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.

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