Reading, Writing and Diesel Exhaust: Jenna Bush on Cleaner School Buses

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 29, 2016

If you’ve been wondering what former First Daughter Jenna Bush has been doing since leaving the White House, how does this sound? She became a teacher, and a mother of two, and now—as Jenna Bush Hager—is working to promote propane school buses.

Jenna Bush takes a propane-fueled school bus ride. (PERC photo)

There are only 11,000 cleaner-burning propane buses carrying kids now, out of 480,000 total (says the American School Bus Council). A total of 650,000 young scholars ride a propane bus daily, in 420 school districts. Sales are up 436 percent since 2012, Jenna told me, and the buses are in 47 states.

Still, most school buses are dirty diesels, so it’s a long slog. But we’re making progress. The City of Boston just bought 86 propane buses, which started on routes this month (and make up 11 percent of the city's fleet).

Boston is using these Bluebird propane buses. Breathe easier! (PERC photo)

Jenna, a spokeswoman for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), tells me:

I want to make the case for propane as a former teacher, and as a mother. I’ve ridden on a school bus or two in my day—including when I taught in D.C. and in west Baltimore. And the old buses I rode in as a teacher were diesels, not much different from the ones I rode in as a kid. And they’re loud and not great for the environment—we all remember standing in clouds of the black smoke they put out. I know our kids’ days start and end on the bus, and it’s really hard for kids to get off on the right foot if they can’t hear themselves talk—if they’re screaming over the diesel engine. It’s really hard for the teachers who are supervising, and also the for drivers. It’s a no brainer—propane buses are safer and better for our environment.

For propane—the same stuff that’s in our backyard barbecues—and other forms of natural gas, it’s been one step forward, one step back, mainly because of constantly changing diesel prices. When diesel was $4 a gallon, there was a foolproof argument in favor of making the switch. And even long-distance truckers were switching to liquefied natural gas (LNG). But gasoline/diesel prices went into freefall.

Reno, Nevada has switched to electric buses (with overhead charging). Plugs work for school buses, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Today, the economic case is harder to make, but not that hard, says Roy Willis, PERC’s president and CEO. He says “propane prices have fallen right along with gas prices. Propane in California now is $1.82 a gallon.” That sounds like a bargain, but keep in mind that propane has only about 75 percent of the energy content of diesel, and the buses are more expensive to buy (but subsidies are available). These days, the fuel is basically a wash, with an edge for propane.

Willis says that Boston has made a big commitment to cleaner school buses, buying the 86 propane units (powered by modified Ford V-10s), plus electric and compressed natural gas (CNG). The propane deal includes mobile fuel delivery—a truck that can refuel two buses at once. Propane refueling is easier than most, since barbecue juice is liquid at near room temperature, and storage is relatively simple. Think that rusty tank behind your neighborhood gas station.

Eleven percent of Boston's fleet is propane, and CNG and electrics also dot the fleet. (PERC photo)

For school buses nationwide, a daily round-trip is 10 to 12 miles a day. That doesn’t tax the ability of electrics, and for smaller propane buses (with the equivalent of 10 or 11 mpg) it means they can run two or three days without refueling.

Electric buses, such as those from California-based Proterra, are making a lot of headway, but Willis claims that propane is the fastest-growing fuel for them. About 2,000 buses were added in 2015. “We’re seeing momentum,” he said, “and it has to do with our aging school bus fleet—an average of 10 years old, with half older than that. The buses targeted for elimination are diesel powered, and both the EPA and the states have programs to get them out of service because of the particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, both of which are harmful to young lungs.”

And how. A Connecticut study reports that school buses transport kids 4.3 billion miles annually, and kids spend three billion hours every year riding them. The feds have designated diesel exhaust as a probable human carcinogen, and benzene—a key component—definitely is. “There is no known safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust for children, especially those with respiratory illness,” the study said.

Worse, a Natural Resources Defense Council study, No Breathing in the Aisles, found:

Levels of diesel exhaust inside the school buses were up to four times higher than those found in passenger cars just ahead of them, and more than eight times what you'd find in the average sample of California air. Scariest of all: The authors estimated that 23 to 46 of every one million children may eventually develop cancer from the diesel exhaust they inhale just while traveling to and from school.

It’s amazing that studies like this exist, but now—as we start another school year—we’re still loading our kids onto diesel school buses. But not, at least, in Boston, if you’re among the lucky group being served by propane, electrics or CNGs. “These new Blue Bird Propane Visions mean many students will no longer be exposed to diesel fumes when boarding or disembarking our buses,” said Peter Crossan, fleet manager for Boston Public Schools’ transportation. He said the schools expect to save $1 per gallon on fuel with the new buses, and that ain’t hay.

Back to Jenna Bush. “Propane fleets are expanding, but it takes time for parents to learn about the importance of making this change, and becoming advocates for it.”

And here's Boston's Peter Crossan on why the city made the switch:

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