By Mannix Porterfield
For the Daily Telegraph
— All who favor pumping fuel at $1.85 a gallon, or even less, please raise your hands.
Put that question to a vote in West Virginia and you’d see every hand shoot skyward.
In many states, this is a reality, and some are paying even less than that, by converting to natural gas-powered vehicles.
A move is afoot to make the conversion.
Come January, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin expects to hear from a special task force he appointed to look into the feasibility of running cars and trucks on natural gas, rather than gasoline.
Perhaps some legislation may come out of it or, at least, an idea from Tomblin in his State of the State message before the Legislature.
“It’s too early to tell with that,” says Hallie Mason, his director of public policy.
Yet, steps are definitely being taken to ascertain if switching to compressed natural gas is the thing to do in an era of steep gasoline prices.
For now, however, it is a Catch-22 situation.
Auto makers are reluctant to mass produce such vehicles with so few gas stations operating — fewer than 1,000 at last count — and the industry is hesitant about erecting more until they see more such cars and trucks roll off the assembly lines.
“That’s the chicken and the egg situation,” Mason said.
In Oklahoma, she pointed out, some 66 such stations are pumping natural gas, and some of West Virginia’s neighbors are slowly moving in that direction.
Actually, it’s not fair to assess the situation as a total standstill, says Frank
McCullough, an executive of Spring Creek Energy in Summersville and a member of Tomblin’s task force.
“Automobile manufacturers are kind of stepping up and there will be a number of vehicles that will be available in the next six to eight months, much more so than you might otherwise think of,” he said.
“Whether the driving public will accept them or not is to be seen. That suggests if you have a natural gas vehicle you should have a fueling station nearby. The location of where people might buy vehicles is going to be limited to how comfortable the general population or operators are with regard to providing fuel and refueling stations.”
In one sense, the situation might be viewed as a conundrum, McCullough said.
“I think it’s realistic that we’ll see some gas stations in West Virginia,” he said.
“I really can’t speak to when they might be on line. There’s been talk for the last year about stationing them in various cities. Again, that’s to be seen.”
The task force has quietly been collecting data in advance of its report to the governor.
“We’ve had numerous meetings and actually even traveled to Wheeling and gone across the state,” Mason said.
“We’re gathering our information and starting to prepare a report for the governor. There’s a possibility (for legislation). Certainly, we have not completed our work. The legislative communications committee will be meeting one more time. We’re just going to take all our information and see what comes from there.”
In a recent report, The Wall Street Journal said the country has 922 compressed natural gas fueling stations, contrasted with some 120,000 that sell gasoline.
Internet sites generally depict little or no increase in the mileage after switching from gasoline, but the cost comes in the difference in prices, which tend to vary from state to state.
Price might be one motivator, but the duration of a natural gas engine could be another.
“It’s wear and tear primarily,” McCullough said.
“The combustion characteristics of natural gas is hotter than gasoline. But purity of fuel and combustion is more complete, so you have less wear and tear on the engine. From an operating perspective of a natural gas vehicle, an engine will perform as well as a comparable gas engine. And from a performance point of view, I don’t think people are disappointed.”
About a year ago, one man posted a photograph on the Internet of his Tahoe with the going price painted on the side: $1.39 a gallon. He gets an identical 21 miles per gallon as he did when burning gasoline, which at the time ran about $2.90 a gallon.
McCullough agreed that, in general, natural gas used for motor vehicles would run about 50 percent less than gasoline.
“Gasoline is tied to the price of oil and the price of oil, compared to the price of natural gas, is much higher,” he said.
Tomblin’s fact-finding group involves “a significant number” of natural gas industry representatives, along with state and local government leaders, and others in the business community who have embraced natural gas as an alternative, such as Waste Management.
Mason said no one from the environmental community asked to serve on the panel.
“The goal of our task force is to have all of those folks come to the table and fully assess the feasibility of using natural gas,” she said.
“Of course, there is some question, do you have the cars first, or do you have the infrastructure first? So, we are looking into the possibility of how that would be structured.”
Powering vehicles on natural gas is not entirely new to West Virginia.
Back in the administration of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, some stations actually surfaced in the state. But back then, Mason said she learned from a key industry official serving on the task force, “the price in oil then shot up and at the same time natural gas prices were associated with the price of oil, and it just became prohibitive.”
“Many cars are just dedicated for natural gas,” Tomblin’s policy director said. “But the industry is looking at the demand. And there’s even discussions about making biofuel vehicles so they can run on both.”
Government could prove the big pioneer in this region.
“Certainly, we’re looking to see whether the utilization of natural gas is the most economically feasible,” Mason said.
“We certainly have a significant fleet. So, much of our study has been to identify where those cars are located, what the volume is along the Interstates, where is the most viable spots for folks to build those stations, if there’s interest in the private sector. You’ve got to take one step at a time. So, last fall, the governor did request that the administration include vehicles in requests for proposals. If we can move forward getting stations up and running, which I don’t think is the responsibility of the state, then state agencies will have opportunities to purchase those vehicles.”
Like Mason, McCullough suggested it is far too early to say if Tomblin might raise the matter in his State of the State message.
“The purpose of the task force, of course, is to take the best ideas that industry and government and constituents who are advocating this have in mind,” he said.
“I’m sure that the governor and his staff will take into consideration some of the recommendations that have been made. If there’s some good sound policies to propose to the Legislature, I think that would be warranted.”
Border states Virginia and Pennsylvania have opened natural gas stations, adding a degree of importance to the task force’s research.
“West Virginia wants to continue to be a player, with our major Interstates, and provide continuity of travel,” Mason said. “That’s another reason the study is important.”