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Ford Leads the Way

The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.

Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.

With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast.  Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.

All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector.  In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:

Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure.  NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term.  The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.

Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress.  Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.

There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group.  Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.

In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.

All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making.  Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits.  The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.

The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular.  These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.

So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.

The New York Times and Natural Gas- Is it the Moment?

The venerable Gray Lady, the NY Times, has in the recent past treated the possible use of natural gas and its derivatives (methanol and ethanol) as transportation fuels warily. Their primary focus has seemed to be on the environmental problems and economic opportunities related to fracking and the increased production of natural gas. Rarely did the Times cover or note in its editorials the increasing acceptance of natural gas, methanol and ethanol as a fuel to power vehicles. The importance of alternative fuels as part of national energy and environmental policies has not been granted significant visibility in the Times. The Times is still my favorite read over a cup of coffee.

But, surprise! Borrowing and taking liberty to amend the lyrics from the musical Jekyll and Hyde,   “this may almost be the moment…when The New York Times begins to send many of its doubts and demons concerning alternative transportation fuels on their way… this could be the beginning. The momentum and the moment may be coming together soon in rhyme.”

Paul Stenquist, a respected, frequent writer for the Times automobile section, wrote an Oct. 29 article titled, Natural Gas Waits for its Moment. The content of the piece was, in reality, not as ambiguous or speculative. Read it!  According to Stenquist, natural gas has arrived and this is its moment, or at least its soon-to-be moment. Sure there are problems to overcome, but to Stenquist, they seem relatively puny given where he thinks we are, and where he suggests we can be soon.

Stenquist opens his upbeat piece by indicating that “cars and trucks powered by natural gas make up a significant portion of the vehicle fleet in many parts of the world (Iran, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and Germany).”  After noting the almost 2,000 natural gas stations in Argentina, he asks, “Is America next?”

Based on Department of Energy (DOE) information, Steinquist indicates that natural gas is about $1.50 cheaper than gasoline and diesel fuels for the same mileage, and that because natural gas burns clean, it requires less oil changes, and vehicle exhaust systems last longer.

Sure, the author notes that the initial cost of natural gas vehicles are significantly higher now than gasoline vehicles. But based on an apparent positive interview with a fleet manager from Ford, he indicates that increased sales or leasing volume could bring the vehicle price comparable to today’s conventional vehicles. The key issue Stenquist does not address, is when this will happen, and how long will it take?  But still he and his Ford colleague seem optimistic– perhaps a bit too optimistic, unless Detroit pulls a Steve Jobs; that is, just as Jobs did with the  iPhone, convince the public through marketing and technological innovation that cheaper cleaner natural gas vehicles are a “must” for consumers.

But wait, there’s more!  Stenquist, quoting from the Energy Department’s website, suggests that the environmental benefits of natural gas as a fuel appear to be immediate and important. Succinctly, natural gas vehicles have a much smaller carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel.

What remains, then, for the nation to benefit in a major way from use of natural gas as an alternative fuel?  Well for one, reducing carbon leakage during natural gas production and distribution. Progress is being made. Stopping or cutting back leakage has become a priority for both involved companies, and federal as well as state regulatory authorities.

Second, both car companies and the government acknowledge that using compressed natural gas in a conventional engine would result in degrading engine performance. However, retrofitting engines to use natural gas would increase the octane advantage of natural gas and lessen the density advantage of gasoline-reducing performance issues. Fully designed natural gas cars are still relatively rare and are, at this moment, significantly more costly than conventional cars. But with increased demand, as noted earlier, the costs would likely come down and make household purchase decisions easier. Interestingly, Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado(D) and Governor Fallin of Oklahoma(R) have put together a 22 state coalition. The group has committed to purchasing new natural gas cars to replace old cars in their respective fleets. Detroit has committed in turn to work on developing a less expensive natural gas car, given the market pool or demand created by the states. This effort deserves watching and will, if successful, hopefully, provide a path to cheaper natural gas vehicles for consumers.

Stenquist, correctly, points to the lack of natural gas fuel stations as a key obstacle to increased popularity of natural gas. But he is optimistic that technology now in place (or soon to be in place) will be able to link available natural gas pipelines to in home fuel machines. I, also, would hope that these fuel stations would be placed in parking garages and that they would be much cheaper than currently existing home refueling equipment.

I suspect that the natural gas movement will require more than a few moments; that is, it may take a bit longer to gain traction than implicit in Stenquist’s piece. But it’s nice to see a journalist link natural gas to transportation fuel in such an aggressive way as Stenquist. Now if the Times could only follow in the content of its editorial and op-ed pages.

