Flanked by a half-dozen electric-powered trucks owned by companies with some of the largest vehicle fleets on the road, President Barack Obama urged businesses Friday to help the nation reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with more fuel-efficient models.
Obama's appearance at a UPS distribution facility in Landover was part of a broader effort by the White House in recent days to refocus attention on the nation's energy challenges as turmoil in the Middle East sends gasoline prices skyward. Earlier this week, Obama called for reducing U.S. oil imports by one-third by 2025.
"I know a lot of folks have been feeling the pinch of higher gas prices lately — whether you're filling up your tank or running a business like UPS," Obama said Friday inside the cavernous distribution facility, which serves Washington and its Maryland suburbs. "We can't keep going from shock to trance, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall."
The White House is encouraging companies to buy vehicles that run on electricity or other alternative fuels. In exchange, the Department of Energy is offering technical assistance, access to research and opportunities to pool purchasing power to limit upfront costs.
UPS, AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo and Verizon have signed on to the voluntary program, which the administration is calling the National Clean Fleets Partnership. With more than 275,000 vehicles among them, the firms manage five of the 10 largest fleets in the U.S., according to the White House. The effort is expected to put 20,000 new electric or hybrid vehicles on the road.
Ultimately, the president said, an increase in demand for fuel-efficient vehicles by the private sector could help lower costs of the technology for everyone.
"If we're serious about making the transition from gas-guzzlers to hybrids, we need to show automakers that there's a real market for these vehicles," Obama said. "We need to show them that if they manufacture fuel-efficient cars and trucks, people will actually buy them."
The administration is talking about energy as political attention shifts to next year's presidential election. Historically, the cost of fuel has been a potent pocketbook issue for voters; during the 2008 campaign, Obama used a spike in gasoline prices to help frame his energy platform.
Since then, his energy agenda has suffered significant setbacks. Cap-and-trade legislation that would have limited emissions from electric utilities and other businesses died in the Senate last year amid concerns about its effect on energy prices. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan have further complicated the nation's long-term energy strategy.
Congressional Republicans have criticized Obama for not allowing energy companies to pursue new domestic oil drilling sites.
"There is no excuse for the Obama Administration's repeated efforts to block, delay or cancel American energy development that will create good paying American jobs," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington said in a statement Friday.
The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in Maryland was $3.59 on Friday, according to the AAA Mid-Atlantic. That's up from $2.80 a gallon a year ago. The national average was $3.62 per gallon.
With Congress locked in fiercely partisan debate over the federal budget for the foreseeable future, it's not clear when lawmakers will revisit an overhaul of the nation's energy policy.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said he believes some progress toward reducing the reliance on imported fossil fuels remains possible — so long as it is done incrementally.
"I support the comprehensive approach, but it's not going to happen," the Maryland Democrat told The Baltimore Sun on Friday. "So you need to do it in smaller pieces."
Obama toured the UPS facility and spoke with representatives from the companies involved in the new federal initiative. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also attended.
"You got some corn chips?" Obama joked as he approached Steven Hanson, national fleet sustainability manager for Texas-based Frito-Lay.
Because the new electric trucks get great mileage, the snack food giant uses them on 65- to 70-mile daily routes — twice the average route, according to a company representative.
"Our operators love it so far," Hanson said. "They like the quiet. They like the visibility. And they like not smelling like diesel fumes."
But the upfront investment in the trucks is a significant obstacle. One of the new models now used by UPS costs nearly twice as much as a regular diesel-fueled truck, a company spokeswoman said.
UPS has about 2,000 fuel-efficient vehicles on the road out of roughly 100,000 in the fleet overall, spokeswoman Kara Ross said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and other Maryland officials have long sought to increase the number of fuel-efficient cars purchased by the government — and they have made some progress.
In 2010, alternative-fuel or hybrid vehicles accounted for 23 percent of state vehicle purchases, up from 11 percent the year before, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Energy Administration.
The state currently operates 1,806 of those vehicles, spokesman Ian Hines said, or about 20 percent of its fleet.
O'Malley joined LaHood on a conference call with reporters Friday. He praised the administration's efforts to help states add alternative-energy vehicles to their fleets.
"Every state has the potential … to put their back into this so that we can win this cleaner, greener energy future."