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Fighting Pollution and High Fuel Costs

by Stephanie Mandell, May 15, 2006
 
 

With gasoline prices in the city well above $3 and heading ever upward, New York motorists gnash their teeth and grumble whenever they refill their tanks.

But government feels the effects of rising gas prices as well. "Our expenses are going up when the cost of heating oil, the cost of diesel fuel, when the cost of gasoline goes up," Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said. "There's not a lot that this city or this state can do about it."

Many aspects of the energy situation certainly remain outside the mayor's control, but there are some steps he and the City Council could take that would not only lower costs but also address New York's serious air pollution problem.

With gasoline prices on the rise, drivers are looking for ways to save. Sales of hybrid cars -- powered by electricity, as well as gasoline -- have risen sharply in recent months, with Ford Motor Company telling the Washington Post that sales of its two hybrids had doubled in the past month and Toyota reporting that it cannot produce enough of its Prius hybrid to meet the demand. Sales of Honda's natural gas powered car, the Civic GX, have reportedly increased as well.

While consumers may be choosing these vehicles to save money, they are also helping the environment. Automobile exhaust is a key component of smog and soot, and a contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The hybrids and cars powered by natural gas cause less of this pollution than conventional gasoline-burning cars.

Anyone who lives in New York breathes auto exhaust. But most New Yorkers -- living in a densely developed city with a good mass transit system -- do not suffer from rising gasoline prices as much as residents of rural areas who may have to drive 30 miles for a gallon of milk. As taxpayers, though, we all pay at least indirectly for the costs of another fuel -- diesel.

Diesel powers most trucks and buses, including city-owned garbage trucks and city-funded school buses. Like gasoline, it is a petroleum product, subject to the vagaries of the oil market -- but even more expensive than gasoline. The city could save money and improve public health by cutting down its use of diesel -- and a good place to start would be with its garbage trucks.

REPLACING DIESEL

Even if diesel cost only pennies a gallon, it would still extract a high cost. Thanks largely to diesel exhaust, Manhattan air is the most dangerous in the nation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment, residents of the borough bear the greatest risk in the U.S. of getting cancer simply from breathing. The soot contained in diesel emissions is also a significant reason why children in New York City are hospitalized for asthma at twice the national average.

Cities around the country recognize that diesel exhaust poses a threat to public health and are doing something about it. They are switching their truck and bus fleets from diesel to cleaner fuels and technologies. New York has already taken some steps as well. Last spring, the City Council passed, and the mayor signed, bills that would require the city to purchase cleaner vehicles, mandate that city diesel-powered vehicles use low-sulfur diesel, and control emissions on trucks, transit buses and sight-seeing buses. But the city could do more -- one important step would be switching its garbage trucks from diesel to a cleaner fuel.

THE UN-DIESELS

There are a number of commercially viable alternatives to diesel.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is a domestic, renewable fuel made from vegetable oils. Despite news stories about cars that fill their tanks on leftover restaurant vegetable oil, vegetable oil must go through a chemical process to remove certain components before it be used as a fuel.

The use of biodiesel to replace diesel in trucks and buses does not significantly reduce fuel costs or pollution because it is typically blended with 80 percent regular diesel to form B20. B20 can power diesel vehicles without modifying their engines.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, running an engine on B20 results in a 12 percent reduction in soot and carbon monoxide and a 20 percent reduction in hydrocarbons, which are associated with increased cancer rates as well as global warming. However, emissions from an engine running on B20 contain a slightly higher number of pollutants thatlead to smog.

Biodiesel can be used in its pure form, B100, which does not contain a drop of regular diesel. According to the EPA, burning pure biodiesel in an engine reduces hydrocarbon emissions, soot and carbon monoxide by far greater amounts than B20 does. But manufacturers' warranties do not cover engines that run on B100, and the fuel can damage some rubber hoses and gaskets in older truck engines. In addition, biodiesel would do nothing to ease the burden of high diesel fuel prices on the city budget, since it costs more than conventional diesel.

