AUSTIN, TEXAS — TEXAS has prided itself on having ``the most aggressive alternative fuels program in the country,'' as John Hall, the state's top environmental regulator, puts it.
However, a recent decision by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the agency Mr. Hall chairs, shows that Texas is rethinking the cost and benefits of alternative fuels.
Of the nation's 22 metropolitan areas with the most severe air pollution, Texas is home to four: Houston-Galveston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, Dallas-Fort Worth, and El Paso.
The federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 dictate that in these 22 most-polluted areas, owners of fleets of 10 or more vehicles must begin buying a rising percentage of low-emission vehicles: 30 percent in 1998, 50 percent in 1999, and 70 percent in 2000.
Texas, California, and a handful of East Coast states have chosen to implement their own plans, subject to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval.
Texas's plan is spelled out in the Texas Alternative Fuels Fleet law. TAFF dictates that certain fleets must meet deadlines by which an increasing percentage of their vehicles are fueled by natural gas, propane, methanol, or electricity. TAFF also requires that 100 percent of the vehicles bought starting in September must operate on those fuels. By 1996, newly purchased vehicles must also meet the low-emission vehicle (LEV) standard.
Low emissions not guaranteed
Implicit in TAFF is the recognition that an alternative-fuel vehicle is not automatically a low-emission vehicle. Hall points out that some vehicles converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) exceed emission limits, as have custom-made CNG vehicles.
Furthermore, at least some gasoline-powered vehicles will meet LEV standards. A current model Ford Escort that burns regular gasoline was made to meet a stricter, ultralow emission vehicle standard simply by moving the catalytic converter, according to EPA spokesman Brian Manning.
In terms of emissions, today's cars are 90 percent cleaner than in preregulation days, says Chrysler Corporation spokesman Chris Preuss. Beginning in January, reformulated gasoline must be sold in the 22 most-polluted cities. At that point, the percentage improvement will reach the ``high 90s,'' Mr. Preuss says. ``What's it worth to get that last percentage out?''
That same question was on the minds of regulators at the Texas Conservation Commission this month. The state's four most-polluted cities must eliminate a combined 500 tons of pollutants a day by 1996 to meet federal standards. But by spending $1 billion to convert the 300,000 fleet vehicles in those cities to alternative fuels, only 5 tons of pollutants would be eliminated.
The regulators have decided to wait until the end of 1996 to rule on whether TAFF should apply to local government and private fleets - and if so, whether those fleets should be allowed to choose reformulated gasoline (RFG) as an ``alternative'' fuel.
Running on reformulated gas
The EPA has already certified that RFG-fueled automobiles meet the emission standard, Hall says. In addition, he says the EPA told him that it might not approve the Texas plan if RFG were excluded. The delay will allow the state legislature to revisit the issue next year, Hall says.
Meanwhile, the natural gas industry feels betrayed. The postponed decision ``says to people who could be my customers, `Wait and see,' '' complains Steve Laden, vice president of Austin-based Southern Union Company, the nation's 14th-largest natural gas utility. A subsidiary, Southern Union Econofuel, is part-owner of the Natural Gas Technology Center in Austin, the world's largest facility for converting vehicles to operate on natural gas.
Those conversions cost from $3,000 to $5,000. Mr. Laden admits that, even though natural gas costs just 66 cents for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, a vehicle would have to be driven more than 15,000 miles annually to recover the conversion cost.
``The economics for the average driver are not all that good,'' Laden says.
That is why natural gas companies are targeting fleets. Laden says the company aims for just 1 billion cubic feet a year in sales to motorists by 1998, equal to the amount of gas consumed by 15,000 households in Austin. But more important than the volume is the fact that the sales occur year-round, not just in winter as is usual for the gas business.
Richard Bell, a spokesman for Ford Motor Company, notes that if the amount of money spent to convert a car to natural gas were spent on making the car burn gasoline more cleanly, ``you can do wonders.''
``If the goal is to clean up the air, let the consumer make the choice,'' he adds. ``It's not a fuel issue.''
The electric cars that will be required in California will cost $21,000 more to make than a conventional car, Preuss says. And yet those cars may actually cause more air pollution. The difference is the emissions will occur at the power plant that generates the electricity that charges the car's batteries.
Meanwhile, to keep electric cars affordable for consumers, their excess cost will have to be spread over all other models - to the tune of $3,000 each. ``Honk and wave at the guy driving the electric car,'' Preuss says, ``because you bought part of his vehicle for him.''