As gasoline pump prices continue to soar, proponents for more natural gas use as a transportation fuel are popping up around the nation, using environmental and economic drivers to promote their cause. Cities including Chicago and gas-rich states like Texas and Wyoming are getting in on the act.

With 110,000 natural gas vehicles (NGV) in the United States (12 million globally) and about 1,000 U.S. fueling stations, advocates including an NGV trade association are looking for growth in niche markets and in the numbers of fueling stations that have access for the general public. Chicago has an areawide alternative fuels program that has latched on to the Department of Energy's (DOE)-sponsored Clean Cities program.

"We're seeing the vehicle numbers grow, and we're seeing growth coming in the number of stations with public access," according to a spokesperson for Washington, DC-based NGV America, who said there is still increased competition from other clean fuel alternatives for some segments of the fleet market. "As soon as you get the public fueling, you get more and more fleets coming in. Hopefully as this year goes on we will see more and more fleets coming onboard. We're seeing certain sectors growing faster and those are typically the heavy-duty vehicles."

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently set statewide goals for increasing natural gas in both power generation and transportation, noting that the two in combination could push up Texas gas demand by 1-1.25 Bcf/d -- about a 33% jump in overall gas consumption in the nation's largest gas-consuming state.

Similarly in Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill (HB 235) authorizing the state transportation department to construct and operate publicly accessible NGV fueling stations, while setting regulations for the retrofit of NGVs and allowing natural gas conversions of state vehicles.

In Florida, the Tampa International Airport announced Tuesday that it was expanding a compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling facility under a lease and construction agreement with Seal Beach, CA-based Clean Energy Fuels Inc.

With $15 million in DOE Clean Cities grant money, Chicago is working with Clean Energy, Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and Groot Industries, Illinois' largest solid waste management services company, in an effort that will involve the addition of what the local backers call record numbers of NGVs going into existing fleets at Groot, the city of Chicago and elsewhere.

GTI helped Groot secure another 20 CNG refuse trucks for its fleet last year using Clean Cities grants. Through a separate grant, the refuse hauler added 13 other NGVs, said a spokesperson for the Chicago Area Clean Cities Coalition. Groot had earlier constructed its own CNG refueling station.

Calling natural gas a cheaper alternative, Groot fleet and facilities Director Brian Curry said the alternative fuel also is "domestic and complies with new emission requirements without the need to install complex exhaust after-treatment devices."

GTI has helped provide grants to other companies in Chicago, including Waste Management and bulk-food carrier Foodliner.

As the largest supplier of natural gas for transportation in the nation, Clean Energy is working with GTI to expand the NGV market by establishing two new fueling stations in the Chicago area. It is doing the development for Tax Medallion Management, a Chicago company that recently bought 38 NGVs for its taxicab fleet.

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