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Gas, Other Clean Vehicles All Face Challenges, Experts Say

Natural gas faces some road hazards on the way to becoming a leading alternative transportation fuel, suggested speakers at a forum Wednesday in Washington, DC.

Environmental, economic and supply considerations all are double-edged for natural gas vehicle (NGV) expansion, according to panelists at the forum, which was held by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

The forum looked at "prospects and challenges" and focused mostly on the latter. The "plus" side for NGVs has mostly come in small increments with its adoption by a number of municipalities and several airports for fleet and ground vehicles and for heavy-duty vehicles. Fleets have been supported in a number of locations in California, notably for use in the Los Angeles port and airport.

Other states have sponsored initiatives. Recently, New Mexico state lawmakers were working on a law to encourage use of CNG in passenger cars, and the Kansas City public schools said the district will switch one-third of its school buses to run on CNG.

And last week the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced it is close to finalizing a $50 million loan to The Vehicle Production Group LLC in Indiana to produce a six-passenger MV-1 compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered vehicle. DOE Secretary Steven Chu touted the loan as helping advance clean vehicle technology.

In federal legislation and administration and lawmaker statements, the references to NGVs are always at the bottom of a long energy to-do list.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee made just such an equivocal reference as part of a lengthy speech on the Senate floor last week that stressed the need for more renewables production and promoted electric vehicles. "We have to make sure that we use natural gas vehicles in as many applications that make sense," Bingaman said, tacking on a passing reminder that "we need to keep drilling" for more oil and natural gas in the United States.

Caley Johnson, a transportation market analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, concentrated on the economics of NGVs, noting that they can have some distinct pump price advantages over gasoline. But he said natural gas in transportation also faces some still-formidable upfront costs for vehicle conversions, infrastructure and other equipment. In general, the incremental or conversion costs for CNG range from an added $7,000 to $50,000, depending on whether a passenger vehicle or a heavy-duty truck is involved, Johnson said.

A researcher involved in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) ongoing study of the future of natural gas, Daniel Cohn, said he and his colleagues have concluded that the use of CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in transportation can "improve energy security, but not efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions." He argued, however, that ethanol has a far greater potential impact in cutting U.S. foreign oil dependence.

"There is a modest impact potential benefit of CNG and LNG in terms of reducing our [foreign] oil use, and this impact is lessened somewhat by economic and operational issues," said Cohn, who added that ethanol holds a "large potential impact" on oil use because of its economic and operational advantages as a liquid, rather than a gaseous, fuel source.

After the presentations, the head of trade association NGV America, Richard Kolodziej, tried to counter Cohn's comments about ethanol by saying it was good in theory, but in practice fleet operators and individual drivers are not embracing the fuel.

"For 100 years we had one fuel for transportation that was both cheap and plentiful -- oil -- and our economy would not be nearly as robust if we didn't have petroleum products," Kolodziej said. "It is not plentiful anymore, and it is certainly not cheap. And now there are other problems such as GHG, dependence on foreign oil and other issues, and all this impacts our military and foreign policies, and shipping $300-400 billion a year [overseas] adversely affects job growth."

Koloziej said the United States now needs to "move away from oil," but the question is, "to what?" And his answer is: "to everything." He contends that there is no single answer to the nation's transportation fuel questions.

Other panelists concentrating on the production side of natural gas did not disagree about NGVs playing a role in alternative transportation fuels, but they threw some cautions into the mix in terms of the environmental issues surrounding shale gas and the longer-term volumes of economically available gas supplies from that source.

Dana Aunkst, acting deputy secretary for field operations in Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, summarized water quality and other environmental aspects of the state's booming Marcellus Shale gas play. Aunkst noted that the state has only been looking closely at the environmental impacts for the last two years, and from his point of view the shale industry "has not fully ramped up yet."

Another industry observer was Lynn Pittinger, a California-based independent engineering consultant, who said based on his work with another consultant, Art Berman, with Labyrinth Consulting Services Inc., he has concluded that the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts of shale gas production during the next 25 years may be overblown by nearly half, given the existing and projected price environment for gas. Thus, Pittinger is skeptical of whether there may be as much gas available for the transportation sector as the EIA and producer forecasts would indicate.

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