It is hard to be critical of Stenquist’s piece since it’s almost a first for the NY Times. However, I am puzzled by the absence of any discussion of natural gas based ethanol and methanol as alternative fuels in his article. Both, likely, would be cheaper per gallon and per miles traveled than gasoline. Both would record more environmental benefits than gasoline, and both, if they are accepted in the market, would reduce dependency on imported oil. Perhaps most significantly, both, assuming appropriate government approvals, could be used almost immediately to fuel existing vehicles with relatively simple and cheap engine conversion kits. Think of it!  If we could add the trifecta: natural gas, ethanol and methanol –to fuel stations throughout America, it would provide needed competition to gasoline. Consumers would benefit by having access to lower cost fuel. The nation would benefit from improved environmental and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) conditions. America’s security and economy would be enhanced significantly. It would be a major win for the public interest and for America and Americans.

Flaring gas in North Dakota – what a waste!

You can see them from outer space. The flames from natural gas flares in the Williston Basin of North Dakota now throw off a nighttime glow larger than Minneapolis and almost as big as Chicago. All that energy is going up in smoke.

Ceres, a Boston nonprofit organization, issued a report last week illustrating that the huge surge in oil production in the Bakken Shale has outrun the drilling industry’s ability to cope with the natural gas byproduct. “Almost 30% of North Dakota gas is currently being burned off,” the report said.

The report also states, “Absolute volumes of flared gas have more than doubled between May 2011 and May 2013. In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1 billion in fuel and the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of adding one millions cars to the road.”

The loss rate has actually been reduced from 36% in 2011, but production has tripled in that time, meaning that an additional 266 billion cubic feet (BCF) a day is going up in smoke.

Moreover, according to the report, North Dakota gas contains other valuable products. “The natural gas from the Bakken formation contains high volumes of valuable natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as propane and natural gasoline, in addition to dry gas consisting mostly of methane. It is potential worth roughly four times that of the dry gas produced elsewhere in the United States.”

“There’s a lot of shareholder value going up in flames,” Ryan Salomon, author of the report, told Reuters.

So why can’t more be done to recover it? Well, unfortunately, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the spread between the value of gas and oil, which has stayed pretty close historically, has now increased to 30 times in favor of oil in the Bakken. Even nudging up gas prices to $4 per thousand cubic feet (MCF) in recent months hasn’t made much difference. Consequently, it isn’t worthwhile trying to collect gas across widely dispersed oil fields.

Encouraging this waste is a North Dakota statute that exempts flared gas from paying any severance taxes and royalties during the first year of production. Since most fracking wells have a short lifespan, gushing forth up to 60% of their output in the first year, this makes it much easier to write off the losses.

Nonetheless, all this adds up to a colossal waste. As of the end of 2011, the amount of gas being flared each year in North Dakota was the equivalent of 25% of annual consumption in the United States and 30% Europe’s. The high burn off has moved the country up to fifth place in the world for flaring, only behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Although the World Bank says worldwide flaring has dropped by 20% since 2005, North Dakota is now pushing in the opposite direction. Altogether, 5% of the world’s gas is wasted in this way.

Efforts are being made to improve the situation: with big hitters are doing their part. Whiting Petroleum Corporation says its goal is zero emissions. Hess Corporation, which has a network of pipelines, is spending $325 million to double the capacity at its Tioga processing plant, due to open next year. Continental, the largest operator in the Bakken, says it has reduced flaring to 11% and plans to reduce it further. “Everybody makes money when the product is sold, not flared,” Jeff Hunt, vice chairman for strategic growth at Continental, told Reuters.

But it’s all those little independent companies and wildcatters that are the problem. Storage is impossible and investing in pipeline construction just too expensive. Entrepreneurs are doing their part. Mark Wald, a North Dakota native who had left for the West Coast, has returned to start Blaise Energy Inc., a company that is putting up small gas generators next to oil wells and putting the electricity on the grid. “You see the big flare up there and you say, `Something’s got to be done here,’” he told the Prairie Business.

But the long-term solution is finding new uses for natural gas and firming up the price so that its collection is worthwhile. What about our transport sector? We still import $290 billion worth of oil a year at a time when as much as half of that could be replaced with domestic gas resources. Liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, conversion to methanol, conversion to ethanol – there are many different ways this could be promoted right now. Ford has just introduced an F-150 truck with a CNG tank and an engine that can run on either gas or gasoline. With natural gas selling at the equivalent of $2.11 a gallon (and even cheaper in some parts of the country), the new model can pay off the additional $9,000 price tag in two to three years. There are now an estimated 12,000 natural gas vehicles on the road and the number is growing rapidly. “This is an emerging technology in a mature industry,” Ford sustainability manager Jon Coleman told USA Today.

