Natural-gas powered cars: So near, yet so far away

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

They’re called the cleanest internal-combustion vehicles on Earth by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Compressed natural gas vehicles produce 97 percent less carbon monoxide and 25 percent less carbon dioxide than traditional automobiles. CNGs produce few toxic or carcinogenic pollutants, little to no particulate matter and no evaporative emissions.

A roughneck works on an oil and natural gas rig north of Fort Collins.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gases and toxins, CNGs are light years ahead of anything else in today’s transportation fleet.

There is a problem, however. The Honda Civic GX is the only production CNG vehicle currently available in the United States.

Although more CNGs on America’s roadways would help clean the air and reduce global warming, the many hurdles that are unlikely to be overcome are apt to keep them from replacing very many internal combustion vehicles anytime soon.

Except, perhaps, in Colorado.

Because the state’s abundant natural gas reserves make up as much as 7 percent of the nation’s total supply and the willingness of legislative leaders to be in the forefront of the new energy wave, CNG automobiles may show up on interstates 25 and 70 before they turn up on the New Jersey Turnpike or the Pacific Coast Highway.

Not that the transition will be easy — even here.

The hurdles

The obstacles that must be overcome before Coloradans are commuting around nearly pollution-free are immense.

Unlike some areas of the world, the United States has not welcomed the idea of using natural gas to power vehicles. Worldwide, there are 5 million CNG vehicles, according to the EPA. However, only 150,000 — or 3 percent — are in America.

Only a fraction of the natural gas mined in the United States, around 2 percent, is used for transportation purposes. And, other than the Honda Civic GX, there are no consumer CNG vehicles available for purchase at local dealerships. Furthermore, American automakers have put a majority of their research and development capacity in recent years into developing the ultimate electric car.

That approach doesn’t make sense to Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver.

“We have been smart enough to say that we need more nuclear, more solar, more wind, more distributive generation as we move forward,” Romer said to a group of automobile industry leaders last month in Denver.

“We are going to need many different types of ways to be cleaner and smarter when it comes to energy for transportation, and many of my friends on the (Democratic side of the aisle) have skipped over to the electric car,” Romer continued.

“Although I see some possibility for electric cars in a commuter sense, there is no way that we are going to go to electric delivery trucks, and there is no way that somebody from Sterling is going to commute to Denver once a week in an electric vehicle.”

Despite the advantages of electric cars — less air pollution, a mileage range similar to that of gasoline cars — the technology has its downsides. Without large increases in the capacity of battery cells, electric cars will continue to require long recharge times during which the vehicle cannot be driven.

Electric cars also are extraordinarily expensive to repair and are inefficient for long-haul trucking.

When Thomas Nieman, vice president of marketing of Ford Motor Company, was asked before last month’s Denver Auto Show if domestic automakers see a market for CNG automobiles developing, he said that would be possible, but unlikely without major government backing.

“As we look at an energy portfolio and you look at energy diversification, certainly CNG is in there,” Nieman said, adding that Ford has produced CNG prototypes in the past.

“But, again, it’s the challenge of policy and infrastructure,” he continued. “At some point, we need some policy and purchasing direction from the government to help us understand where we are going. I think if we saw that direction from the government, though, that CNG would be a very viable option.”

Ford currently is focusing its resources on developing an electric car and is not actively exploring CNG capabilities.

Despite the shortcomings of electric car technology, the cars do have one major advantage that CNGs do not: They can be refueled at any available electrical outlet.

CNGs, however, would require the same sort of massive and expensive infrastructure overhaul that has hobbled the distribution of E-85 ethanol fuel.

With the support of Gov. Bill Ritter and with tax incentives offered at both the federal and state level, Colorado gas station owners have begun the push to install E-85 pumps at select stations around the state. And, indeed, the effort has increased the number of pumps from less than 10 two years ago to more than 130 today.

Still, that’s not many, compared to the total number of filling stations statewide, and many owners of E-85 fuel-ready cars admit to filling up with gasoline most of the time.

Grand Junction Republican and Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry said the large infrastructure barrier should not be a reason to look the other way, though.

Penry, who represents a district where natural gas extraction powers the economy, said he has been in talks with Romer and other legislative leaders to discuss the possibility of state government giving “a nudge” to industry players to help move the possibility of CNGs forward.

“We think if we can incentivise the expansion and creation of some of these refueling stations and be able to offer tax credits to residents who buy a CNG, the economics would make sense for this state,” Penry said. “And, in the long term, we would have clean-burning automobiles powered by a fuel that Colorado has an abundant supply to offer.”

A Colorado government nudge

Colorado’s abundant supply of natural gas makes it seem the perfect testing ground for exploration of CNG technology, Penry said.

Unlike other areas where natural gas must be transported in at great cost, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region export the clean burning fuel.

In addition, Penry said, if Colorado were to join with Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — all large natural gas producers — and guarantee automakers the demand for CNG cars, there might be more incentive for domestic producers to carry out the research and development for a CNG line.

Romer agrees.

“It’s very different for states that don’t have an excess of embedded fuel,” Romer said. “For us to use a strategic decision to use this fuel is a huge environmental and economical decision. I can understand why this wouldn’t be a great strategy for California, but, for us, this would be a great strategy for the state of Colorado.”

Romer and Penry said they are looking at a possible omnibus natural gas package that would address many issues concerning transportation, including expanded state tax credits for residents who purchase a CNG and for filling stations that retrofit a pump.

But, the legislation could hit hard times.

Democrats and environmentalists have previously balked at increasing drilling rigs, and, according to industry officials, this year’s new regulations will make it more expensive to get at the state’s natural gas reserves.

Romer, who voted for the new drilling regulations earlier this year, said the environmental lobby should be willing to compromise, even if only to make CNG a plausible bridge to other cleaner burning fuels.

“We need the environmental community to meet us half way,” Romer said. “We need this fuel as a bridge to help us run our trucks and fleets because we are not going to have an electric system run our fleet vehicles.”

Some environmentalists agree with Romer.

Although Environment Colorado sees electric vehicles working on a clean energy grid as the end goal, because natural gas is cleaner than gasoline, it has a place in a short-term solution.

“Natural gas car emissions are much lower than gasoline, and for that reason, we support it as an interim step,” said Pam Kiely, director of legislative affairs for Environment Colorado, adding that electric motors for fleet vehicles aren’t realistic in the long-term, let alone the short-term.

“The question of whether it will cause drilling rates to increase in Colorado, though, is unanswered,” Kiely continued. “I would hope that the market potential would be very small and not require expanding drill pads.”

Not everyone sees natural gas a bridge fuel though.

When asked by The Colorado Statesman this week if he sees natural gas as part of Colorado’s new energy portfolio with regard to transportation, Gov. Bill Ritter said “Yes.”

“I don’t talk about natural gas as a bridge fuel, I talk about it as a cleaner burning fuel of the future,” Ritter said. “To the extent that it is cleaner burning, I think we have to find all the ways that we can utilize it — not just in our fleets, but in our homes, in our buildings and in ways that we can use it to supplant solar and wind power. It’s a fuel that is a part of our future. It really is.”

Well, at least some Colorado lawmakers hope it will be.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com