Wells to Wheels: Natural Gas for Cars?

First Published on September 24, 2011

Cars are an indispensable part of modern life. Imagine a trip to the store for a big box of diapers without one. But they're also big polluters. Greenhouse gases, smog. These are just some of the byproducts of our car-heavy culture. But some say there is a way to get around cleanly and cheaply.  The answer could be natural gas.

Just ask Joe Lundy. He lives in Fox Chapel, a leafy suburb of Pittsburgh. He's got a wife, two kids, and a few cars. But look a little more closely, actually, just look at what he's doing with his car, and you'll find, this is no ordinary Joe.

"So, I'm going to turn it on and see how long we'll get this to run," says Lundy.

Joe is fueling up his Honda Civic GX, a car that runs exclusively on natural gas. He's hooked up a hose from a compressor along the side of his house. It takes gas from his utility line and puts it directly into his car's gas tank.

"That's basically how loud it is. And you can smell the natural gas...a little bit," says Lundy.

Using the compressor, it takes Joe eight whole hours to refuel his car. So why is he going through all this? Why natural gas? 

It turns out, Joe got the idea at work. He is the CFO of a company that rents out bulldozers and backhoes. A couple years ago, his company started doing a lot of business with oil and gas drillers. They'd come to Pennsylvania to look for natural gas in the Marcellus shale.

"You start thinking there's so much natural gas here from a commuting standpoint, I thought, why not try it," says Lundy.

Joe so far has been pleased. He's saving about $15 a week on his commute by using natural gas. He also likes that his car is better for the environment. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, produces 25 percent less CO2 than gasoline. It emits fewer of the components that make smog. And it creates virtually no particulate matter. That's the black soot that comes out of the tailpipes of diesel trucks.

So, is natural gas the fuel of the future? Joe Lundy says, it should be.

"It's cleaner, it's cheaper, it's abundant and it's domestic," Lundy says.  "Why not try it?"

The natural gas industry wants more people like Joe to try it. More than 2000 drilling rigs around the country are pulling more gas out of the ground than ever, using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Energy executives, including Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, think American natural gas could replace foreign oil. McClendon practically gushed about the topic when he spoke on CNBC's Mad Money last month.

"Think about what this economy would be like if americans could use natural gas in their cars spending $2 a gallon instead of $4 gallon," says McClendon.

Natural gas cars have caught on in parts of Europe, South America and Asia. But there are only 120,000 of the vehicles in this country. Most of these are 'fleet vehicles' like dump trucks and buses. Only one passenger car sold in the US runs on natural gas: Joe's Honda Civic. The cars cost about $25,000, about $6,000 more than a regular Civic.

Even if you're willing to pay more, you have to find a dealer that will sell you one. Joe found his in Buffalo. New York is one of only four states where the car is sold. That still leaves the problem of refueling. Joe paid $3,000 for his used natural gas compressor.

"The gentleman said these things are like little tanks, they just never break," says Lundy.  "Of course I throw it back at him now because it hasn't worked as well as he said it would."

Once you get on the road, natural gas fueling stations are few and far between. There are hundreds in California, but Pennsylvania, for instance, has only 10. And most of these are located in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as Joe and his son found out when they drove across the state this summer.

"We were going to take the van," says Lundy. "My 12-year-old vince, said 'Let's take the Honda.' I said 'Well Vince, we've gotta plan this out.'"

Part of the plan was a two-hour detour each way to State College, the only place between the two cities with a natural gas fueling station. Joe's fueling problems just got a little easier. The gas company EQT opened up a natural gas filling station near Downtown Pittsburgh. So Joe can simply drive to the station and fuel up--just like the rest of us. The lack of refueling options is the central issue for natural gas vehicles, says Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University.

"We have a chicken and egg problem in this country if we talk about going off of gasoline," says Jaffe.

As Jaffe explains, no one wants a car they can't refuel. And who's going to build a filling station for a fuel that no one uses?

The industry is working on a solution. Chesapeake, the country's second largest natural gas driller, is investing $150 million in a nationwide network of natural gas filling stations.
And gas companies are asking Congress for help. One piece of legislation, the Nat Gas Act, would subsidize both CNG cars and filing stations.

Even if the industry solves its chicken and egg dilemma, environmental questions linger. It may have cleaner emissions, but natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and when it burns it emits carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global climate change. It is also increasingly derived from fracking. The industry says fracking, if done right, is safe.

But some environmentalists, like Amy Mall of the National Resources Defense Council, say fracking can contaminate ground water, and make people near the wells sick. That's why Mall hasnít climbed on the natural gas bandwagon yet.

"Natural gas isn't clean," says Mall, "drilling for natural gas isn't clean. But it it may be cleaner than our alternatives."

Joe, for one, is in favor of drilling. He thinks it can be done safely. As for his Honda, it's been a hit with his son Vince.

"There's something that's special about it," says Vince,

So do any of the other kids at his school have a car like his dad's?

"No.... Maybe, but I doubt it," says Vince.

When Vince is old enough to buy his own car, there's a chance it will run on natural gas. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Reid Frazier.