But an even better way to harvest this energy might be to design small, transportable methanol converters that could be attached to individual gas wells. Methane can be converted to methanol, the simplest alcohol, by oxidizing it with water at very high temperatures. There are 18 large methanol plants in the United States producing 2.6 billion gallons a year, most of it consumed by industry. But methanol could also substitute for gasoline in cars at lower cost with only a few adjustments to existing engines. The Indianapolis 500 racers have run on methanol for more than 40 years.

The opportunities in the Bakken are tremendous – and the need to end the waste urgent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that production in the Bakken is due to rise 40%, from 640,000 to 900,000 barrels per day by 2020. North Dakota has already passed Alaska as the second-biggest oil producing state and now stands behind only Texas, where pipeline infrastructure is already built out and less than 1% of gas is flared.

The increased production, matched with the expanding technology for using gas in cars, presents an enormous opportunity.

Can the Marcellus give birth to CNG vehicles?

What if America had so much natural gas it didn’t know what to do with it?

Right now that’s the situation in the Marcellus Shale, the vast formation that underlies nearly all of Pennsylvania. There just isn’t enough demand for what’s available. And the same situation could be facing the entire United States in just a few years, according to speakers at the 2013 Natural Gas Utilization Conference held at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh last week.

“Today there are 800 shut in wells in the Marcellus, waiting for an increase in price and improvements in infrastructure,” said Justin Carlson, manager of energy analytics at Bentek Energy of Colorado told the gathering. “By 2017, demand could dip below supply for the entire United States. We’re not doing enough to support growth. The market needs more users.”

Where could you find those new consumers? Virtually everyone agrees that there’s one market that is begging for greater natural gas use – the transportation sector.

Some companies are already looking for ways to do it. Last year Consol Energy Inc. and Praxair, Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of industrial gases, was preparing to build a $2 billion plant to convert gas from the Marcellus into gasoline and diesel blends for use in cars and trucks. In the end, however, the economics didn’t quite work. “The project would have generated a positive rate of return but not the 12% that investors are looking for,” said Dante Bonaquist, chief scientist and corporation fellow at Praxair, who spoke at the conference. “We had to give it up.”

So absent a liquids option, most gas producers are opting for another technology – compressed natural gas. Leading the pack has been Chesapeake Energy, which set a goal to convert its entire fleet of vehicles to CNG by 2015. At the current pace it will hit the 80% mark in 2014. Last year Chesapeake’s Peake Fuel Solutions affiliate also partnered with GE to launch “CNG In A Box,” a package that compresses natural gas from a pipeline into CNG fueling stations so that small and large retailers can become vendors of natural gas. The package was introduced at the National Association of Convenience Stores 2012 annual convention.

“The 8-by-10-foot container is easy to ship and its modular design allows for plug-and-play,” said Bob Jarvis, spokesman for Chesapeake. “It makes pay-at-the-pump a familiar and secure experience.” GE already has a manufacturing plant up and running in Houston. On Sept. 17 it announced a memorandum of understanding with China’s Endurance Industries to deliver 260 CNGs In A Box to fuel China’s rapidly growing conversion to natural gas vehicles.

Last week, however, Chesapeake was forced to disband its seven-member Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force as part of an austerity-driven reorganization. But other companies may pick up the slack. “Chesapeake has been an important player in growing the natural gas vehicle market, but other companies and organizations have taken on that role now,” said Rich Kolodziej, president of advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Range Resources, another major player in the Marcellus, is also making an all-out effort to promote CNG vehicles. It recently closed a deal with GM to buy an entire fleet of trucks for its Pennsylvania operations. The company expects to save 40-50% of vehicle operating costs by switching from gasoline. With 180 trucks in the region, each carrying a 17-gallon tank, Range will save $3,000 each time its fleet refuels.

But is compressed natural gas the best way to go? The technology involves high-pressure tanks, both in storage and in your car or truck and involves a whole new infrastructure. Converting natural gas into methanol – a fairly simple process – would allow us to use the current infrastructure with only a few minor adjustments. Existing vehicles can be modified to use methanol for only a few hundred dollars and flex-fuel vehicles could use either methanol or traditional gasoline.

Methanol works better from the supply side as well. “The economics of methanol would have been more attractive,” said Bonaquist, of the Praxair-Consol Energy proposal that didn’t make it off the drawing boards. “The conversion and purification sections of the plant would have been less complex. It would have been particularly advantageous for smaller scale production.”

So what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately, putting methanol in your car hasn’t yet been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it illegal. If the regulations could be changed, methanol would become a much easier route for moving the nation’s looming gas surpluses into the transportation sector. There could hardly be a more promising way of freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.

Robert Rapier loves methanol

Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at EnergyTrendsInsider.com.

And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.

In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.

“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”

Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.

Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”

Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.

But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”

(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)

Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:

For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.

Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”

At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.