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Doug Korthof, Enviro and Electric-Car Activist, Loses Battle with Lung Cancer

Doug Korthof saw a world where we would all be driving electric cars powered by batteries in our garages that are charged by the Sun’s rays captured by solar panels on rooftops. He had the perfect model for this: his one-story, middle-class Seal Beach home. He believed in an EV future because it would clean our air, fatten our wallets and make our world safer. But he did not buy the “peak oil” argument; I recall him telling me man would die off from air pollution before petroleum runs out. Call him a martyr: Korthof just died at home while battling lung cancer. He was 68.

Korthof could be abrasive and he did not suffer fools, be they politicos, industry representatives or nosy reporters.

Photo by James Bunoan/OC Weekly

Lisa Rosen and her husband Doug Korthof pose by one of their EVs for a Weekly cover story.

​I recall him rising from his seat and bitching out the California Coastal Commission meeting in Long Beach over the desecration of sacred Native American land at Bolsa Chica. The thing is, I believe he had come to the meeting to talk on a different subject.

At another Coastal Commission meeting, this time in Huntington Beach, the computer programmer who retired to a life of full-time eco-activism cornered in the hallway representatives from Poseidon Resources Group, which is trying to build desalination plants in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khakis and likely flip-flops, Korthof mockingly berated the two men and one woman donning smart business attire, essentially telling them they didn’t know shit and he did.

Then there was the day I spent with him for my May 2003 cover story on what was then a one-man campaign to save the electric car:

•Dude, Where’s My Electric Car!?! Can one activist fight off Detroit, Japan, Big Oil and the Bush administration to keep EVs alive?

After he’d thoroughly bowled me over with his knowledge about the subject, I wondered aloud why someone can’t just take rusting cars in junkyards or on blocks in front yards, pull out the gas engines and recycle them into electric cars. Korthof looked at me like I’d just farted in church. He then went into a long explanation about the dissimilar drive trains between gas and electric cars, and how many parts required in the fossil fuel burners would not be required in an EV. Indeed, as I took his Saturn EV1 for a test drive, Korthof pointed to filling stations and auto parts stores, cackling that they would become obsolete in an all-electric future. That was the problem: he believed automakers, oil companies and ancillary auto businesses conspired to kill the electric car in California. Saturn would later end the lease on his EV1 and not even let him buy for more than he’d spent on the lease.

Three years after that test drive, some of Korthof’s theories galvanized in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which features Korthof among the politicians, celebrities and car industry reps interviewed on camera. I mentioned how I’d come to know Korthof to filmmaker Chris Paine, and he told me he found the Seal Beach activist through that “Dude, Where’s My Electric Car!?!” piece, which he said was among the few news stories in print he could find on the subject while doing research for his film. The Weekly story wound up being reprinted in the documentary’s press materials.

•All Charged Up: Who Killed the Electric Car? filmmaker Chris Paine turned anger to action

Knowing the future was looking dim for Korthof, his family, friends and fellow activists gathered to share the love last month at his Seal Beach home. The Orange County Register’s Pat Brennan was there, and he reports many pulled up in electric cars Korthof had convinced them to drive. But, as referenced in the Coastal Commission brushes above, he was not just about EVs. Other actions Korthof was involved in over the years included: the creation of a cultural interpretive center at Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach; the push to get the Orange Couty Sanitation District to step up treatment of wastewater flushed into the ocean off Huntington Beach; and, of course, the decades-long battle to restore the Bolsa Chica wetlands and save the Native American village buried on the mesa overlooking it. There were many, many more eco-missions.
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