Natural gas-fueled vehicles offer the strongest foreign oil-displacement message of all alternative fuels, and while there are only about 120,000 of them on U.S. roads now, they’re a growing force for energy independence and cleaner air, according to Richard Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVAmerica).

Kolodziej told GasMart 2010 attendees in Chicago on Tuesday that five years ago at the annual conference the worry was whether the industry could produce enough gas to meet demand growth. Gas shale plays as well as advances in drilling and well stimulation technologies and practices have made the United States a virtual Saudi Arabia of gas.

“Even Congress understands that now, that we have a lot of natural gas,” Kolodziej said. “We’ve got so much gas now we’ve just got to figure out how to use it.”

More of that gas has to go into the tanks of America’s vehicles, he said.

But not all of them. NGV America is focusing on transportation applications for gas that don’t require a buildout of fueling stations anywhere near on the scale of what exists for gasoline fueling stations. The key is to target heavy-duty vehicles that operate at ports and terminals and can be refueled where they work.

Freight trucks that travel point to point — from Dallas to Houston, for instance — could be refueled at either end of their journey, he said, noting that natural gas is the only real alternative to diesel fuel in heavy-duty trucks. Taxi and bus fleets could be refueled at a single site; the same is true for refuse haulers, cement mixers, dump trucks, etc., Kolodziej said.

Additionally, while cross-country tractor-trailer trucking might not seem like an opportunity for gas, it actually is, Kolodziej said. The trailers carrying goods go across the country, but the tractors often don’t he said. If the tractors travel shorter distances within a particular zone, they could be refueled efficiently with a minimum of refueling infrastructure.

Heavy-duty freight, commercial light-duty trucks and buses represent a potential annual gas demand of 6.04 Tcf, he said.

“We think we have a great opportunity in all these markets,” Kolodziej said.

While the U.S. NGV market is currently small, there are 11.1 million NGVs around the world, which is up from 2.8 million in 2003, according to NGVAmerica. “Around the world natural gas is the fastest growing alternative,” he said.

NGVs produce less less pollution than gasoline and diesel vehicles, Kolodziej said, noting that Honda’s natural gas-fueled Civic has been rated the “greenest car in America” for seven years in a row. NGV greenhouse gas production is 22% less than that of diesel vehicles and 29% less than that of gasoline vehicles, he said. “This is equal to or better than some renewable fuels.” It also rebuts the commonly heard “you-are-a-fossil fuel” argument against gas, he added.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s call to tighten ozone standards will make NGVs more attractive, and air emissions benefits are expected to continue to improve as new technologies become available, he said.

NGVs also could run on a blend of biomethane from landfills and natural gas. Kolodziej called biomethane the “Hamburger Helper” for natural gas. While some gas interests might think of biomethane as a competing fuel, he said it shouldn’t be viewed that way. Vehicles could run on a mix of 10% biomethane and 90% natural gas, increasing their “green” appeal.

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