Could the time be approaching to remember a forgotten fuel?

Earlier that day, US President Barack H. Obama announced more stringent motor fuel efficiency standards. So the automobile and diesel engine manufacturers at the Diesel Technology Forum's May 19 reception felt optimistic.

Their timing was good. Earlier that day, US President Barack H. Obama announced more stringent motor fuel efficiency standards. So the automobile and diesel engine manufacturers at the Diesel Technology Forum's late afternoon reception on May 19 were feeling optimistic.

"People are warming up to the idea that no single technology is going to solve the climate challenge. The economic slowdown is also making them conserve, and diesel fuel fits the bill. The engine is very clean and efficient. It does not require new infrastructure. Diesel is already sold at 42% of the nation's gasoline stations," explained Allen R. Schaeffer, the forum's executive director.

"People could start looking at it now with a sharper eye. It's here and available, plus it can use biofuels. The diesel engine, with some renewable components, can be close to the front of the pack," he told me during the group's Capitol Hill reception.

In congressional hearings, however, it's usually overlooked. The ethanol lobby is stronger. Diesel is mentioned only as biodiesel. When federal lawmakers discuss alternatives to gasoline, diesel is largely a forgotten fuel.

Beyond prices

Occasionally, a savvy energy policymaker will take a closer look. Several US House members stopped by the reception. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) used a Sept. 23 hearing on high diesel prices to consider benefits and issues associated with using the fuel more domestically.

The Federal Trade Commission, in a May 2, 2007, gasoline column at its website, said that ultra-low sulfur diesel's potential benefits are substantial: "greater mileage, less pollution, better cars and health benefits on top. Maybe a diesel car is in your future."

More than two years later, representatives from Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen were at the Cannon House Office Building inviting people to test-drive their diesel passenger vehicles. "We're happy to see them. They've become the face of the business in the US," said Matti Kylamarkula, vice president of US operations for Neste Oil.

'100% sure'

"I'm 100% sure that US consumers will need diesel cars. The alternative as the government attacks global climate change is smaller vehicles, which Americans aren't ready to accept," he told me. Neste already produces a renewable diesel using palm, flax and other vegetable oils, and is building additional refineries in Rotterdam and Singapore, where it could help supply the US, particularly the West Coast.

Diesel already is the dominant US trucking fuel. Domestic engine manufacturers' smallest on-highway models are for three-quarter and one-ton pickup trucks, according to Jeff D. Jones, vice president for sales and market communications at Cummins Inc.

The company expects to crack the light pickup market soon with an engine for a half-ton model it has been researching since the late 1990s. "We're aiming it at work vehicles, where diesel's advantages are greater. The tougher the duty, the better it works in terms of fuel economy, performance, and durability," Jones told me.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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