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Old 03-20-2011, 02:12 PM   #1
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Natural Gas Transportation - Why Not?

In light of the natural gas discussion that started up in the "Why does the Media do it" thread, I decided to start a dedicated thread on the topic and help keep the other thread on its intended topic.

I came across this article which does a good job summing up the thread title's question.

In 2009 the United States imported 4.35 billion barrels of oil (63% of its total oil consumption) and as a result sent $265 billion dollars overseas to pay for it. In 2008 when oil reached $150/barrel and gasoline was sold over $4.50/gallon, the US imported 65% of its oil and sent $465 billion dollars overseas. Think of it, nearly half a trillion dollars left the country in 2008 alone for oil. Estimates for the next decade predict the US will send $10 trillion dollars overseas for oil. As Boone Pickens often says, this is without a doubt the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.

As a person whose grandfather pumped Pennsylvania grade crude out of western New York oil fields, I grew up smelling crude oil. I marveled at the ingenuity of the old-timers’ engineering skills to pump oil and gas, gather it, and get it to market. My grandfather remained an independent back in the day when Rockefeller played hardball to drive the independents out of business. It may be surprising to some that I have been such an advocate of natural gas transportation in order to wean ourselves off oil. But what choice do we have? Every US president since Eisenhower has publicly stated the US must reduce foreign oil imports. Yet, in 1970 the US imported only 24% of our oil. At that time this dependence was considered a grave national security problem. Now that our dependence has grown to 65%, it is not only a national security problem of the highest level – it is an economic crisis.

I have made a lot of friends and acquaintances over the years of my natural gas advocacy work. The one common thread we all have, and the question I hear over and over is: why do US policymakers continue to ignore natural gas transportation? Why is such an obvious solution to the nation’s reliance on foreign oil not adopted? Why was none of the stimulus money spent on natural gas transportation infrastructure which would have created millions of good jobs and build an infrastructure that would pay dividends to all Americans for decades to come? Let’s try to answer these very simple questions by briefly looking at every possible angle.

Is There Enough Natural Gas Supply?

When I first started advocating natural gas transportation, the supply question was not so easily answered. However, when I looked at Alaskan and lower-48 natural gas reserves, low cost LNG supplies from a diverse number of sources, and the huge natural gas reserves being discovered worldwide, it looked as though supply would be adequate at least 30-40 years. It certainly seemed a more secure bet than a worldwide oil supply which will have trouble keeping pace with worldwide demand.

Since that time everyone is now quite aware of the shale plays which have been a complete game changer in the energy arena. It is now clear the US has enough domestic natural gas to supply home heating and industrial consumption as well as to replace all dirty coal electrical generation and power half the US car and truck fleet - all of this, for at least 100 years.

Despite a frigid winter and a nat gas rig count that was sharply curtailed in 2008/2009, the US nat gas inventory level is still 7% above the 5 year average. Natural gas supply is a light switch away in the US. The supply question has been answered – US domestic natural gas supplies are abundant.

I wrote a previous article on this topic which goes into much more detail on natural gas supply and demand figures. However, the U.S. shale plays are such a recent game changer, even that article is out-of-date with respect to newer and more positive supply data.

Is NGV Technology Viable?

I often get emails informing me that NGVs don’t work or aren’t powerful enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. NGVs have been around for decades and are a very mature technology. Oil exporting countries such as Brazil and Iran have adopted NGVs as quickly as possible in order to export more oil in the future (no doubt to the US). Both Ford and GM manufacture natural gas cars and trucks yet we cannot buy them in the United States. Westport Innovations (WPRT) has partnered with Cummins Inc (CWI) to produce natural gas engines which are being shipped around the world. The partnership has agreements in place to sell powerful natural gas engines to heavy duty Mack, Daimler, and Volvo trucks. I have exchanged emails with many Honda Civic GX owners who love their cars. Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels Crop (CNLE) has been successful in deploying natural gas fleets around the country. The response has been very positive and enthusiastic. Anyone who tells you NGVs don’t work simply doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Are NGVs Safe?

The most effective scare tactic used by that opposing natural gas transportation is the image of an exploding NGV or an NGV “bomb”. Yet there is not one credible study done by an independent source indicating that NGVs are statistically or significantly more dangerous than are gasoline powered vehicles. The conclusion appears to be that any accident horrific enough to puncture an NGV tank and cause an explosion would have also most likely have killed anyone in a gasoline powered vehicle as well. Also, it should be pointed out that unlike gasoline which spills and coagulates around a wrecked vehicle, natural gas simply vents to the atmosphere and away from the wreck and passengers. Many also seem to be unaware of various engineering techniques employed to address safety hazard in the natural gas refueling and delivery systems in NGVs. The bottom line is this: NGVs are a safe and secure mode of transportation. Ford (F) and GM would not be manufacturing NGVs for sale if they felt they would be subject to safety liability lawsuits. Anyone who tells you NGVs are not a safe and secure method of transportation simply doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Are Natural Gas and NGVs Environmentally Friendly?

The “environmental purists” in the United States are making a crucial environmental policy mistake: they continue to lump the abundant, clean and cheap fossil fuel in the same category as the dirty and expensive fossil fuels (oil and coal). The label “fossil fuel” is proving to be difficult hurdle for them to negotiate with any sense of pragmatism or unbiased logic. According to the EPA, the Honda (HMC) Civic GX natural gas vehicle is the cleanest internal combustion vehicle on the planet.

