With all this natural gas, who needs oil?
It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy.
(Page 3 of 7)
While filling up at the new CNG pump at a Gulf station at Newark Airport, he says other truckers have ribbed him about his green Peterbilt cab with the flowers painted on it. But he likes it. "It's cleaner burning. There's no smell. You don't get the diesel on you. It's nice," says the New Jersey garbage collector. "And I'm contributing to the environment, so why not?"Skip to next paragraph
Transportation may be the key frontier natural gas will have to conquer if it is going to dramatically change America's energy future. Traditionally, changing people's driving habits – convincing them of the virtues of alternative-fuel vehicles – is not an easy task. Just look at how many electric vehicles are on the road today, after years of promised "revolutions."
Yet natural gas vehicles are catching on, particularly in the one area where alternative-fuel experimentation usually starts – trucks and commercial fleets. Last year, almost 40 percent of the trash-hauling trucks and 25 percent of the transit buses purchased in the US were fueled by natural gas, according to NGVAmerica, a trade group in Washington. During the past few years, billions of dollars have been invested in infrastructure such as wells, pipelines, and natural gas fueling stations, to support them.
On car lots, the new Honda Civic Natural Gas Vehicle, now available in 38 states, is selling briskly. Chrysler has sped up development of CNG medium- and light-duty trucks; the bifuel vehicles will be available later this year. General Motors will be offering NGV trucks in 2012 as well.
Still, no one should necessarily rush out and trade in their conventional Malibu or Mountaineer just yet. Overall, 112,000 natural gas vehicles now ply US roadways, which represents less than 1 percent of the country's total vehicle fleet. One problem remains setting up the network of fueling depots that can support a growing fleet of CNG vehicles.
Currently, only 1,100 natural gas fueling stations exist like the one at Newark's Airport Plaza where Mr. Nastro was gassing up. About half of those are public. The rest are operated by trucking companies and other large fleet operators. Compare that with the estimated 150,000 gasoline stations that dot intersections in almost every town in America.
There's also the hard reality of history. In the 1990s, many large fleet operators invested millions of dollars and shifted to natural gas because of its lower price and environmental advantages. Then came hurricanes Rita and Katrina, which knocked out some vital natural gas pipelines. Soon afterward, analysts raised fears that domestic natural gas supplies were being depleted. Prices soared. Many fleet operators shifted back to diesel.
Still, advocates believe the shale gas revolution has fundamentally changed the energy landscape. This time, they argue, using domestic gas for transportation is a viable and stable option. "It's not just the abundance of the shale gas; it's the geographic diversity," says Kathryn Clay of America's National Gas Alliance in Washington. "With new parts of the country becoming players, we're not going to suffer from bottlenecks in the interstate pipelines."
Such arguments are convincing more gasoline station owners to consider adding natural gas to their fuel mix. Clean Energy, the nation's largest natural gas supplier to the transportation sector, is in the process of building 150 liquefied natural gas stations at 250-mile intervals along highways from Los Angeles to New York. The goal is to encourage long-haul truckers to shift from diesel to the cheaper, cleaner fuel.