New Caspian Pipeline Only Pit Stop to Fuel Cell Future

Editorial from the Times of London.

Published: 01-Jun-2005

 THIS month's formal opening of the $4 billion pipeline to carry oil more than 1,000 miles from the Caspian to the Mediterranean is a triumph of Western engineering, a strategic coup in the competition with Russia for influence in its former republics and a tribute to the acumen of BP, which holds the principal stake in the international consortium.

This "project of the century,' which will eventually be linked to the huge Kazakh oilfields in Central Asia, has been built, on time and within budget, in the face of strong opposition from Moscow. It is crucial in lessening Western dependence on oil from the Middle East. And it is an impressive demonstration of technology given that the pipeline traverses some of the roughest topography, political as well as physical, in the world.

It would be unwise, however, to conclude that the pipeline has secured the West's energy future. Despite the vast proven resources of the Caspian and Central Asia, the world's thirst for oil is growing at an exponential rate.

The West, therefore, should use the time it has bought and its superior technology to invest seriously, and on a massive scale, into alternative energy sources. This does not simply mean building more unsightly windfarms and waxing lyrical about wave power. Far more important is the search for an alternative to the internal combustion engine, the biggest consumer of petrol and one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions.

At last, the signs are that Western governments and industry are committing themselves seriously to an old idea whose time, thanks to technological breakthroughs, may soon come: the hydrogen fuel cell. Since October, General Motors and Toyota, both leaders in research, have been holding talks about a joint factory to produce hydrogen-powered cars, which would speed up adoption of this environment-friendly technology.

It will take the combined resources and commitment of Western governments, big business and Japanese research to make fuel cells a reality. Their energies should be released now. The new pipeline shows what international co-operation can achieve, but this is merely a petrol station en route to energy security.

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