State government is pledging to increase its use of ethanol- and biodiesel-powered cars and trucks and to triple the number of hybrids in its fleet by 2011.
The three-member Board of Public Works approved the policy yesterday, applauding the move as a way to bring Maryland into an eco-friendly future.
"Even though it is a small step, it is something that is concrete and solid and we can focus on it," said Comptroller Peter Franchot. "We're leading by example."
The cornerstone of the plan calls for 40 percent of state vehicle purchases over the next three years to be cars and trucks that operate on biofuels, principally ethanol and biodiesel.
Hybrids, because of price considerations, would account for a small part of the effort.
But the decision comes as the benefits of biofuels are being questioned. A report this month by the Chesapeake Bay Commission concluded that the increased use of ethanol could pose risks for the bay because of the fertilizer runoff associated with the crops usually grown to produce it.
And this week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international research consortium, concluded that the total pollution caused by the production, transport and use of most kinds of ethanol and biodiesel is worse than the pollution caused by fossil fuels.
Previous academic studies have had mixed findings about the benefits of biofuels on the environment.
"In the short term, corn-based ethanol, grain-based ethanol, is here to stay," said Ann P. Swanson, the bay commission's executive director.
If the corn is grown using environmentally conscious "best management" practices, ethanol use "can be a very good thing," she said. "But without the `best management' practices, not so."
Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the state's switch to using more ethanol and biodiesel could help drive the market for alternative fuels and, in turn, spur the development of biofuels that require less energy and less pollution to produce. Moreover, ethanol can replace other, more harmful additives in gasoline, he said.
"Just trying to encourage the idea of alternative fuels in our petroleum-based economy in and of itself is a good idea," Dawson said.
State officials did not provide a cost estimate for the policy change. At present, hybrid sedans cost nearly twice as much as the equivalent cars in the state fleet, but officials said it's difficult to predict how the increasing market for alternative-fuel cars will affect prices over the plan's four-year time frame.
There is little debate about the environmental benefits of hybrids -- whatever kind of fuel they use, they use less of it -- but those cars and trucks will make up a relatively small part of the state's vehicle fleet under the plan.
The state owns 30 hybrids -- about 0.3 percent of its 9,100-vehicle fleet. The goal is to bring that to 100, which would be about 1.1 percent of the fleet.
As part of the plan, the board approved four new kinds of hybrids for state use, including a sedan, a police pursuit sport utility vehicle and two kinds of pickup trucks. In a separate initiative, the Department of Transportation is testing hybrid buses to determine their durability and cost-effectiveness, said Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.
Part of the reason the state doesn't have more hybrids, Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster said, is that agencies have particular needs for which the hybrid market is limited -- about 18 percent of the state's fleet is made up of police cruisers, for example.
But Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp -- who rented a Toyota Prius on a recent vacation -- said the state should think harder about whether hybrids on the market could meet its needs, particularly in agencies where vehicles are used mostly in urban areas.
"It was a really good car to drive," Kopp said, "very enjoyable."
But, at least at this time, hybrids are more expensive. Larry Williams, the state's fleet manager, said most of the sedans the state buys are Dodge Neons or Chevy Cavaliers, for which it pays about $11,500. There are no hybrids in that price class, and the only hybrid sedan on the state's approved list, the Honda Civic hybrid, costs $21,000, he said.
Given the current price of gas -- $2.73 a gallon on average in Baltimore, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic -- state employees would have to drive a Civic more than 200,000 miles for the state to break even.
And that wouldn't happen: The state routinely stops using its vehicles after 100,000 miles. That means hybrid sedans would make economic sense for the state if gas cost $5.58 a gallon.
"They are a little bit more costly," Foster said. "But long range, our goal is to purchase more of them."