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Will Future Transportation Systems be Powered by Natural Gas?

Natural Gas for Transportation

Many Americans think that natural gas is merely a source of fuel that can be used to heat homes, run ovens, or power clothes dryers. However, in recent years, as the price of gasoline and diesel has continued to fluctuate wildly, interest in natural gas fueled vehicles has risen substantially. In addition to seeking lower cost fuels, concerns related to global warming and the impacts of climate change have also led to the development of more transportation systems powered by natural gas.

Studies have shown that converting transportation systems over to natural gas would result in lower prices at the pump, 95 percent fewer tailpipe emissions, 20 to 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, longer engine life, and the ability to produce more domestically sourced energy (Messersmith, 2014). As a result of these benefits, an increasing number of passenger cars, vans, trucks, buses, and heavy-duty commercial vehicles are being produced with engines that allow them to be powered by natural gas.

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Air Pollution and Climate Change

Transportation systems that are powered by fossil fuels contribute to air pollution and climate change through vehicle tailpipe emissions. American transportation systems contribute about 27 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions, with vehicle tailpipe emissions making up about 65 percent of the total (Schwartz et al, 2014). In addition to being the single largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., transportation systems account for upwards of 14 percent of all global carbon emissions (Suzuki, 2018). Since fossil fuels make up about 93 percent of transportation energy usage in the nation, it’s no surprise that the transportation system is a major contributor to climate change (EPA, 2011).

In addition to emitting greenhouse gas emissions, vehicles propelled by fossil fuels produce hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other fine particulate matter, which contribute to elevated levels of air pollution (Frumkin, 2002). The effects of transportation-related carbon emissions and air pollution have a transboundary impact, which means that they have an impact on the global community regardless of boundaries or borders. Therefore, to adequately address issues related to transportation emissions, world leaders would need to collaborate on the development of environmental policies at regional or global scales. In order to focus efforts on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other various air pollutants from transportation systems, the European Union has implemented maximum pollution limits for the amount of emissions that can be emitted from cars and trucks (Archer, 2018).

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Environmental Benefits of Natural Gas Transportation

Natural gas is known as one of the cleanest burning alternative transportation fuels that are currently available on the global market. As a result of recent state and federal transportation emissions laws that were first enacted by the Obama administration, automakers have been required to implement incremental improvements on emissions coming from their vehicle fleets. Some automakers have found that moving towards natural gas technology has enabled them to achieve emissions reductions, while also creating new vehicles to attract a different segment of potential car buyers. If traditional gas and diesel cars and trucks were replaced by vehicles powered by natural gas, urban areas may experience less instances of smog-related pollution, while also avoiding harmful amounts of ground level ozone.

Today’s natural gas vehicles only produce between five and ten percent of the emissions that are currently allowed to be emitted by passenger cars in the United States (SoCalGas, 2020). Moreover, a 2008 study conducted by TIAX, LLC concluded that natural gas vehicles provided a thirty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for passenger vehicles, as well as a 23 percent reduction in emissions for heavy-duty vehicles. When compared to the emissions that are produced by gas and diesel vehicles, it’s clear that natural gas offers a more environmentally friendly option to power transportation systems. However, when it comes to energy extraction, environmentalists and energy experts often highlight some of the lesser known impacts of all kinds of fossil fuel powered transportation systems.

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Transportation and Energy Extraction

Transportation systems powered by gasoline, diesel, and natural gas have indirect impacts on the environment. Since the vast majority of the world’s vehicles are powered by fossil fuels, global leaders need to continually secure deposits of oil and natural gas to ensure that transportation systems are able to continue operating around the world. Therefore, some environmentalists have labeled transportation as a chief barrier to reducing global dependence on fossil fuels.

While electric vehicles have started to make their presence known within the world’s transportation systems, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs still primarily dominate new vehicle sales. This growing global demand for trucks, SUVs, and crossover vehicles has contributed to a rise in carbon emissions from the world’s transportation sector (Suzuki, 2018). The rapidly growing market for bigger cars and trucks has also created a need for countries to find and secure more petroleum resources, which has added to an increasing number of border disputes in areas that hold large reserves of oil and gas.

The Arctic is a prime example of one of the regions where border conflicts over oil and gas reserves have been raising geopolitical tensions. Estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey convey that the Arctic may hold over 412 billion barrels of oil (Macalister, 2015). As a result of these projected reserves, countries like Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Russia, and the United States have started to make moves to secure the control of these oil and gas reserves. Energy analysts and professionals within the transportation industry argue that the pressure to alleviate these geopolitical disputes to secure oil and resources would be less vital if the world’s transportation systems weren’t so dependent on fossil fuels.

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Proliferation of Natural Gas Vehicles

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are currently over 175,000 vehicles in the U.S. that are powered by natural gas, while there are about 23 million worldwide. In addition to providing a fuel that burns cleaner than gas or diesel, natural gas can provide a similar overall fuel range. Following the adoption of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, natural gas was officially considered an alternative fuel to lessen U.S. dependence on oil and improve air quality. Highlighting natural gas as an alternative fuel through federal policy helped to encourage automakers to make investments in these vehicles.