The Toyota (TM) Camry CNG concept car shown here goes a step further in environmental friendliness by incorporating an electric motor similar to the Prius architecture. There is no plug-in battery recharge required as the natural gas engine recharges the batteries. Thus, this vehicle does not produce toxic coal emissions. I believe this electric/CNG vehicle is the single best transportation solution in existence today. Isn’t it ironic the US government won’t support the vehicle and therefore Toyota won’t manufacture it? Once again we have a fantastic non-oil based vehicle unavailable to US citizens. This is very disturbing.

Here are the facts: NGVs emit 30% less CO2 than do gasoline cars and trucks and 100% less of the toxic smog emissions. Natural gas electrical power generation emits 50% less CO2 and 100% less of the heavy metal toxic fly-ash coal plants are famous for producing. Electric cars built prior to a wind and/or solar infrastructure to recharge them should be viewed as tiny little coal plants travelling down the highway generating CO2 and heavy metal toxic particulates. Were a significant number of coal plants permanently shut down and replaced with natural gas generation, I would certainly have a more favorable view of 100% electric vehicles. For now and the foreseeable future, they are a simply a bad alternative.

Now, there have been some pollution concerns and incidences as a result of shale gas drilling and production. The most serious questions involve possible pollution of aquifers which provide drinking water. However, the fact is over 3.6 million oil and gas wells have been drilled in the U.S. through aquifers that are protected by surface casing with minimal damage to the nation’s drinking water. While no energy industry has a perfect record, there certainly have been no natural gas related pollution cases coming close to the magnitude of the environmental disaster caused by the coal fly-ash release in Kingston, TN or by the Exxon (XOM) Valdez oil spill. Since natural gas adversaries will cling to any fear tactic in order to prevent adoption of natural gas energy policies, it is very important the major shale developers and the natural gas lobby address these environmental concerns by publishing and widely circulating all available data on the pollution impacts of shale drilling – both positive and negative. It is also important for them to work proactively with Congress and state and federal regulators to allay environmental fears and to agree upon a satisfactory regulatory framework in order to move confidently forward. The bottom line is that we know what coal (electric cars) and oil (gasoline and diesel vehicles) will do: more CO2, more toxic particulates, and more pollution of our lakes, rivers, and streams (not to mention our lungs). Natural gas is a clean fuel. It is much cleaner than either coal or oil; it is not even a close contest.

Are NGVs Economical?

NGVs are certainly more economic to operate than are gasoline or diesel powered internal combustion engines. Today, folks in Utah are filling up with CNG for around $1/gallon. In Oklahoma, it’s a little less than $1.50/gallon. Meanwhile gasoline is about $2.50/gallon. In 2008 when gasoline was $4.50/gallon, the savings were even greater.

Today, there is only one NGV available in the U.S.: the Honda Civic GX, and only then if you are lucky enough to live in a state in which Honda offers it and where you have CNG refueling stations. NGV conversion kits are expensive. Yet there is no fundamental reason why NGVs should be more expensive than gasoline powered cars and trucks. All we need is volume and price will take care of itself. Over the long run, NGVs are cheaper to operate, and run much cleaner than gasoline powered cars and trucks – meaning less money will be spent on maintenance related upkeep.

One reason Pickens is so successful converting fleets to run on CNG instead of gasoline is pure and simple economics: NGVs save money for their owners and for fleet operators.

Can I Refuel My NGV?

The “Phill” is a natural gas refueling appliance that can connect to your natural gas line and be hung in your garage. This would allow any American on the natural gas distribution network to refuel their NGV overnight while they sleep. Fuel Systems Solutions (FSYS) bought the “Phill” intellectual property and manufacturing rights from Fuelmaker (the Canadian firm which invented the Phill and is now bankrupt). My sources tell me FSYS is planning on manufacturing the Phill in Italy, a country that is hot on the NGV bandwagon. What a pity such a device is not built in the U.S.A. – a country with such vast supplies of natural gas.

Aside from enlightened states such as Utah, California, and Oklahoma, there is a dearth of CNG refueling stations across the country. However, as I have said many times before, the multi-million mile natural gas pipeline grid in the United States which connects every major metropolitan area and homes where 130,000,000 cars and truck could be refueled in their garages every night is America’s single most competitive economic advantage. There is no other country in the world that comes close to such an evolved natural gas infrastructure. The Chinese would dearly love to own such an advantage and you can make damn sure they would be taking advantage of it instead of letting it sit around under utilized and unleveraged as we are here in America.
The lack of CNG refueling stations is not a technological or economic hurdle. It is a simply a very unwise policy decision by those in Washington, DC.


So there you have it: there are many reasons to adopt natural gas transportation, and no logical reason not to do so. There is plenty of domestic supply. NGVs are a reliable, safe, and mature technology. NGVs are environmentally friendly and a superior solution when compared to electric and gasoline or diesel powered cars and trucks. NGVs are very economical and indeed save money for individual owners and fleet operators. Technology exist today which allows NGV owners to refuel their vehicles at home in their garage. The only impediments are lack of NGV availability and lack of significant CNG refueling stations. However, both of these impediments are a result of unwise policymaking decisions – not any technical or other unsolvable hurdle.
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Old 03-20-2011, 02:12 PM   #2
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IMO, NGV's should really take off as a significant portion of our national fleet of vehicles. That said, I wouldn't suggest it be the only fuel type. I'm an "all the above" person. All the above energy does create infrastructure challenges but I believe we should use gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hybrids, full electrics, and maybe even hydrogen. That way, there's no strain or shortage on any one source. Right now, there's a lot of focus and hype on full electrics, but they are still only going to please a small portion of consumers. 80-100 miles ranges just isn't viable. Plus, they're still much more expensive to make than gasoline or natural gas vehicles.
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