WASHINGTON - Federal officials concede that alternative fuels won't account for 10 percent of vehicle energy needs by 2000 or 30 percent by 2010, as intended, but they are readying a new proposal to get closer to the goals.
The Department of Energy is completing its latest plan for requiring local government and private-sector fleets to include alternative-fueled cars and trucks among the vehicles they acquire.
The department's first, roundly criticized attempt died in 1997. A second was aborted last year. Currently only state fleets and those operated by fuel companies must include alternative-fueled vehicles in their acquisitions. The percentage required rises from 25 now to 75 by the 2001 model year.
Kenneth Katz, program manager for the department's Office of Technology Utilization, said the new proposal will be innovative and laced with options and incentives and should be well received. It will keep the 10 percent and 30 percent goals but also will address ways to better meet the target dates, he said.
But Katz also acknowledged, 'The relatively low price for a barrel of oil means this may not be an issue on people's minds right now.'
Car companies are in an awkward position.
Ford Motor Co., for example, opposes government mandates but favors government 'leadership in the promotion of advanced technology, especially in its early stages,' said Jon Harmon, manager of technology public affairs for Ford.
In other words, if companies are going to build vehicles that run on propane, natural gas, ethanol, methanol or electricity, they would like somebody to buy them.
Fred Palmer, CEO of Creative Leasing Inc. of Tuscaloosa, Ala., said he expects his fleet customers to oppose the proposal.
Despite government tax credits for the vehicles, Palmer said fleet operators consider them to be more expensive to acquire, more difficult to refuel and less valuable at resale time.
Mary Tavenner, executive director of the American Automotive Leasing Association, said the alternative fuels situation is a Catch 22. There are not enough vehicles in service to support investments in fueling infrastructure, and vehicle users are reluctant to acquire the vehicles because of difficulty in refueling.
Her organization, which includes companies that acquire and manage vehicles for fleets, would like to see the alternative fuels mandate eliminated but does not expect that to happen. So, rules laced with incentives may be a more acceptable option, she said.
A 1992 federal law, just one in a series of attempts to wean the nation from imported oil, established the requirement that fleets acquire alternative-fueled vehicles. It set a Jan. 1, 2000, deadline for rules to apply to local governments and private fleets (20 vehicles or more).
Katz said it's possible the new rule-making effort will not succeed. The law then requires the department to report to Congress on other options for encouraging use of alternative fuels.