Alternate fuels mandate looms
Richard Cromwell, general manager of SunLine Transit Agency in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, was tired of breathing clouds of black smoke every time one of his 47 buses passed by. So, in 1993, he headed a drive to replace those buses with ones that run on natural gas, which burns 98 percent cleaner than diesel fuel.
Cromwell applied for federal grants, which covered 80 percent of the replacement cost, and Coachella Valley taxpayers contributed the remaining 20 percent.
That did not include the $500,000 needed to build an initial fueling station to service the new buses and the money to retrain the agency’s existing mechanics, all of which came from private sources.
“The country gave up buggy whips back in the ’30s, and it will do the same with petroleum-based fuels,” predicts Phil Bostley, Mayor of Indian Wells, which is part of Coachella Valley. “More general managers could make the change, but they don’t understand what’s involved, and so it’s easier for them to just avoid the risk.”
But that may soon change. In March, the Energy Department issued a final ruling mandating that fleet operators begin purchasing alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) on Sept. 1, 1996.
To help out, the federal government is providing tax credits for the conversion or procurement of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that use alternative fuels. Additionally, by the year 2001, 75 percent of light-duty vehicles, such as police cars, acquired by large state fleets must use alternative fuels, such as natural gas, propane, ethanol, methanol or electricity.
The regulation’s stated purpose is to lessen demand for imported oil. To that end, the creation of an artificial market is only temporary, says Thomas Foltz, a spokesman for the Energy Department’s Clean Cities program. “We need to move the alternative fuel industry into a situation that is purely driven on economics.”
But the petroleum industry argues that government has no business telling industry when to shift to a different form of energy. It further points out that AFVs cost more to buy and operate, refueling is inconvenient, and servicing is difficult.
Additionally, it is expensive to convert existing engines to burn alternative fuels, and by the time the cheaper fuels make AFVs economical, they are ready to be traded in, they contend.
“Today, oil is abundant, affordable, easy to use and transport,” says a book published late this past year by the Washington-based American Petroleum Institute. “That makes it better for many uses than other fuels now available.”
The big oil companies emphasize that they are presently equipped to supply alternative fuels, but the demand is not there. “When our customers want these alternative fuels, that demand will be met,” says Sheldon Vedlitz, alternative fuels marketing manager for Conoco in Houston.
Bostley, however, points out that oil companies are interested mostly in protecting their huge stake in existing refineries.
And Cromwell notes that natural gas vehicles’ fuel costs are one-third lower than gasoline and can go between 150 and 400 miles before they need refueling.
About 1 million such vehicles — 40,000 in the United States — are now in use worldwide. In the next decade, Cromwell says, that number will jump to 2 million.
“[The ruling] sends a strong, clear and appropriate signal about the need to increase our use of domestic alternative fuels,” says Fred Abrew, chairman of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition in Washington.” “It also sends the message that the government is serious about reducing the threat of over-dependence on foreign oil while, at the same time, helping to improve the quality of our cities.”