Scientists, Congressmen Urge Big Changes for Nation's Diesel School Buses

By Anthony Gunde | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - A group of scientists is pitted against the oil companies in a battle over whether the nation's 442,000 school buses should be converted from diesel guzzlers to alternative fuel vehicles

Oil companies say there is no proof that alternative fuels are better than reformulated gasoline in terms of reducing emissions or in terms of maintaining consumer confidence.

However, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA) says the diesel buses emit clouds of smog and cancer-causing pollution. The group insists that those emissions pose a high risk to children because their respiratory systems are still developing and because they spend more time outdoors than adults, increasing their exposure to air pollution.

UCSUSA isn't only targeting school buses. The organization is trying to launch a campaign to spur the use of cars, other buses and trucks that run on electricity, natural gas or other alternative fuels. Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Science Committee and Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), would do just that. Their bill has been included in a larger energy package, which the Science Committee is expected to vote on next week.

The Boehlert-Udall legislation would allow states and local communities to purchase service vehicles that use alternative fuels and connect them to existing transportation systems. The program would cost $200 million and offer grants to as many as 15 organizations for periods as long as five years. But recipients would have to match the federal funding with their own money.

The U.S. Department of Energy would be in charge of the program. Any state, locality or metropolitan transit authority could apply for the grants, which would be awarded within a year of the bill becoming law.

According to a spokeswoman for UCSUSA, the group is trying to complement the efforts of Boehlert and Udall.

"We are working with the congressmen on this bill because a vast majority of school buses are run on diesel. This produces hazardous emissions to our kids' health," said UCSUSA Senior Analyst for Transportation, Patricia Monahan.

Monahan said natural gas school buses, which are on the road in some communities, offer significant reductions in dangerous emissions. Fuel cell buses and those run on electricity would produce pollution-free transportation, according to UCSUSA.

But James Rouse, Vice President for Exxon Mobil said in an earlier written statement that there is no proof that alternative fuels are cost-effective in reducing emissions. He said alternative fuels are just reformulated petroleum.

"Alternative fuels include liquefied petroleum gas, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, methanol, ethanol and electricity. Despite its excellent emissions performance, reformulated gasoline is not considered an alternative fuel, simply because it's made from oil," said Rouse.

"Even electric cars have air quality and environmental problems. While they may not produce emissions, the electricity has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is a power plant, which does produce emissions," he said.

Rouse also said the United States does not produce enough natural gas to fuel a large proportion of the nation's cars and trucks. As a result, he said, gas prices would increase.

"An additional drawback to alternative fuels is the lack of a nationwide distribution system. To recharge electric car batteries, for example, recharging circuits must be installed at appropriate locations, such as along roadways. This could be a very expensive undertaking," Rouse added.

Monahan of UCSUSA said proponents of the bill are aware of some opposition. But she said the bill would probably be altered to suit both sides.