Hybrid Vehicles

Hybrid-electric vehicles run on a fossil fuel, such as diesel or gasoline, and electric energy generated during braking. When drivers of a conventional car or truck hit their brakes, that energy is lost. However, in a hybrid-electric vehicle, that energy is captured and stored in a battery, which can then power the vehicle under certain driving conditions. When a hybrid vehicle runs on the stored electric power, it does not spew harmful pollutants into the air or burn fossil fuel. And because they do not use gasoline or diesel oil when running on the battery, hybrids save money.

Not all hybrids are created equal. Some have a better fuel economy than others. The extent to which hybrids displace diesel, generate pollution and produce cost savings also depends on whether they use diesel, gasoline, or natural gas.

Natural Gas

Unlike biodiesel and hybrid-electric vehicles, natural gas vehicles can fully displace diesel powered ones. Natural gas is domestically produced and burns cleaner than any form of diesel. Running an engine on natural gas, compared to conventional diesel, produces 32 to 73 percent fewer pollutants that lead to smog, and 69 to 83 percent fewer hydrocarbons. And while natural gas prices have gone up in recent years, it still costs less than diesel. In September 2005, diesel cost (in pdf format) an average of $2.81 a gallon, while the equivalent amount of natural gas cost $2.12.

Some private companies have already switched their trucks to natural gas. Last year, for example, Manhattan Beer Distributorsopened a natural gas refueling station in Brooklyn and retrofitted an additional 15 of its trucks to run with the cleaner fuel. Because natural gas is a gaseous fuel, regular filling stations cannot handle it, which is why Manhattan Beer Distributors had to build its own station. A lack of such stations represents a major impediment to increased use of natural gas vehicles. But of all of the commercially viable alternatives, natural gas vehicles can do the most to help people breathe easier.

THE CLEANER GARBAGE TRUCK


The city is limited in what it can do to put cleaner, more efficient vehicles on New York's streets. It cannot, for example require all car owners to swap their gas-guzzling SUVs for hybrids. But the city does have the power to clean up its fleet of garbage trucks. And doing that would produce enormous benefits, improving air quality -- and setting a good example for other government agencies and for private business.

Per mile, refuse trucks consume the most fuel of any vehicle on the road, burning one gallon of diesel fuel every 2.8 miles. Partly because they are among the oldest vehicles on the road (nationally, 41 percent of them have been in use for more than 10 years), garbage trucks are among the most polluting vehicles. As trucks age, their pollution controls deteriorate, allowing higher levels of pollutants to escape into the air. A recent report by INFORM (in pdf format) calculated that the 3,607 diesel-fueled refuse trucks operated by private garbage haulers in the city collectively generate as much as 9,500 tons of soot and pollutants per year. Thousands more tons spew from the Department of Sanitation's 2,500 diesel-powered refuse trucks.

The city's refuse truck fleet -- mostly diesel powered -- travels 6,300 miles each day. So, at $2.81 for a gallon of diesel, the city spends more than $2.3 million a year on diesel fuel for garbage trucks. If the city's fleet ran entirely on natural gas, New York's taxpayers could save more than half a million dollars a year a year in fuel costs.

Natural gas trucks do cost $40,000 to $50,000 more than conventional diesel trucks. However, state and federal government grants are available to help pay for natural gas trucks and refueling equipment.

And the gap in costs is narrowing. The EPA's tighter emissions standards for 2010 could spur the price of a diesel powered truck to increase by as much as $10,000 to $12,000. A study conducted by TIAX, an independent research firm, estimates that the pollution controls needed to meet the new emissions standards will soon erase any cost advantage that diesel refuse trucks have over natural gas trucks.

If every one of the public and private diesel refuse trucks in the city ran on natural gas, it would save 54 million gallons of diesel fuel a year, sharply reducing noxious emissions. (This is based on figures in another INFORM report, Greening GarbageTrucks.)

Of course there are other things the city can do as well. When awarding contracts, it can give preferenceto private companies that use cleaner fueled vehicles. City government can also offer incentives such as tax credits to private companies that switch to alternative vehicles.

Many New Yorkers are not familiar with natural gas, biodiesel and hybrid-electric vehicles. But these technologies, which can save money and help address the public health problems, are not some kind of futuristic fantasy. They are available right here, right now, if we choose to use them.

Stephanie Mandell is with the Sustainable Transportation Program at INFORM, an independent research organization that examines the effects of business practices on the environment and on human health.


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