Scarcity of ethanol stations plagues federal alternative-fuel fleet

Sunday, November 23, 2008 | 6:06 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.

But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

“I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come,” said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. “It hasn’t happened.”

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them “flex-fuel,” capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government’s alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A new law — meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations — now requires agencies to seek waivers when their fleet is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles have larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program — known as EPAct — has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended.

The EPAct program offers a cautionary tale as President-elect Barack Obama promises to kill dependence on foreign oil and revive the economy by retooling for the green revolution, experts say.

“This is an example of a law that has had a perversely different effect than what was originally intended,” said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based environmental nonprofit organization.

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The vehicles that would allow the agency to meet federal mandates were available in six- and eight-cylinder models — not the four-cylinder variety it traditionally purchased. Alternative fuel was used less than 1 percent of the time in 2007-08.

The Department of Energy, which oversees the program, declined interview requests. In a statement, officials defended their efforts. “The U.S. Government continues to promote diversification of alternative fuels and vehicles in order to reduce our dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” spokeswoman Jennifer Scoggins wrote. “We work with private industry partners to develop and grow infrastructure of alternative fuels. ...”

Scoggins pointed to a two-year growth spurt of E85 stations, which dispense fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Since 2006, ethanol stations have increased from 481 to 1,689 nationally, but most are in the Midwest. Station owners face a vexing challenge: how to compete with more than 160,000 gasoline stations located on nearly every street corner, especially as gas prices drop.

In 1992, just after the Persian Gulf War, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, hoping to harness the government’s buying power to spark a green vehicle revolution. Agencies were required to buy alternative-fuel vehicles for 75 percent of their light-duty fleets: cars, trucks and vans that weigh less than 8,500 pounds. The ultimate goal was to give automakers incentives to produce more fuel-efficient cars.

But EPAct had a huge loophole: Agencies were required to buy alternative-fuel vehicles but did not have to run them on alternative fuel.

“We started out with a plan to mandate use, but then we pulled back. There wasn’t the political support or will to do it,” said former representative Philip Sharp, D-Ind., who sponsored EPAct and authored a bill that contributed to the expansion of flex-fuel cars.

Because alternative-fuel use was not mandated, large numbers of vehicles that could run on various fuels — propane, compressed natural gas and E85 — have popped up in places where none of those fuels are available.

The Post analysis shows that at least 2,341 flex-fuel vehicles were placed in seven states and Puerto Rico, which have no E85 stations.

Hawaii has the greatest share, with more than 1,000 flex-fuel vehicles purchased or leased by various agencies, mostly military. The U.S. Navy tops the list.

The Navy has more than 670 flex-fuel vehicles on three islands. Not one of the sedans, sport-utility vehicles or trucks has ever operated on E85.

“If an alternative-fuel vehicle is available, we are mandated to buy it. We have no choice,” said Steve Mortimer, a manager in Hawaii who helps set Navy policy on vehicles and equipment. “The (auto) manufacturers don’t have to supply the fuel. In Hawaii, we just have unleaded and diesel and a little bit of propane.”

Mortimer and other Navy officials have invited potential fueling suppliers for site visits to encourage interest in building E85 stations. But there are many obstacles.

No ethanol-production facility exists in Hawaii, so the fuel would have to be shipped by tanker, increasing the carbon footprint on E85, a fuel that is being criticized by some environmentalists because of pollution caused by many ethanol-production plants.

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