Kiddie Diesel

Can the typically smog-belching diesel engine actually help launder the state’s fouled air? The South Coast Air Quality Management District will deal with that question this week. The issue at hand is whether, as the AQMD proposes, regional school districts must go with the cleanest available technology, or whether, largely for the sake of economy, the diesel engine will continue to power most school buses.

The main proponents of the “clean diesel” alternative happen to be connected to both a major diesel-engine manufacturer and the West‘s major refiner of low-sulfur diesel fuel. Their spokespeople contend that modern technology can, via cleaner fuel and exhaust filters, make a much cleaner diesel engine. While admittedly not as clean as the preferred compressed-natural-gas (CNG) alternative, such engines are substantially cheaper. The industry’s key argument is that the money saved could be used for other educational items.

Others argue that it‘s more than worth the extra cost to save children from the health hazards of diesel pollution -- which include asthma, respiratory infections and, in the long run, an increased risk of cancer.

“’Clean diesel‘ is an oxymoron,” declared Los Angeles Unified school-board member Valerie Fields recently when the board voted against the “green” diesel plan for use of reduced-pollution oil-burning school-bus engines. David Kirsch, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School, said, “We should call it ‘cleaner diesel.’”

Kirsch compared the manufacturer‘s claim to “nuclear scientist Edward Teller’s claim that he could produce a ‘clean’ bomb.”

The AQMD board will vote Friday on proposed Rule 1195, a mandate that would require school-bus fleet operators to opt for compressed natural gas or other cleaner-burning non-diesel engines (and, eventually, fuel cells and electricity, where possible). The AQMD‘s Bill Kelly notes that this is the last step in a process that has already encouraged Southern California operators of public-transit buses and service vehicles to convert to CNG. If the AQMD rule prevails, many feel that the state’s Air Resources Board (ARB) would allocate funds to buy buses with a similar air-quality standard. Last year, after identifying diesel emissions as the source of about 500 cancer cases per million Californians, the ARB proposed a “three-pronged approach” to cleaning up the state‘s 1.2 million diesel engines, which, according to ARB figures, contribute about 28,000 tons of sooty particles per year to the state’s air. But so far, the state agency only seeks cleaner diesel fuels and engines and retrofitting of older engines with particle traps. The “green diesel” forces also support such measures. But as one activist put it, “Why [should] our trash be carried in clean-air vehicles while kids get to breathe diesel?”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the local Coalition for Clean Air support the new rule; they recently conducted a study that suggested that diesel fumes are particularly hazardous to the children who ride in school buses. The hazard increases greatly as the buses age, and most school buses operate for 20 years or more.

The clean, or green, diesel is being touted mostly by two earthy-sounding groups that have sometimes posed as environmentalists. Joined at the hip, the South Coast Clean Air Partnership and its recent offshoot, the Coalition for Books and Buses, are linked to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and International Truck and Engine Corp., a major engine and school-bus-chassis maker. Along with various industrial interests, these associations claim to include 19 AQMD-area school districts. But most of the region‘s 150 districts have taken either no position on clean diesel or they oppose it. The opponents include the largest school district, Los Angeles Unified.

The so-called clean-diesel movement’s core support comes from International (whose stock trades under the name of Navistar) and WSPA member BP Amoco. The first builds the low-emission diesel engine. The second refines low-sulfur fuel for such an engine. But orchestrating their pro-diesel case are two whilom environmental leaders: former clean-ocean activist Bob Sulnick and former Southern California Sierra Club leader (and White House official) Bob Hattoy. Sulnick claimed that “clean diesel . . . is an important tool in the fight for clean air” that “will save millions of dollars for school districts.”

The NRDC‘s senior attorney, Gail Ruderman Feuer, said the contentions are self-serving: “International is the only major diesel maker that doesn’t make a natural-gas engine, and BP is a major producer of low-sulfur fuels. They have the most to gain if the rule is defeated, the most to lose if it passes.”

The Books and Buses group contends that without the no-diesel requirement, districts “will be able to replace a greater number of older, dirtier buses sooner.” Feuer argues that school buses and school books come from completely separate budgets. And according to AQMD spokesman Kelly, districts can now pay for natural-gas buses out of the $50 million special fund the state this year budgeted to clean up school buses and even get state aid for their own CNG fueling stations. (School districts also can buy clean-diesel buses or upgrade their old diesels out of the $50 million fund.)Rule 1195 would also allow districts that cannot secure state-funding assistance or are located too far from natural-gas sources to use clean diesel or even gasoline-powered buses.

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