Miami Herald

Saturday, Sep 09, 2006


Public Must Demand Alternative Fuels


In the absence of a government-launched Manhattan Project to ignite the alternative fuel revolution, the public must turn not just to the White House or the state house but also to the largest fleet owners in the country.

Carmakers such as Honda, BMW and Toyota are waiting for only one thing before they redirect their considerable resources away from gasoline cars and toward hydrogen, electric, natural gas (CNG) or other alternatively fueled vehicles. Those companies want tangible demand. Fleets -- governmental, commercial and private -- have a compelling volume purchasing power no automaker can ignore.

Use hybrid diesel, natural gas

For-hire carriers in 2004 operated 675,000 trucks; the top 10 include such companies as UPS, Federal Express and Yellow Roadway. UPS alone deploys some 80,000 brown trucks daily as it makes 13 million deliveries every 24 hours. Only about 1,000 of UPS's massive fleet run on compressed natural gas today. Within Federal Express's 70,000-vehicle fleet, the company operates 30,000 medium-duty trucks, of which less than 100 use hybrid diesel.

Some six million additional vehicles are owned by private commercial fleets such as SysCo, Wal-Mart, Halliburton and Frito-Lay. Wal-Mart alone operates 3,300 trucks that in 2005 drove 455 million miles to make 900,000 deliveries. Verizon operated 70,000 trucks and cars in 2004. Waste Management Inc. operated about 28,000 vehicles in 2004. Krispy Kreme Donuts deployed 750 vehicles in 2004. City, state and federal agencies, as well as universities, represent just a fraction of America's 38,000 private fleets.

Today, alternative fuel vehicles are ready -- or fast becoming ready -- to roll out en masse. If fleet managers adopted a Green Fleet Initiative, that is a hierarchy of purchasing that mandates hydrogen cars first, fully electric cars second and CNG cars third, the race would be on among all truck and heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers from GM to Mercedes to be the first to fulfill those orders. Volume purchasing would multiply and accelerate the technology, bring down costs and move such vehicles swiftly from commercial fleets to average consumers.

With whom to do business?

Therefore, the public and environmentally conscious companies can choose to ship green, shop green, drink green and even communicate green. For example, in choosing an overnight shipper will it be Federal Express or UPS? In buying soda, will it be Coca Cola or Pepsi?

Corporate policies -- such as nondiscrimination, labor fairness, environmental responsibility and other conduct -- are already determining factors for many in choosing where to place their business. Therefore, there is more power in one petition to UPS and Federal Express than to all the members of Congress combined.

Ironically, the federal government itself maintains America's single largest fleet by far -- some 600,000 vehicles. Environmental groups have consistently sued the federal government to compel it follow its own alternative fuel guidelines. The Energy Policy Act, passed after the first Gulf War, mandates all federal agencies to reduce oil dependence by ensuring that some 75 percent of new vehicle purchases use alternative fuels. The law has been totally ignored. A steady cascade of court rulings has rejected government requests for delays. Government purchases alone could spur the rapid adoption of any category of alternative fuel vehicle -- hydrogen or otherwise.

A precious legacy

Governments and regimes since the time of the timber-hoarding pharaohs have declined to embrace a public policy that exercises sane stewardship over energy and those who control it. Many believe the notion that man inherits the Earth. Not so. He only holds it as a precious legacy for succeeding generations. That inheritance must not be squandered or reduced to rubble because of war, industrial epidemic or ecocidal damage arising from the intoxicating fumes of internal combustion.

Edwin Black is author of Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives. He launches his 50-city book tour September 12 at Nova Southeastern University.