White House, business join hands on ‘clean’ vehicle fleets

President Obama is rolling out a new partnership with corporate giants like AT&T, UPS and PepsiCo to reduce their fleets’ oil use with hybrid and electric vehicles, alternative fuels and other steps that trim oil consumption.

Obama will personally tout the “National Clean Fleets Partnership” Friday with a visit to a UPS plant in Maryland, an event that follows his pledge on Wednesday to cut oil imports by one-third by 2025.

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Obama’s second high-profile energy event this week — and other appearances by administration energy officials — signal a White House push to seize control of the issue as rising oil and gasoline prices loom as a political threat.

It’s also the type of program the administration can launch under its existing authorities at a time when Capitol Hill action on energy legislation is a question mark.

Transforming big commercial fleets — which together comprise several million vehicles — provides a major opportunity to cut gasoline and diesel demand, according to the White House and other advocates of alternative vehicles and fuels.

The commitments of five charter companies — AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo, UPS and Verizon — in the Energy Department-run partnership will be announced Friday, the White House said.

“These charter members represent five of the nation’s 10 largest national fleets and collectively own and operate more than 275,000 vehicles. Their planned current and near-term petroleum reduction strategies will account for the deployment of over 20,000 advanced technology vehicles and annual petroleum displacement in excess of 7 million gallons,” the White House said in a summary of the initiative.

The fleets initiative is part of the Energy Department’s Clean Cities program, and the department hopes to bring other companies into the fold.

The White House notes that there are more than three million commercial fleet vehicles on U.S. roads that together used almost four billion gallons of fuel in 2009.

“Fleets, which are typically centrally managed and comprised of a large number of vehicles, offer significant opportunities to reduce fuel use and carbon pollution,” the White House said.

Membership in the clean fleets partnership will have its privileges, according to the White House summary, which notes that companies of all sizes will have opportunities for technical assistance from the Energy Department.

“[The department] has developed a wide range of technical tools to help partner companies navigate the world of alternative fuels and advanced vehicles. A diverse collection of cost calculators, interactive maps, customizable database searches, and mobile applications puts vital information and analysis at fleets’ fingertips,” the White House said.

There are also chances to work with the Energy Department and its national labs on research and development, as well as aid with group purchasing “so that smaller companies work with their larger peers to get the benefits of purchasing advanced vehicles in bulk,” the White House said.

Obama hinted at the fleet effort in his Wednesday energy security speech at Georgetown University, and touted other steps the administration is taking to cut oil demand, including an upcoming proposal for the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks, and continued increases in passenger vehicle standards.

But Obama also warned there are no “quick fixes” on gasoline prices.

Oil prices, at around $107 per barrel, are at their highest level in two-and-a-half years amid violence and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Nationwide gasoline prices are averaging almost $3.62 per gallon, compared to $2.80 at this time last year, according to AAA.