One of the dirtiest jobs in Howard and Anne Arundel counties could soon be one of the cleanest for the atmosphere.
The neighboring jurisdictions plan to establish the state's first natural-gas fueling station for trash trucks and have applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for $600,000 in grant money to help haulers switch to alternative-fuel vehicles.
Officials hope the change could help the counties fend off the skyrocketing price of diesel fuel while cutting down on the emission of greenhouse gases.
"Using clean, environmentally friendly fuels in this area could have tremendous benefits to county government operation and the health of our environment, particularly the Chesapeake Bay," said Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who recently scrapped the county's take-home police car program to save money on fuel costs. "It's the ongoing and continuing search for efficiency that hopefully would be environmentally friendly at the same time."
Natural-gas trash trucks have been in service in California since 1997, said Brandon Bloodworth, the regional account manager for Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company proposing to build the shared fueling station in Jessup. Bloodworth said such programs are just starting to make financial sense and generate "political will" on the East Coast.
"The haulers are paying less for fuel, the county is getting hit with less surcharge, and the people are getting cleaner air and pay less in taxes," he said. "It's cleaner, it's domestic and it reduces our dependency on foreign oil."
Clean Energy, which operates about 180 natural gas stations across the country, including the one that fuels natural gas-powered buses at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, was founded by T. Boone Pickens, a former oil mogul turned green warrior who launched a nationwide clean energy campaign last week that centers on a plan to exploit the country's "wind corridor" by building a nearly continuous wind farm.
The Texas billionaire believes wind energy will free up natural gas for conversion into transportation fuel, and Texas officials approved yesterday launching the network there.
Bloodworth said the newest natural gas station in Maryland is "where the rubber meets the road" for Pickens' strategy, and Clean Energy plans to put up more than $1 million to build the facility, hoping that the county governments will hire it to hook the station to existing pipelines, compress the gas into a usable form and dispense it to contractors.
"It'll look like a regular gas station but with a different nozzle," Bloodworth said.
There are 15 natural gas stations in Maryland, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site. This project would be the first to be used to fuel garbage trucks, said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The money saved by using natural gas instead of diesel fuel would be significant.
The latest Clean Cities Alternative Price Report, which is issued quarterly by a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, says the average price for a gallon of diesel in the Mid-Atlantic region was $4.35 in April, compared with $2.78 for the equivalent amount of energy in natural gas.
"For the same amount of energy, oil is selling for about twice what natural gas is," said John C. Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute.
While the price of regular gasoline has soared in recent years, diesel prices have shot up even more. The average price for a gallon of diesel fuel in the U.S. jumped from $1.32 in 2002 to $2.89 last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
It reached $4.68 in June, a jump of 66 percent over the corresponding month last year. The price of a gallon of regular gasoline, by comparison, has risen 33 percent over the period, to an average of $4.05 in June.
The environmental benefits of converting county trash truck fleets to natural gas can be harder to pinpoint, said Jim Blubaugh, director of the EPA's national clean-diesel campaign. Newer diesel engines, he said, are as eco-friendly as those using natural gas.
"Heavy-duty engines coming off the assembly line today are meeting the EPA's tightest emission standards ever," Blubaugh said. "There are a number of strategies for reducing emissions from an older diesel fleet. Converting to clean natural gas is certainly one way to go."
Anne Arundel County requires its contractors to buy new vehicles on signing a new contract, but in Howard County many of the trucks are older and cause more pollution, said Evelyn Tomlin, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services in Howard County.
Both counties have signed on to an application seeking the $600,000 grant from the EPA's National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program.
The money would go to contractors to offset the cost of buying the new natural gas trucks, which can cost upward of $50,000 more than diesel trucks, said Bloodworth, who said the average diesel truck costs $175,000. Converting a diesel truck to natural gas costs at least $50,000, Bloodworth said.
The incentive for local companies to make the switch, government officials said, is that the drop-off in fuel costs would allow them to undercut competitors during the bidding process.
James J. Pittman, deputy director for Anne Arundel Waste Management Services, said the county will "probably be putting a preference" on signing contracts with companies that change to natural gas.
That might not sit well with some haulers who will have to buy the new vehicles, though seven companies with contracts in Anne Arundel and Howard counties did not return phone calls or declined to comment.
Bloodworth said he expects some resistance.
"It's a change of thinking, and people are resistant to change," Bloodworth said. "Eventually, they will find out that the trucks are 80 percent quieter, the garbagemen don't come home smelling like diesel, and the owners save money on fuel."