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Op-ed: State alternative-fuel policy must weigh all options

By Darren Engle

First Published May 16 2014 04:24 pm • Last Updated May 16 2014 04:24 pm

Of the 245 million vehicles in the United States today, about 1 million run on fuels other than gasoline or diesel. That’s less than half a percent. Meanwhile, the combustion of transportation fuel creates about 29 percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

There are fuels on the market that can cut those emissions, save us money, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Few people would go on record opposing those principles, so what keeps us from putting more alternative-fuel vehicles on the road?

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Too often it’s because well-intentioned, but misguided, legislation champions one or two energy winners instead of leveling the playing field and letting consumers choose the option that best suits their needs.

Western states are beginning to take the right steps to remove barriers to alternative fuel adoption. This year in Utah, where air pollution has become so severe it deters business relocation and tourism, lawmakers continue to pass a streak of bills promoting alternative fuels. Legislators of all stripes understand the state’s livelihood depends on it.

Utah House Bill 74, which provides tax credits for buying alternative fuel vehicles, includes the full spectrum of low-carbon options. The same is true of Senate Bill 99, which calls for 50 percent or more of state passenger vehicles to run on alternative fuel by 2018. House Bill 41, which provides $20 million in grants to replace diesel school buses with cleaner alternatives, passed by an overwhelming 73-1 vote.

Those bills didn’t necessarily start out promoting all alternative fuels. That’s not because lawmakers favored one over the others, but because they didn’t have all the facts. Fortunately, the Utah Legislature’s bipartisan Clean Energy Caucus heard industry testimony, did its research, and considered all the options. The result is fuel-neutral legislation that puts Utah on the path to cleaner air and increased energy efficiency.

In my government relations work for Blue Star Gas, one of the West Coast’s largest propane distributors, I’ve learned that most legislators can only act on the information they have. That’s why so it’s crucial that all of us in the alternative fuel industry tell them our story, because we each have a part to play in creating a cleaner energy future.

Each alternative fuel has strengths that position it well for certain uses. For example, in a municipality using passenger vehicles for short trips, electric power might be the best answer. For heavier vehicles doing garbage collection, compressed natural gas or liquid natural gas may be the perfect solution. For law enforcement, school transportation, or other longer-range fleets, propane autogas can be ideal.

I’d encourage lawmakers to reject any legislation that promotes one alternative fuel over another — including my own. When only one energy source gains favor, the result is legislation that hinders development, limits choice for consumers, and damages core interests on all sides.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 provides a useful reference because it spells out what alternative fuels are, defines robust environmental standards for them, and leaves room to add new alternatives that meet those criteria. Its strength lies in its fuel neutrality, and policy makers should consider its language when drafting legislation at the state level.

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It’s encouraging to see legislators in Washington, Utah, and Oregon beginning to include the full range of alternative fuel options in many of the bills they’ve introduced so far in 2014.

This "all of the above" approach at the state level will go a long way toward creating an American energy economy that capitalizes on our domestic resources, promotes sustainability, and benefits the consumer.

Darren Engle is director of government relations for Blue Star Gas, North Salt Lake. He is also a member of the Oregon Governor’s Clean Fuels Advisory Committee and the Western Washington Clean Cities Coalition Steering Committee.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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