what we intend to do, which is to make a public document available."

On environmental Web sites, Spinella has been accused of trying to "throw doubt into the debate on the science of climate change" and the established press has weighed in as well. An Oregonian column declares of the nickel facility in Canada - it "has devastated a large swath of the surrounding area."

However, the article only tells part of the story. What it does not say is that emissions at the nickel facility have been cut by 90 percent since the 1970s and there has been a massive reforestation plan.

Still, Greenpeace Canada wants emissions from the nickel mine cleaned up even more, but still supports nickel production to support hybrids as part of the answer to long-term environmental questions.

"Every technology and every consumption of resource carries with it some environmental cost and you have to ultimately look at the big picture of how it all fits together," Martin said.

For right now, Spinella says hybrids are an expensive part of that picture.

"I don't like the Hummer people using that as an example to justify the fact that they bought a Hummer," he said. "Just as it's not for Prius owners to necessarily believe that they're saving the entire globe, the environment for the entire world, that's not true either."

Spinella said the vehicle at the top of his environmentally friendly list is the Scion XB because it is easy to build, cheap to run and recycle and carries a cost of 49 cents a mile over its lifetime.