Last spring, Barack Obama set an ambitious energy goal for the federal government, ordering that by 2015 all light-duty cars and trucks bought by the administration run on alternative fuels such as electricity and biofuel. Nearly a year later, the government’s fleet managers have discovered something America’s cost-conscious car buyers already knew: It’s tough going green.
The U.S. General Services Administration, which owns or procures two-thirds of the federal government’s motor vehicle fleet (the U.S. Postal Service controls the remaining third), bought 2,645 hybrid, electric, and fuel-cell cars and trucks in 2011, according to data obtained by Bloomberg News. That represented just 5 percent of the total purchases the GSA made last year—and was a 59 percent drop from 2010, when the government was spending stimulus money. Yet Taryn Tuss, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, maintains that the government hasn’t strayed from the president’s mandate. Agencies are “fully on track to meet the president’s order,” says Tuss.
How so? Because the administration counts an older technology, E85, the corn-based ethanol blend that requires less oil to produce, as an alternative fuel. The GSA says 58 percent of the cars and trucks it purchased last year can run on either gasoline or E85. Yet E85 is actually less fuel-efficient than conventional gasoline. “It is disappointing that instead of buying as many advanced technology vehicles as they should,” they’re buying cars that run on gas and ethanol, complains Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a Washington group that advocates for higher fuel-efficiency standards. “The E85 program is and has been a scam.”
Ethanol is also difficult to find. The U.S. has only 2,512 retail pumps that pour E85, and most are scattered throughout Midwestern corn-producing states, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. By contrast, there are about 6,304 outlets nationwide for charging an electric car. In metropolitan Washington, drivers of government vehicles have only three ethanol fuel pumps to choose from, compared with 65 hookups for electric cars. That’s why in 2010 (the last year for which data are available), federal workers received waivers to pump gasoline into their “alternative fuel” vehicles 55 percent of the time because they didn’t have ready access to an E85 pump, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The president has said he wants to slash oil imports by one-third by 2025 and get 1 million electric vehicles cruising the nation’s roads by 2015. His administration has awarded $8.4 billion in loan guarantees to automakers and suppliers that are developing green cars, and he wants Congress to authorize $420 million for the Energy Department’s clean-fuel vehicle programs in 2013, a 28 percent increase from 2012. “Saying you’re engaged in this behavior [of] saving the world” won’t win voters over if they don’t see their tax dollars supporting the newer alternative-fuel technologies, says Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst at IHS Automotive in Norwalk, Conn. “They don’t want to be accused of ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ They will lose credibility if the government isn’t leading the way.”