The Energy Policy Act didn’t just encourage the use of alternative fuels, but it required state, federal, and alternative fuel provider fleets to develop alternative fuel vehicles. In addition to natural gas, federal policy labeled propane, biodiesel, hydrogen, electricity, coal-derived liquid fuels, methanol, ethanol, and other alcohols as potential alternative fuels that automakers could develop.

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Performance

Unlike other types of alternative fuels, natural gas has the ability to provide a similar level of performance, in terms of horsepower, acceleration, and cruising speed. Additionally, with prices that average around $1.5 per gallon of gasoline equivalent (GGE), natural gas is clearly a cheaper option in terms of the overall cost of ownership. Other benefits besides reduced air pollution include safety, efficiency, and noise reduction.

Safety and Efficiency

In terms of safety, natural gas is a better option than a flammable liquid fuel, because it would dissipate in the event of an accident, rather than spill all over a roadway. For efficiency, a small sedan powered by natural gas would average around 43 miles per gallon, while a similar gas-powered sedan would average 32 miles per gallon. Lastly, large vehicles powered by natural gas also are much less noisy when compared to traditional gas or diesel trucks, making them ideal for urban environments.

Slow Adoption

While natural gas has been slow to gain popularity as a main transportation fuel, some cities have already made significant progress transitioning entire fleets over to natural gas. For example, in the city of Los Angeles, the vast majority of public buses are already running on natural gas (Duffy, 2012). To encourage more cities and municipalities to convert fleets from diesel to natural gas, the U.S. Department of Energy developed a $30 million series of competitive grants to harness domestic supplies of natural gas for transportation systems.

While this grant program was conducted in 2012, proponents of natural gas say that the future looks bright for this transportation fuel. Since the grant program was implemented, funding from the U.S. Department of Energy has been awarded to 13 research firms that have continued to work on new technologies to bring natural gas vehicles to the general public.

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Natural Gas Advocacy

The president of Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVAmerica), Rich Kolodziej, predicts that the abundant new supplies of natural gas that have been discovered in the U.S. will continue to drive down the price of the fuel, making it a more viable option for a wide range of transportation technologies. NGVAmerica is now one of many private organizations that have started to become involved in trade associations to advocate for the natural gas vehicle industry. Based on 2012 estimates, about 25 percent of new buses and 40 percent of new garbage trucks in the U.S. have started to run on natural gas (Duffy, 2012). While a significant proportion of new large commercial vehicles on the road now operate on natural gas, the passenger vehicle market has not been able to break through a series of barriers to encourage the widespread adoption by the general public.

Barriers to Adoption

One of the main limitations to the proliferation of natural gas vehicles to the general public has been the lack of options. While automakers have announced plans to introduce new passenger vehicles in the future, there is currently only one viable option that the public can purchase, which is the Honda Civic Natural Gas. The only all-natural-gas-vehicle model available is also about $5,000 more expensive than the traditional gasoline-powered Honda Civic. In recent years, Ford, General Motors, and Dodge had announced that they were pursuing opportunities to developing bi-fuel pickup trucks that could run on both gasoline and natural gas. However, as an increased focus has been placed on the adoption of electric vehicles, the automakers have not moved forward with plans to develop these trucks for the public.

Fueling is another barrier that has hindered natural gas vehicle development. With limited fueling stations around the country, the lack of places to fill a vehicle’s natural gas tank has left consumers wondering how to fill up their vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Data Center, there are only 536 available natural gas fueling stations that are open to the public. Comparatively, there are over 1,000 natural gas fueling stations that are used exclusively for municipal fleets and private corporations that operate large commercial vehicles. Home fueling stations are available for purchase, but cost between $2,000 and $5,000 for the initial installation.

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The Bottom Line

While there are many environmental and economic benefits of natural gas vehicles, the numerous barriers to adoption have discouraged the general public from buying them. Moreover, because of the tremendous expense that would be incurred from building out nationwide refueling infrastructure, the future of passenger vehicles being operated by natural gas may be just a pipe dream. Environmentalists also point out that while these vehicles emit less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas and diesel vehicles, natural gas vehicles still emit carbon. As the auto industry has been moving forward with zero-emission electric vehicles, the up-front cost of a natural gas vehicle and the associated home fueling infrastructure would not make sense financially for most Americans. Instead, many are choosing to go electric.

Sources

Archer, G. (2018). “Air Pollution.”European Federation for Transport and Environment.

Duffy, M. (2012). “The Pros and Cons of Natural-Gas Vehicles. Fox Business.

EPA. (2011). “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Frumkin, H. (2002). “Urban Sprawl and Public Health.” Emory University. 117(3): 201–217.

Macalister, T., (2015). “The New Cold War.” The Guardian.

Messersmith, D. (2014). “Natural Gas as a Transportation Fuel.” Pennsylvania State University.

Schwartz, j., et al. (2014). “Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” U.S. Global Change Research Program.

SoCalGas. (2020). “Benefits of Natural Gas Vehicles.” Southern California Gas Company.

Suzuki, D. (2018). “SUVs and Trucks Nullify Car Efficiency Gains.” EcoWatch.

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