Not driven to save energy

Activists question use of SUVs by many Md. officials

April 07, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Most of Maryland's top elected officials say they're committed to helping the environment, yet many of them get around in large sport utility vehicles.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and the executives of Anne Arundel, Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties all say they are fans of energy savings and foes of global warming.

And all of them use vehicles environmentalists see as examples of excess.

While a few elected officials have turned to hybrid vehicles, O'Malley, Brown, and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett travel in huge, ethanol-fueled Chevrolet Suburbans. Anne Arundel Executive John R. Leopold and Dixon use almost-as-large Ford Expeditions. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson travels in a Cadillac Escalade SUV; Harford Executive David R. Craig uses a slightly smaller Chevy Trailblazer; and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger relies on a GM Yukon Denali.

"He's a big guy, so he really likes a big vehicle," said Heather Molino, Ruppersberger's spokeswoman.

A spokesman for O'Malley, who has garnered publicity for his goal of cutting Maryland's greenhouse gases 90 percent by 2050, said the choice of vehicle is not the governor's or lieutenant governor's to make.

"The Maryland State Police determine what vehicles would be used for this administration - the size, make, and model. We're using the same vehicle that [former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] did," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

O'Malley and Brown might get new GM Tahoe hybrids when they become available this year to replace the Suburbans, said state police spokesman Greg Shipley and 1st Sgt. Charley Ardolini, who runs the state's executive protection detail.

Shipley said the state police decided on the Suburbans based on safety considerations and the need for cargo space.

"We carry a lot of equipment in these vehicles," he said, including medical supplies, communications gear and other items he declined to disclose.

Environmental activists question the choice of such large vehicles.

"Gas guzzling has been out of control," said John DeCicco, senior fellow for automotive strategies for the national Environmental Defense Fund.

"People don't need to be driving around in their living rooms," said Lee Walker-Oxenham, a former Sierra Club activist in Howard County, who said the examples set by elected officials are important.

"I think they should be models for others. Continuing to drive SUVs is madness. It makes no sense," she said.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett use hybrid vehicles.

"I just wanted to set a good example," said Bartlett, a conservative Republican from Western Maryland. Seeing elected leaders espouse environmentalism but practice something else "just makes people very cynical," he said.

Bartlett says his Toyota Prius has plenty of room and is safer than a rollover-prone SUV.

"It's a silly justification for conspicuous consumption," the congressman said.

The big SUVs typically get 12 to 16 mpg, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's latest ratings, though the E-85 Suburbans, which use a mixture of 85 percent corn-based fuel and 15 percent gasoline, burn the equivalent of 6.7 barrels of oil per year compared with 21.4 barrels for the gasoline-only model. The E-85 releases 9.2 tons of global warming gases per year - 2.2 tons less than the gas-powered model - based on 15,000 miles of annual driving.

By contrast, Bartlett's Prius - his second - gets 46 mpg, uses 7.4 barrels of oil annually and releases 4 tons of carbon dioxide.

While corn-based ethanol reduces oil use, production methods can wipe out the benefit to global warming, several experts said.

"There's no scientific evidence that flex-fuel is helping the environment," because there's no certification for how it is made, DeCicco said.

A gallon of ethanol produces less energy than an equal amount of oil, so more must be burned, said David Friedman, research director for the vehicles program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ulman's Ford Escape hybrid gets 30 mpg, uses 11.4 barrels of oil a year and puts 6.1 tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The Howard County executive, however, is often chauffeured around the county by a police officer driving an unmarked patrol car.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who succeeded Ruppersberger in Towson, and Maryland's two U.S. senators all use full-size General Motors sedans for transportation. Baltimore-area Reps. John Sarbanes and Elijah E. Cummings drive economy sedans - Sarbanes uses a Ford Focus and Cummings has a tiny Chevrolet Aveo.

Maryland's officials all have reasons for their rides.

"The Expedition is the same one O'Malley used for the last few years he was mayor," said Sterling Clifford, Dixon's spokesman. "It's closing in on 200,000 miles. It's at the end of its life."

With security gear and room for staff and visitors, Dixon needs the space and size, Clifford said.

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