Should we drive on natural gas?

What would it mean to convert most of our vehicles to run on compressed natural gas? The question crossed my mind after reading a release announcing that Chesapeake Energy, the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., is promoting a switch to compressed natural gas as the primary fuel for ground transportation.

“Recent large discoveries using new technologies in natural gas shale basins such as the Barnett, Haynesville, Fayetteville, Woodford and Marcellus have provided new evidence that our country has ample natural gas supplies to power America’s economy for more than a century,” writes Chesapeake’s CEO, Aubrey McClendon.

Today, there is only one CNG-fueled vehicle sold in the United States, the Honda Civic GX, though Ford and GM both make CNG vehicles and sell them internationally. Compared with gasoline-powered cars, the emissions from CNG vehicles are somewhere between 20% and 40% less, depending on the assumptions made in calculating it. That puts CNG on par with ethanol as a fuel, which means, in short, that it’s not an environmental silver bullet. But fossil fuels are likely to maintain some chunk of the energy pie for the next several decades, and at least natural gas burns much, much more cleanly than gasoline, which might carry some weight in the smog cities of southern California. And let’s not forget that most hybrid electric and plug-in electric vehicles are recharged by coal-fired power plants.

T. Boone Pickens has been a vocal promoter of using natural gas for transportation. Once his vision of wind energy powering the electric grid has been realized, natural gas will be freed up from its current use in power plants to fill up fuel tanks in vehicles—or so goes the Pickens logic. So…. it’s locally available, it burns cleanly, and it’s cheaper than gasoline. But natural gas extraction is still a disruptive process involving lots of drilling and transporting, and there’s a long-standing shortage of CNG vehicles. And I wonder, could greater use of natural gas delay the onset of a truly clean transportation sector? Which is not to say that anyone really knows what clean transport would look like. I tend to believe that whatever’s cheapest will dominate the markets, and with a few alterations (more refueling stations) and an influx of natural gas-ready vehicles, CNG could become the dominant fuel driving us down our highways.

Lots more data and details in this post, and in this Popular Science article, the challenge of finding filling stations stresses out the magazine’s road-tripping editors. And as the Wall Street Journal points out, for all the buzz about ethanol and gas alternatives, the U.S. trails Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Pakistan in moving to natural-gas vehicles. Indeed, Iran has new legislation out this summer mandating that 60% of new passenger vehicles run on natural gas.


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