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Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel Wins Dust-Up with CNG in Denver

Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD)  Board proceeded last week with a planned $53.6 million purchase of 183 new diesel-powered buses despite a last-minute lobbying campaign fueled by Clean Energy, a CNG vendor, for CNG buses.

The transportation district will buy diesel buses equipped to operate on ultra low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel set to arrive in Denver in mid-2006. The new buses will replace the oldest and most polluting buses in the RTD fleet.

The public campaign was the culmination of Clean Energy’s failure during the bidding process during the past 10 months to persuade RTD to switch from diesel. Last week it gave the RTD board one last presentation about the merits of dropping the diesel purchase, but the board was unimpressed.

A few days later Clean Energy launched an expensive, last-minute publicity campaign with daily full-page newspaper ads, radio ads and direct-mail fliers.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, after about 90 minutes of comments from a Clean Energy official and environmental and community activists, the board voted 12-1 to buy the diesel buses. Because they replace the dirtiest buses still being used, board members said, the new clean diesel engines will improve, not worsen, metro air quality.

Clean Energy had started back in January of 2004 with a presentation to the board of operations slamming the just-released RTD staff recommendations for the diesel purchase as “critically flawed”—a direct, albeit not the most politic, response.

Apparently assertions and counter-assertions escalated as RTD locked more into its position and Clean Energy continued to argue for CNG. The Denver Post weighed in with an editorial supporting the ULSD bus decision and warning readers against heeding the Clean Energy campaign. Clean Energy posted fact sheets correcting the RTD arguments and implying an inside track for the winning bus vendor (Gillig). Incorrect, out-of-context and misused figures and questionable logic emerged to support points.

A prime purpose of ULSD is to better enable the use of NOx and PM aftertreatment devices, which are poisoned by the presence of higher levels of sulfur in the fuel. ULSD requires additional refining, and hence will cost more than current conventional petroleum diesel. It may also result in slightly lower fuel economy. Used with more aggressive emissions control technologies, the emissions reductions of ULSD are substantial—but not a magic bullet (and neither is CNG).

All the heat seems to have obscured what should have been a useful contribution, had it been able to progress more rationally (or fairly, depending upon to whom you speak), to a larger public discussion: how to reduce emissions in cities through the use of alternatives to diesel fuel for mass transit? What should be the criteria valued by the citizens and their government? Purchase and operating cost, operating emissions reductions, lifecycle emissions reductions? When and what do you trade-off? And why not biodiesel?



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