A cornerstone of the much-promoted plan by oil and gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens to relieve American dependence on foreign oil and combat climate change calls for natural gas to be widely used as a transportation fuel, particularly by the long-haul trucking industry. However, cost, infrastructure and logistics challenges make such a goal highly problematic, according to trade group American Trucking Associations (ATA).

During a press briefing last Wednesday to promote a clean energy conference in Washington, DC, that’s being held on Monday, Pickens touted natural gas as the only viable alternative to the diesel fuel that powers America’s trucking industry today.

“[N]atural gas is the only thing that’s going to move an 18-wheeler,” Pickens told reporters. “You cannot move an 18-wheeler with a battery. The weight of the battery would be absolutely out of the question. The only fuel in America that moves that 18-wheeler is natural gas. And we have an abundance of it…and we’re crazy if we don’t move in and take this wonderful opportunity for the country to use the natural gas for transportation fuel.”

Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) power some vehicles today (see NGI, Dec. 1, 2008). And ATA readily allows that CNG is suitable for shorter-range applications while LNG may be viable for some other trucking applications. But it’s not practical to changeover several hundred thousand of America’s millions of diesel-fueled 18-wheelers, as Pickens advocates, for a number of reasons, ATA says.

The long-haul 18-wheelers motorists see on the nation’s highways and turnpikes would have to be fueled with LNG as CNG doesn’t offer an adequate energy density. An engine for such a truck capable of running on LNG would cost $40,000-90,000 more than a comparable diesel engine, Richard Moskowitz, ATA regulatory affairs counsel, told NGI.

“On top of that there is what you would call a fuel-economy penalty,” he said. “Liquefied natural gas has the same energy content as diesel only when you increase its volume. So you need 1.67 gallons of liquefied natural gas to have the same energy content as a gallon of diesel fuel.” And further there is a fuel economy penalty with LNG. While a diesel truck might get six miles per gallon, a comparable LNG truck would get about 3.6 miles per gallon, Moskowitz said. Natural gas is cheaper than diesel today — but not enough to make up for the higher engine cost — and it might not always be cheaper than diesel.

While a diesel truck with a 300-gallon tank would be able to go about 1,800 miles, an LNG-fueled truck with two 119-gallon tanks would have a range of about 850 miles. “There’s a cost associated with refueling because it’s downtime,” Moskowitz said. And the LNG truck’s tanks can weigh 500 pounds each. “It’s like a giant Thermos bottle and it weighs an incredible amount, so there’s a weight penalty associated with the LNG technology.”

LNG-fueled trucks offer other cost challenges in the retraining of diesel mechanics and outfitting of garages with methane detection and evacuation equipment.

But the biggest challenge to a large-scale rollout of a LNG-fueled 18-wheeler fleet is refueling. Currently there is no standardization, so trucks require specialized refueling with their own particular LNG temperatures and pressures. “Let’s assume that we build out infrastructure and we standardize everything, then you get the cost of building out that infrastructure, which is enormous,” said Moskowitz.

Refueling stations could take pipeline gas and liquefy it on site or buy trucked-in cargoes of LNG. “It’s a very, very, very expensive proposition to build these stations,” Moskowitz said. “We have one member that spent $800,000 on what they call a fast-fuel refueling station, a station that’s capable of refueling liquefied natural gas in about the same time it would take to refuel diesel fuel; two trucks simultaneously, $800,000.”

And then there’s the need for competition unless the government is willing to impose price caps on LNG sold at refueling stations.

“The Pickens Plan doesn’t talk about competitive refueling. It’s one thing to go and put a station on key freight corridors…[D]iesel fuel at the retail level has always been competitively priced. So when we talk about building out infrastructure, we can’t just be myopically focused on is there a place to refuel every x-hundred miles along key freight corridors…You have to remember that you have to have more than one refueling station and they have to be owned by different people or else you’re going to have monopolistic pricing of that fuel, and that’s going to disadvantage the consumer,” Moskowitz said.

The Pickens Plan, which was introduced last year (see NGI, July 14, 2008) contains three steps:

On Wednesday Pickens talked up his plan along with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who said the goal is to start fueling 400,000 18-wheelers with natural gas immediately. Pickens said he didn’t think it would be necessary to “incent” truckers to make the switch as the lower price of natural gas would offset the cost of more expensive engines.

“You get a cleaner emission and it is our fuel,” Pickens said. “And it is our fuel. So incent only the number you need to develop the model and you will be up to scale at that point where you won’t have to incent beyond that.”

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