- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

Does the District have $40 million to $45 million to waste tilting at environmental windmills? So it would seem, according to a just-released study that found Metro's $94.5 million "clean-running" natural gas-powered buses don't have much of an advantage in that respect over modern diesel-powered buses that run just as cleanly and cost half as much to operate.
Natural gas does produce fewer harmful emissions when burned in an internal combustion engine than does ordinary gasoline, but the latest low-sulfur diesel fuel is also very clean-burning, and produces much less in the way of harmful emissions than gasoline. Perhaps most importantly, diesel is much more fuel-efficient than gasoline as well as natural gas, which contains less potential energy per gallon equivalent.
Natural gas has another, more significant problem, however: It requires expensive modifications to fuel storage tanks and fuel delivery systems, and different refueling facilities. Neither gasoline nor diesel fuels requires any special equipment, and both can be easily obtained at most existing gas stations.
Still, Metro went with natural gas because it seemed like a good idea at the time and because of intense political pressure in the form of an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to dramatically improve the area's air quality by the year 2005 or face significant cuts in federal transportation funding. Thus, Metro bought 250 brand-new natural gas-fueled city buses and maybe didn't take enough to time to consider the all-important "peripheral" issues, such as the expense and infrastructure requirements that attend the use of natural gas. For example, the refueling facility on Bladensburg Road N.E. alone will cost $15.4 million to complete, according to a Metro spokeswoman. Moreover, each natural gas-fueled bus costs a staggering $40,000 more than an equivalent diesel-powered bus.
A chief advocate pushing the so-called clean-burning, natural gas buses has been Metro board chairman Chris Zimmerman, Arlington Democrat, who said "There have been lots of studies, and I don't think there is any question that natural gas outperforms clean diesel over the long haul."
But the study by the California Air Resources Board does not take the same view. It said that modern diesels actually produce fewer harmful emissions than natural gas-fueled buses in all categories except oxides of nitrogen, which engineers say can be addressed more economically than by simply buying into the natural gas alternative. "The diesel bus equipped with a particulate filter … produced lower emissions than either the [normal] diesel and the natural gas 'baseline' buses," the study said.
Dana Kauffman, the only Metro board member to support diesel over natural gas, said "I think, unfortunately, the symbolism of the natural-gas buses carries more weight than their actual effectiveness in cutting down on smog-producing emissions." We agree. But, as usual, it may be too late as the city has already bought 250 pigs in a poke.

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