Peak oil. Global warming. Clean coal. Billions of dollars being sent overseas to unstable, unfriendly countries. Oil spills. Greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon footprint.
What if the solution to all of these “problems” is staring us in the face? What if our congressional leaders, our president and his staff have all been briefed on the answers and have just chosen to ignore it? The solution is indeed right under our noses, but we are too set in our ways to change or too stubborn to notice We absolutely have the answer to all of these questions and problems; the only remaining question is what are we going to do about it?
The answer is natural gas.
Natural gas is not a new fuel source. In fact, around 500 BC natural gas springs were fitted with bamboo pipes to transport the gas for use in making seawater drinkable. Over the past century, natural gas has become much more important in the fuel market. More than 25 percent of the energy consumed in America consists of natural gas. It is used in homes across the country for hot water heaters, stoves and has even replaced wood in artificial, natural gas fireplaces. Natural gas also plays a major role as a power source for generators at electrical plants and is also a major feedstock for many chemical and manufacturing plants.
However, natural gas continually has problems. The first problem is supply. In the early 1980s, a major campaign was launched pushing compressed natural gas and natural gas vehicles. Stations were built across the country as cars rolled off the assembly line, yet it never caught on. Part of the problem is obvious: The U.S.’ transportation network is massive, and getting people to adopt a new fuel will cost millions of dollars for advertising and education. The second and much larger problem is that most experts estimate that the U.S. has only about nine years worth of natural gas supply remaining. Finally, the problem of the chicken or the egg scenario. Though stations were being built, they were not widespread enough for people to travel across the country. Why buy a car when you cannot fuel it, and why build a station no one will use?
While we have made many large discoveries in the Gulf and elsewhere, there were not any game-changing discoveries until the advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. When these two technologies are combined, geologic formations are cracked open, and unbelievable amounts of natural gas flow through the well. These geologic formations, or shale plays, have taken control of the oil and gas landscape in the U.S. The first shale play was the 1999 Barnett Shale. It is estimated to have 30 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. In the 1990s the U.S. had approximately 170 tcf of natural gas in reserve. The Barnett Shale alone increased the U.S. reserves by 20 percent.
Since Barnett, shale plays have been popping up all across the U.S. — Haynesville, Fayetteville, Woodford, Eagle Ford, and Marcellus. The Haynesville Shale is the most productive and largest of the shales discovered so far. Some estimate that it is the fourth largest natural gas discovery in the world. Also, some estimates put the reserves of the Haynesville at 250 tcf. When combined with the additional known shale plays, these reserves make the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of natural gas. Without discovering any new shale plays, many estimate that we now have over 100 years of natural gas reserves.
Now that we have adequate supply, we must address the problem of the chicken or the egg. Pakistan currently has in excess of 20 million natural gas vehicles, approximately 20 percent of the world’s NGVs. The solution is to approach both the chicken and the egg at the same time. The American consumer has been very slow to adapt CNG and NGV over the past 20 years. Why spend millions trying to convince them to trade in their gasoline-powered cars for natural gas vehicles? However, natural gas vehicles are making headway in states like California and Utah with heavy-duty trucks and company fleets.
Natural Gas Vehicles for America is a non-profit association that is leading the charge on NGV and CNG use in the U.S. Its strategy is very simple: focus efforts on heavy-duty trucks because for every garbage truck or school bus that we convert to natural gas we would have to convert five consumer gasoline automobiles (with the effort and cost of conversion about equal for big and small vehicles) to achieve equal CNG usage. A city fleet of 20 garbage trucks converted to natural gas uses the same amount of fuel needed to power 100 gasoline cars. But while it takes more natural gas than gasoline to fuel a vehicle, the cost of CNG is lower in the long run. There is about a 10 percent loss of fuel efficiency with a CNG truck compared with a gasoline/diesel truck, but the cost savings based on fuel and maintenance over the life of the truck is expected to be more than $50,000.
Because these trucks are housed and serviced from a central location, one fueling station can be built to service these trucks. Private fleet station builders are now making a smart move by installing at least one CNG pump that has public access.
Converting municipal vehicles to natural gas provides an immeasurable marketing tool to promote natural gas vehicles. The vehicles are brightly identified as being powered by natural gas, thereby creating publicly visual education. As these vehicles travel their routes, people will become accustomed to the idea of natural gas as a fuel source. The more familiar natural gas becomes, the more likely people will be willing to adopt the fuel at some point in the future. In turn, this reduces the financial risks for the station owners. By having built-in demand, the station owners are more likely to recoup their investment. It is an effective approach that is seeing great success across the country.
The last challenge CNG needs to address is the distribution of the fuel across highways. Before consumers will trade in their cars and trucks for a CNG-powered vehicle, they will need to know that they can travel to a neighboring state without being stuck on the side of the highway. With regard to fueling stations, never has there existed as vast a gas pipeline network as there is now. So many consumers use natural gas across the country that the need for additional pipeline construction is very small. Pipelines would likely only need to be built in the most remote locations. Also, very important technological advancement is making fueling much easier.
One of the most important advancements for the consumer is that the storage capacity of the vehicle fuel tank has improved significantly, while the space it occupies has shrunk. Most vehicle CNG tanks can now supply enough fuel for 225 miles of travel. While this does not meet the distance provided by gasoline, it is a significant improvement. Another exciting development is dual-fuel vehicles. Most people hear hybrid and think gasoline-electricity; however, dual-fuel CNG-gasoline vehicles are beginning to gain popularity. The benefit of a dual-fuel vehicle is that the car or truck can run on CNG, but when traveling to areas that CNG is not available, a switch can be flipped to run the vehicle on gasoline. Lastly, developments have been made to allow home fueling of NGVs. The home fueling station mounts in the home’s garage and taps into the home’s natural gas supply. While parked in the garage overnight, the car is filled with CNG, providing the most convenient re-fueling of individually owned vehicles.
We are now faced with a new dilemma. We have the solutions to many of our energy problems. The obstacles that have stood in our way of developing this energy source as a viable fuel have mostly been overcome. Why are we not moving forward? The answer is politics. Luckily, in Louisiana we have a Legislature that understands the potential of natural gas as the fuel of the future. In 2009, the Louisiana Legislature passed HB 1110, authored by Rep. Jane Smith and Sen. Nick Gautreaux. This legislation provides a 50-percent tax credit incentive to convert vehicles to CNG or to construct CNG fueling stations. This has placed Louisiana in a leadership role for the development of CNG and natural gas. Let us hope the rest of the U.S. is ready to move forward with us. Help is actually coming from Washington, and once again, Louisiana is leading the charge.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is leading a Senate Natural Gas Caucus with colleague Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. “When we produce natural gas in America, we produce jobs and a stronger economy; we produce a cleaner environment, and we improve our national security. Those are facts,” Landrieu says. “Once America recognizes that natural gas is our ‘bridge’ to a clean energy future, I feel confident that they will have enough sense not to blow up that bridge.”
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association’s vice president, Gifford Briggs has been with the association for two years and focuses his efforts on building relationships with the Louisiana Legislature and the executive branch of state government.