Company hopes to spur natural gas fueling

Amy Chaput holds a natural gas fuel pump in 2002. Clean Energy Fuels is beginning a major expansion of natural gas fueling and plans to add liquefied natural gas pumps at 150 truck stops over the next 24 to 36 months.

NEW ORLEANS -- The U.S. has record supplies of natural gas and many reasons to promote natural-gas-powered cars, but consumers, manufacturers and fuel suppliers haven't shown much interest.

Now, a major natural gas developer's plans to vastly increase the number of truck stops that offer liquid natural gas could help boost its use in the vehicles that burn the most fuel, while promoting its availability to a wider market.

T. Boone Pickens-backed Clean Energy Fuels Corp. is embarking on a major expansion of natural gas fueling and plans to add liquefied natural gas pumps at 150 truck stops nationwide in the next 24 to 36 months. "We've mapped out a strategy to cover every major interstate in the domestic United States," said company chief marketing officer James Harger.

Clean Energy provides fueling services for more than 500 fleets consisting of about 22,000 vehicles, such as transit buses, taxis, school buses and garbage trucks, Harger said. Clean Energy is focused on the long-haul trucking industry with its truck stop expansion plan. Harger and other natural gas proponents are putting stock in pending congressional legislation that would provide tax credits to cover 80 percent of the cost difference between a liquid natural gas tractor-trailer and the diesel variety. Harger said the five-year bill probably would be about $1 billion a year. The U.S. spends more than $1 billion a day on foreign oil. "This will help jump-start this industry," he said.

Lots of natural gas is available, if U.S. drivers decide to use it. In a few years, domestic natural gas supplies have risen by trillions of cubic feet through shale finds, boosting the supply to the point where plans are in place to export part of the overflow.

The growth of natural gas vehicles in the U.S. so far has been dominated by fleets of buses, taxis and garbage haulers. Only one natural gas car is commercially produced in the country: the Honda Civic GX, recently renamed the NG, which has sold about 13,000 in 13 years of production.

The reasons for the lackluster sales of natural gas cars are many: the fuel is available only at a handful of public stations, tethering the vehicles within a certain distance of a fuel source. And even though the pump price of natural gas can run $1 to $2 less per gallon equivalent than gasoline, natural gas vehicles carry a higher sticker price.

The focus for the natural gas vehicle industry in the U.S. has been the fuel-guzzlers: commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers.

Rich Kolodziej, president of the trade association NGV America, said that makes sense in terms of overall fuel usage. He said a driver who puts 12,000 miles a year on a car at 25 miles per gallon will use about 500 gallons of gasoline annually. But a diesel-driven 18-wheeler can easily go 120,000 miles a year. At 6 mpg, that comes to 20,000 gallons.

"If you're trying to reduce foreign imports of oil, you're trying to reduce greenhouse gases and emissions in urban areas, where do you put your effort? You put it on the big vehicles," Kolodziej said.