Tulsa Summit pushes ‘compelling’ case for CNG use

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 73 views 

TULSA — With the turmoil in the Middle East and rising prices at the fuel pump, ways to secure cost-effective sources of fuel have been much in question. But a summit held Wednesday in Tulsa, Okla., offered an answer.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is an alternative fuel source touted as superior to oil in every way. The first ever CNG summit in Oklahoma was held at OU’s Schusterman Learning Center, and out of it came a dazzling display of CNG’s powers.

Most importantly to many, CNG is much cheaper than conventional fuel.

The initial price of converting vehicles to CNG may be high, but for many businesses it makes sense. The current cost per gallon of CNG is around $2 (just over half the cost of conventional fuel) so the payback of the initial investment for most high fuel use vehicles is around two years, according to Stephe Yborra, director of market development for NGVAmerica.

Businesses big and small shared their success stories with CNG vehicles at the summit. AT&T with 5,100 and Bennett Steel with 11 natural gas vehicles each testified to the value of the fuel. Slade Willis from AT&T said the costs and environmental impact were low.

Chris Wilson of Bennett Steel offered a more interesting perspective.

“We don’t care even if gasoline costs $3.70 and CNG costs $3.70, cause it’s produced here. Period,” Wilson explained.

Wilson has a point. As Yborra said, “Natural gas is America’s fuel: America’s resource, America’s jobs. Reduced reliance on volatile foreign oil supplies equals energy security.”

That point was repeated often. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin mentioned it in her keynote speech as a primary factor in her endorsement of the fuel. Fallin has been a leader among 13 state governors to seek a CNG plan from the U.S. auto industry.

With $1.2 billion U.S. dollars a day spent on foreign oil, and 98% of the natural gas the U.S. consumes supplied from North America, people such as Wilson and Fallin say CNG is a no-brainer.

Although environmental awareness wasn’t high on many attendee’s agendas — there were scowls when the EPA and global warming were mentioned — CNG reduces greenhouse gas emissions between 20%-29% depending on the vehicle. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program cites alternative fuels such as CNG as essential in the struggle to reduce petroleum usage.

Also, noise pollution is much lower. Yborra shared a story of one elderly New Yorker who wrote a letter, complaining that the newly converted trash vehicles were so quiet that he didn’t know when to take out his trash.

With developing technology, the U.S. can sustain itself for many years — the estimated supply is 115-plus years — on its own natural gas.

At the summit, it became apparent that many car companies were jumping aboard. Although the Honda Civic Natural Gas is the only manufacturer-built natural gas-powered vehicle in the U.S., numerous vehicles can be converted post-production. Many commercial and public vehicles — school buses, trash trucks, transit buses, semis — are making the conversion.

It seems the only downside to CNG is the lack of infrastructure. Which, in all reality, is a huge downside.

But infrastructure is growing. While there are only 1,100 CNG fueling stations in the U.S., there is the potential for 250 new stations to be built in 2012 — mostly by companies looking to reduce fuel costs for their fleets.

Often, these companies will offer their fuel stations to the public, expanding the market for cheap, reliable gas. Traditional fuel retailers such as Kwik Trip and Love’s are expanding their fuel options to include CNG.

Yborra said there are many pockets around the country where public access is more than acceptable — such as Utah, New York, and California. But the hope is, as more companies learn about the benefits of CNG, the amount of fuel stations will grow considerably. Also, some state governments are updating their fleets to CNG, and building stations, which strengthens public accessibility.

If small businesses, such as Bennett Steel, form aggregates for which to purchase a station, or big businesses such as AT&T, build stations accessible to the public, then the environmental, economic, and patriotic benefits of CNG can be realized, proponents argue.