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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has embraced natural gas as a way the average Utah driver can help fight global warming. He even personally paid to convert his state-owned Chevrolet Suburban to run on the clean fuel.

The governor considers it just one way he can push "the clean energy revolution." But Huntsman's administration won't be following his lead.

The managers of the massive state fleet are abandoning natural gas, saying the vehicles are too expensive and drivers didn't like searching for stations that carry the alternative fuel.

Instead they have bought more than 600 flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on normal gas or E85 ethanol. And almost all are running on gasoline because E85 ethanol is not readily available in the state. It is more expensive to truck it in from the Midwest, where it is produced from corn, than to ship in gasoline.

When flex-fuel vehicles run on gasoline, they are less efficient than the cars they replace. Instead of helping the environment, they actually use more gas and therefore pollute more, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

That doesn't help state fleet managers as they try to meet Huntsman's goal of increasing the state's energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2015.

Huntsman has made clean air and reduced oil consumption a cornerstone of his administration as of late.

To show that he is serious, Huntsman wanted to reduce, if not eliminate, his carbon footprint. He bought wind power for the governor's mansion before turning to his own car. They don't make a big enough hybrid to fit his family or his staff. So he personally paid the $11,800 to convert his SUV to natural gas.

His $40 gas bills have dropped to about $10.

"You travel knowing that you are saving the state a lot of money and you are doing well for the environment," he said.

The flex-fuel cars are doing the opposite.

The state's flex-fuel vehicles running on gasoline cost the state at least $200,000 more in fuel costs and emit about 900 additional tons of greenhouse gases in a year.

Fleet managers say their flex-fuel binge is a consequence of a failed federal mandate and a transition in the auto industry from natural gas to hybrids.

They pledge to start buying hybrid cars en masse next year - at least 40, maybe more than 100 if the Legislature helps. Hybrids combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor to increase fuel efficiency.

When hybrids are not practical, they plan to buy what pollutes the least.

"Over time we will be able to phase in a whole new level of energy efficiency in the cars that we use," Huntsman said.

Just a few years ago, the state fleet was a big supporter of natural gas, which costs 73 cents per gallon instead of the $3 per gallon for gasoline.

They bought loads of the vehicles to meet federal requirements outlined in the Energy Policy Act of 1992, known as EPACT. The law requires that three-fourths of all new fleet vehicles have the ability to run on an alternative fuel.

To kick start the natural gas industry, the state set up a series of fueling stops and allowed businesses to fill their vehicles there as well.

But it never caught on with state workers. They continued to fill their bi-fuel vehicles with gasoline, instead of finding natural gas.

Only 27 dedicated natural gas and 97 bi-fuel cars are in the fleet of 7,500 and most are at either the University of Utah or Utah State University. Late last year, the state blocked access to six natural gas pumps to anyone not driving a state vehicle. They have heard from some frustrated drivers who relied on these pumps.

"Little by little they are disappearing," said Kelli Kammerer, a former Honda employee who now sells real estate. "It makes it so difficult for people to drive them."

Fleet director Margaret Chambers said Kammerer and other individuals using the pumps were doing so without permission, essentially taking an unauthorized state subsidy.

The remaining pumps will continue to get less and less use as the state phases out the natural gas cars. They won't get replaced.

"We don't have any plans to buy any additional [natural gas cars]," said Chambers. "The industry is going away from that." The state stopped buying natural gas vehicles to comply with EPACT three years ago.

Only Honda still manufactures natural gas vehicles and they cost on average $11,000 more than other mid-size cars, though that's before hefty tax breaks by the state and federal government.

Instead, the state opted for the cheaper ethanol flex-fuel cars, mostly a modified Ford Taurus. But where do you get ethanol?

"You don't," Chambers responds. Only five pumps in the metro area have ethanol, one of them being a state-controlled private station at the Salt Lake Community College's Redwood Road campus.

Last year, that pump only dispensed about 1,500 gallons, or about enough ethanol for one and a half of the state's 633 flex-fuel vehicles. Chambers said no state employee bought any ethanol at any other station.

"We are compliant with EPACT, but it is the letter of the law and not the intent," Chambers said.

Fleet managers have talked to the governor's office about the EPACT mandate, which does not easily allow hybrids to substitute for flex-fuel or natural gas. Huntsman's office has had a first conversation with Utah's congressional delegation, but only recently, said Lisa Roskelley, the governor's spokeswoman.

"Obviously the concept is good," she said. "It is the mechanism that perhaps makes it difficult to achieve the intended consequences."

"We don't have any plans to buy any additional [natural gas cars]. The industry is going away from that."


Fleet director