Maryland's Fleet Management Office is trying to put the brakes on state agencies' love affair with sport-utility vehicles.

When the state recently tallied its 8,648 vehicles, it found that about 1,000 were SUVs. By comparison, the state only had 463 vehicles that run on cleaner, alternative fuels.

As agencies shop for 2003 vehicles, fleet management is discouraging purchases of the gas-guzzlers unless they are absolutely necessary for the job.

"You take an agency that maybe says they need a four-wheel-drive and wants an SUV," said fleet and travel administrator Larry M. Williams. "We say maybe they could make do with a pickup truck."

The state is having some success: While Maryland bought 95 SUVs in 2002, it has ordered 78 this year.

"Now people know that unless you have a legit requirement for it, don't bother asking for it," Williams said. "We don't want [agencies] to have them just because so many people have fallen in love with SUVs."

His office instead pushes alternative-fuel vehicles that run on ethanol, methanol or natural gas. The federal government requires government agencies to run a portion of their fleets on such fuels.

This year, the state also added a gas-electric hybrid car to its list of greener vehicle options. Gas-electric cars have been available in the United States since late 1999, but it was not until the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid made it through Maryland's bidding process that such a car was available to state agencies, Williams said.

The hybrid Civic gets more than 45 miles per gallon and releases about four tons of greenhouse gases per 15,000 miles, while the 2003 four-wheel drive Ford Explorer gets less than 20 mpg and emits 11.6 tons of greenhouse gases per 15,000 miles, according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates.

"We want to encourage the agencies that can afford them to buy them," Williams said. "But they're more expensive, about $9,000 more [than standard cars]."

Given the price difference, Richard Falknor of the Maryland Taxpayers Association said that the state should not let fuel efficiency and emission rates drive its purchasing, since both hybrids and SUVs meet federal emissions requirements.

"There are a number of factors to consider besides using state vehicle procurement as an environmental laboratory," Falknor said.

But the departments of the Environment and of Natural Resources have already ordered hybrid gas-electric cars.

The Department of the Environment will add two hybrids to its fleet of about 300 vehicles, one-third of which are SUVs, said department spokesman Richard McIntire.

"We have been reducing the number of SUVs we have. What we've been replacing them with is four-wheel drive pickups that are gasoline powered," he said.

Former Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox said he tried to get the first hybrid for state government when he got his Cabinet job in 2001, but the cars were not yet on the state's purchase list.

"I'm delighted to hear that the state has authorized the purchase of hybrids," said Fox, who left office when Gov. Robert Ehrlich was sworn in this month. "And no, I don't have any stock in Toyota or Honda."

He looks forward to the day, in the not-too-distant future, when the department can buy cars powered by fuel cells, which give off no pollution.

"This is not quite Star Trek stuff," Fox said. "But it's probably 10 to 15 years away."

But while it is buying its first hybrid this year, DNR will also add another 19 SUVs to its fleet, said department spokesman John Surrick. He said the offices buying the big cars "need that type of capability" for transporting people.

But he noted that these SUVs will run on ethanol or methanol, making them somewhat more Earth-friendly.