When gas prices soared after Hurricane Katrina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson looked at the Lincoln Navigator that ferries him around his home state and thought about the message he was sending.
The large sport utility vehicle doesn’t get the best gas mileage — about 15 miles per gallon. So the former U.S. energy secretary decided to switch to a Ford Escape hybrid, which combines gasoline and electric power for twice that mileage.
“You need to practice what you preach,” Richardson said.
Rugged SUVs have been a popular choice for governors on the move, providing plenty of security, extra legroom and space for staff members. But with gas prices hovering near $3 a gallon, some governors are trading in their gas-guzzlers and asking state employees to cut back on unnecessary travel.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been using a white Ford Escape hybrid after Katrina, keeping his Ford Expedition parked when he travels around Tallahassee. The hybrid goes hand-in-hand with Bush’s recent push for alternative fuels.
“It’s kind of hard to be arguing to conserve gasoline when you’re driving around in a Ford Expedition that guzzles it down at a 6- to 8-mile per gallon clip,” Bush said last month.
Ethanol in Midwest
Two Midwest governors, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, are shifting to SUVs that run on E85, a gas-ethanol blend. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne started using an E85 Chevrolet Suburban after helping open a pump for the alternative fuel in Boise.
Pawlenty, who is awaiting a black Chevy Suburban, considered getting a hybrid. He chose an ethanol-powered SUV because he couldn’t find a hybrid large enough to accommodate himself, three family members, security, equipment and staff members.
“Our country has been asleep at the switch on these things,” Pawlenty said. “The basic economics are that the supply of fossil fuels is limited and the demand is outstripping the supply. It’s a recipe for continued crisis if we don’t start changing our ways.”
Maine Gov. John Baldacci, meanwhile, has left the SUV world altogether. He now uses an unmarked sedan such as a Chevrolet Impala instead of a Suburban.
“This is a small, humble step the governor has taken to demonstrate that everyone can take small steps to save energy,” said Baldacci spokesman Lynn Kippax.
Other steps in states
While largely symbolic, the shifting away from large SUVs is part of a broader message of conservation after two major hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast, shutting down oil rigs and refineries.
Georgia was the only state in the nation to suspend its gas tax for a month, saving motorists an estimated 15 cents per gallon.
In Arizona, state Department of Public Safety officers plan to pare back the number of miles they patrol along the highway. Officers have been ordered to trim their driving by 10 percent a month and conduct more enforcement through radar guns on freeway ramps, medians and overpasses.
In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm continues to use an SUV on official business — her family car is an economical Ford Focus — but she has increased the number of gas inspectors to watch out for potential gouging, Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.
Michigan has spent about $2.8 million more on fuel this year for state-owned vehicles and is putting together a task force to look at alternatives to travel for state employees. State workers are encouraged to fill up at state-owned bulk fuel tanks, which save about 6 cents a gallon.
“We’re looking at every penny, every day trying to make sure we’re most efficient,” said Rose Wilson, who manages Michigan’s fleet of 7,500 vehicles for the state Department of Management and Budget.
Hydrogen test, lights off in Florida
In Florida, officials are working to build an infrastructure for hydrogen power near Orlando, where a small fleet of buses and cars are being tested. State workers, meanwhile, are keeping the thermostat set in the low 80s and keeping the lights off to save electricity.
“Today’s the first time I turned the lights on in my office in six weeks,” Alan Bedwell, the deputy secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
In New Mexico, lawmakers convened in special session Thursday to consider nearly $100 million in proposals by the governor to help residents with high gas prices and home heating costs.
Richardson, who has drawn criticism in his home state for speeding in his SUV, said he recently negotiated to get the Escape hybrid, which has an advertised fuel economy of 31 mpg and 36 mpg. He said he hopes to get more energy-efficient vehicles for his security detail.
Many motorists will probably follow his — and other governors’ — lead.
“High gas prices are going to revolutionize the way we drive and move our society to more fuel-efficient vehicles,” Richardson said in an interview. “Unfortunately, it’s taken a crisis of high gas prices to move us in that direction.”