Wyoming should take the lead in using CNG

 

Wyoming is one of the largest natural-gas producing states, so why isn't the state leading the nation in powering vehicles with this abundant fuel? If the price of gasoline stays high and a natural gas-powered car can run on $1-to-$1.25 per gallon-equivalent cost, however, I think we'll see the light: We'll understand that it makes economic sense for us to develop cars that run on natural gas.

The state could help in a variety of ways: It could give a subsidy or tax break to companies that put in natural gas stations. It could reward the car dealers that sell  -- and the consumers who buy -- CNG cars, as the vehicles are called for their use of compressed natural gas.

With all the talk across the country about the proliferation of hybrid cars and even the re-appearance of all-electric cars, it's past time for natural gas-rich Wyoming to jump into the energy fray and jump-start this technology.

Not surprisingly, there are problems to solve first. One of the biggest has been the lack of fueling stations. Wyoming could pioneer the stations, but in the meantime, a Canadian company has developed a system where you can re-fuel your car overnight using your own system in your garage at home. It is admittedly a slow process; the gas must be pumped at 3,600 pounds per square inch in order to become compressed and fit in the tank. Other downsides are that during extremely cold weather, CNG efficiency suffers, and in small CNG cars the tank pretty much wipes out the trunk space.               

Yet already, CNG vehicles have won a host of champions. One of the biggest is T. Boone Pickens, the legendary Texas oilman. Nowadays, he's promoting natural gas-powered cars, wind turbines and oil sands. He knows that we don't produce enough oil to sustain our needs even though we know we need to cut down on imported oil. This year we're sending $700 billion out of the country to feed our oil addiction. Switching to natural gas means that less oil needs to be imported.

Wyoming's next-door neighbor, Utah, is already a big booster of CNG vehicles. It has promoted the construction of 749 special service stations featuring the fuel, and more than 100 Utah businesses and government agencies are now using vehicles powered by compressed natural gas.

One of my coffee buddies was telling me about his son-in-law, who lives in Brigham City, Utah, and commutes 144 miles a day to his job in Magna. He says the fellow expects to save many thousands of dollars a year when he takes delivery of a Honda Civic GX car later this month. This is the car the EPA calls “the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle in the world.” It burns compressed natural gas, unlike the gas-guzzling Toyota Sequoia he had been driving.

Honda has been making these CNG cars for some time; in fact, there are about 142,000 natural gas-powered vehicles in this country today and over 8 million worldwide. The technology is proven and works particularly well for big-city buses.

But do these cars save money? Airline pilot Jeff Church of Los Angeles says they do. He put 53,000 miles on his 2003 model, and with his home unit, he says, he only pays 98 cents per gallon for fuel. He boasts that it's the perfect vehicle for folks who drive a lot of miles.

Last time I checked, Wyoming people drive more miles per capita than just about anyone in the country. And big pickups and SUVS probably outnumber cars in our state.  Any way to lower the costs of these gas-wasters would be mighty appreciated. We need to get on this bandwagon soon. T. Boone Pickens, already on board, is no dummy. He believes in wind, and we know that Wyoming is just as windy as his West Texas. He also believes in natural gas, and Wyoming has natural gas in spades. If this technology can be made to work in our cool, high-altitude climate, Wyoming could lead the nation in converting to an alternative-energy system of compressed natural gas.

Bill Sniffin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a longtime reporter and columnist in Lander, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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