Natural gas in cars -- and step on it

Patrick L. McGeer and Enoch J. Durbin

October 17, 1990|By Patrick L. McGeerand Enoch J. Durbin

IMAGINE a single action that could end the West's dependence on Middle East oil, shatter OPEC and drive oil prices below $10 a barrel. A daydream? No, all that is required is to equip all the cars and trucks on the road today to run on natural gas.

To a great extent, this is what British Columbia did after the last oil crisis in 1979. Subsidies were introduced to encourage owners of fleets and private cars to add special tanks so their cars could -- at the flip of a --board switch -- burn either gasoline or natural gas. Service stations were given inducements to add natural gas to the pumping bays.

Now, a network of 50 refueling stations serves fleet vehicles and individual owners. Owners of converted automobiles seldom use gasoline except as a reserve.

Natural gas has a high octane rating (130) and costs 50 to 80 cents per gallon. It is also plentiful, clean, easily distributed and much safer than gasoline (there has never been a fire in a natural-gas vehicle). Compared to gasoline, it produces lower levels of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide and enormously lower levels of smog-causing hydrocarbons.

Standard gasoline engines can run on natural gas without modification. The gaseous fuel prolongs the life of engines, spark plugs and lubricating oil. As a result, 500,000-mile engine life is not atypical.

Technically, converting vehicles from gasoline to natural gas is easy. Judging from British Columbia's experience, the process should take about two years. For roughly the cost of our current military operations in the Middle East, we could convert about a million vehicles a month.

And the advantages go far beyond the economic realm. Using natural gas would end a monumental waste of of resources, provide the single largest environmental dividend of all time and give us energy security.

When oil is pumped, dissolved natural gas is released. Globally, about half of this gas is burned off, vented or reinjected into the ground. The burning of "excess" natural gas is a major contributor of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is thought to contribute to global warming. The Soviet Union alone flares off gas equivalent to a hundred million barrels of oil each year.

Known reserves of natural gas far exceed those of oil. Canada's are sufficient to serve North America's needs past the middle of the next century. Unlike oil, natural gas is a renewable resource. Nature makes it from rotting vegetation. Biomass is therefore a huge and renewable source of supply. In fact, we could supply all our current needs simply from the gas produced by rotting vegetation and garbage dumps.

Coal is yet another vast source of gas. But there is no need even to think about these potential sources because so much is either being wasted or just sitting in known underground fields.

With all this going for it, why hasn't natural gas supplanted

gasoline? For one thing, natural-gas tanks hold less fuel, limiting the range for most cars to about two-thirds that of a full tank of gasoline. This means more frequent fill-ups, and the necessity to be near a refueling station. For vehicle fleets that return to their home base each day (buses, taxis, city delivery vehicles), this isn't a problem. They can refuel in their own garages.

But the principal barrier to complete conversion is the large one-time expense of around $1,500, which can be recovered through lower fuel and maintenance costs. Taxi cabs, which pile up the mileage, save about $2,000 a year in fuel costs, enough to make conversions economically practical. A vehicle has to consume 1,500 to 2,000 gallons a year or more to make the investment pay. Moreover, many people assume that natural-gas prices would rise -- either from higher demand or tax increases -- if cars were converted in significant numbers.

The expense of conversion, doubts about price and spotty availability are enough to frighten off all but the hardiest souls. Overcoming this understandable but self-defeating gridlock requires government action.

The place to start is with urban fleets. Natural gas is such a bargain for them that subsidies should not be needed. Indeed, major delivery companies, like Federal Express and United Parcel Service, have already begun converting on their own.

The government could accelerate the process by requiring all urban fleet owners to operate some fraction of their vehicles on natural gas by a certain date. Fleet owners who could demonstrate that they would be economically harmed by such operation could be excused. Texas recently passed a law with both provisions that should serve as a model for the nation.

Once most of the nation's fleets are using natural gas, private fueling stations will have more of an incentive to sell the fuel. (In fact, many fleet owners in British Columbia found that they could make a good business of selling natural gas to the public.) When consumers see that natural gas is readily available, they may consider converting.

Finally, if demand is strong enough, manufacturers may begin to equip new cars with natural-gas tanks. Since this is much cheaper than converting a standard car, it would make natural gas economical for virtually every driver.

Natural gas should not be looked upon as a temporary substitute for gasoline. It is a superb fuel that we should use irrespective of instability in the Middle East.

Energy dependence is one of the few national problems that we can solve. Let's do it.

Patrick L. McGeer is a former minister of science in British Columbia. Enoch J. Durbin is a professor of engineering at ; Princeton University.

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