On the Road Again

By Jordan Weissmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In the early 1990s, all three major American automakers started building clean and efficient natural gas vehicles. But when a new federal law failed to create an expected guaranteed market, the momentum died. Today, only Honda sells a model in the United States -- and in minuscule numbers.

Now, as drivers reel from the shock of high gasoline prices, natural gas vehicles are attracting renewed interest both on Capitol Hill and in Detroit. Proposed legislation and a new impetus at General Motors may bring a modest revival.

But there are mammoth hurdles to getting large numbers of natural gas vehicles on the road. Most troublesome is simply where to buy the fuel. Of 176,000 gas stations in the United States, fewer than 2,000 carry natural gas, according to the Department of Energy. In the Washington area, there are just four. There are 8 million natural gas vehicles worldwide, but only 120,000 in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, and most of those are in fleets owned by governments and corporations. Washington's Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, for instance, runs 439 buses powered by natural gas.

Natural gas vehicles run on a normal internal combustion engine but have a special, high-pressure fuel tank that is cheap to fill. In April, the equivalent of a gallon of compressed natural gas averaged $2.04, compared with $3.53 for gasoline. They also emit 20 percent less greenhouse gas and less than a third the amount of smog than petroleum-powered cars. Because natural gas is less flammable than gasoline and because the sealed fuel tank admits no oxygen, the chance of an explosion is very low.

The vehicles have some high-profile advocates. For months, T. Boone Pickens has plugged them as a key part of his plan to wean the United States off foreign petroleum. The oil billionaire has said he believes a third of all cars in the United States could eventually be powered by natural gas.

Few think that goal is feasible any time soon. But in July, the cars played a starring role in a congressional hearing on the role of natural gas in America's energy future. Meanwhile, both Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) have introduced legislation that would help increase the number of natural gas pumps at fueling stations and boost the number of natural gas vehicles on the road.

Many advocates, especially politicians, are attracted to natural gas because it is mostly a local resource. The United States gets 98 percent of its supply from domestic sources. And many think that recently discovered deposits of shale in Louisiana, Texas and under the Appalachian Mountains could keep the country self-sufficient for decades.

"As recently as three years ago people thought we had a natural gas shortage in this country and that we were perilously close to being in a situation where we were going to have to import," Emanuel said, adding that he decided to introduce his legislation after learning of the shale deposits. "Now we're trying to figure out what to do with all this."

The government last tried to popularize natural gas vehicles in the early 1990s when Congress passed a law requiring government fleets to switch to alternative fuels. The major U.S. automakers jumped on board, but the push sputtered out when the Department of Energy decided not to make local governments comply with the rule.

"The auto companies also did a lousy job marketing them," said Richard Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America. "They thought these things were going to sell themselves -- federal fleets, state fleets, municipal fleets are going to have to buy them."

Ultimately, sales foundered, and by 2004 only Honda's natural gas Civic GX was the only commercially available natural gas vehicle still sold in the United States. Honda bumped up its 2009 run to 1,500 cars from 1,000, to meet increasing demand. Dealers have already ordered up the entire supply, even though the cars haven't yet gone on sale. New York and California are the only states where Honda markets the Civic GX, which retails for $24,590 and gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway. But like other natural gas vehicles, it has a limited range per tank of gas -- between 170 and 225 miles depending on the estimate -- making it less than ideal for a road trip, especially if there may not be anywhere to fuel up on the way.

There have been a few attempts to combat the fueling problem. Some natural gas advocates have brokered deals between fleets and service stations, where a station sets up a natural gas pump after the fleet owner promises to buy a certain amount of fuel. FuelMaker, a company part-owned by Honda, sells a home fueling station called Phill, which lets owners pump the natural gas they use for heating their homes directly into their cars.


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