Can natural gas vehicles get us off oil?

at 05:15 PM ET, 01/26/2012

On Thursday, President Obama traveled to Las Vegas to pitch a few new energy policies — including tax breaks for firms that buy natural gas-powered trucks. T. Boone Pickens, for one, has argued that fueling vehicles with natural gas will help us curtail oil use. Can it?


President Barack Obama speaks at a United Parcel Service (UPS) freight facility about greater use of natural gas . (Ethan Miller - Getty Images)
It all depends on what the alternatives are. Fueling up cars and trucks directly with natural gas could help cut America’s reliance on oil. Yet some experts have argued that plug-in electric vehicles will play a much more pivotal role in weaning the country off crude. After all, it’s far more efficient to take natural gas, burn it to generate electricity, and power a bunch of plug-in vehicles, than it would be to fuel up cars and trucks with all that natural gas directly. (That’s because the combustion engines in cars and trucks lose waste more energy than the modern-day combined-cycle gas turbines that produce electricity.)

The counterargument is that electric vehicles are expensive and hard to scale up — and they typically require a vast new charging infrastructure. That’s true. But natural-gas vehicles could face similar hurdles. A 2002 analysis in the journal Energy Policy found that natural-gas fueling stations have historically had trouble getting built precisely because they turned out to be far more costly than anticipated.

For those reasons, a 2009 report from MIT on “The Future of Natural Gas” predicted that natural-gas vehicles would likely play a modest role in transportation — mostly confined to long-haul trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles like buses and delivery vans. Instead, the MIT analysts expect the coming flood of cheap natural gas to play a much more prominent role in the electric sector. That, in itself, could be an environmental boon: The report found that electric utilities could very rapidly cut their carbon emissions up to 22 percent by switching from coal to natural gas in key areas (and that’s without making major capital investments).

That’s not to say natural-gas vehicles are pointless. They’re still cleaner than the status quo, and policies to promote them could help raise demand in a natural-gas market that’s being assailed by rock-bottom prices. As the MIT report notes, significant portions of the trucking sector in particular could shift to compressed natural gas in order to cut diesel consumption. (Pickens, for his part, has primarily focused on trucks while pushing for government policies to promote natural-gas vehicles.)

But there are also plenty of non-status-quo ideas out there for reducing oil consumption as well. Analysts have suggested, for instance, that shifting a large chunk of freight from trucks to rail could cut America’s oil use by 2.5 million barrels — more than the Center for American Progress’ plan to convert to natural-gas vehicles. Perhaps transportation planners should focus on that option instead, perhaps not. But these ideas tend not to have a media-savvy advocates behind them, and so get considerably less attention.

 
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