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Colorado and Oklahoma Ask Detroit to Make Natural-Gas-Powered Cars

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Schematic of a natural-gas-powered vehicle

CNG enters the vehicle through the natural gas fill valve (A) and flows into high-pressure cylinders (B). When the engine requires natural gas, the gas leaves the cylinders and passes through the master manual shut-off valve (C). The gas travels through the high-pressure fuel line (D) and enters the engine compartment. Gas enters the regulator (E), which reduces the gas pressure used for storage (up to 3,600 psi) to the required vehicle fuel injection system pressure. The natural gas solenoid valve (F) allows natural gas to pass from the regulator into the gas mixer or fuel injectors. The solenoid valve shuts off the natural gas when the engine is not running. Natural gas mixed with air flows down through the carburetor or fuel-injection system (G) and enters the engine combustion chambers where it is burned to produce power, just like gasoline. Source: Adapted from Compressed Natural Gas: A Suite of Tutorials. Courtesy of Thomason & Assoc. Inc.

Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) and Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin (a Republican) met with U.S. automakers on Monday asking them to design and sell vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) that can be used by both public fleets and consumers, as Howard Pankratz reports in The Denver Post. Hickenlooper said that drivers would save the equivalent of $1.50 to $2 per gallon on fuel, cars would pollute less, and the U.S. would produce its own energy rather than relying on foreign oil, Joanne Muller writes for Forbes.

Both Colorado and Oklahoma have vested interests in the natural gas industry, Muller writes. A “massive” supply of natural gas from shale rocks in North America has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of natural gas, notes Mark Clothier for Bloomberg. Clothier writes:

President Barack Obama, in a speech in January in Las Vegas, called the U.S. the ‘Saudi Arabia of natural gas.’ He’s pushed companies and the federal government to buy more vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, or CNG, for their fleets. […]

While most [natural gas] comes from wells, recent improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it easier to extract gas from shale-rock formations. The process uses water, sand and chemicals to open fissures in rocks and release gas. Fracking takes place near surface and ground water. The Obama administration is developing standards for natural-gas producers to disclose the chemicals used in fracking.

Fracking is a controversial process, as Wikipedia explains:

Proponents of fracking point to the vast amounts of formerly inaccessible hydrocarbons the process can extract. Opponents point to potential environmental impacts, including contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, surface contamination from spills and flowback and the health effects of these. For these reasons hydraulic fracturing has come under scrutiny internationally, with some countries suspending or even banning it.

Natural gas already powers 112,000 vehicles in the U.S. and roughly 14.8 million worldwide, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) writes, with natural gas vehicles  — which can run on CNG — being good choices for high-mileage, centrally fueled fleets that operate within a limited area. Vehicles needing to travel longer distances work well fueled by liquified natural gas, a more expensive option. Natural gas as a transportation fuel offers the advantages of domestic availability, a widespread distribution infrastructure, low cost, and clean-burning qualities, according to DOE. And when powered by natural gas, the horsepower, acceleration, and cruise speed of vehicles are comparable to those powered by diesel and gasoline.

Clothier reports that infrastructure can present a hurdle, as there are approximately 500 public CNG filling stations in the U.S., according to the Energy Department, which is less than 0.3% of the 159,000 gas stations in the U.S. tallied by the National Association of Convenience Stores in 2010. Another issue is demand. Sam Brothwell, a senior utility analyst for Bloomberg Industries, told Clothier that gas-producing states want to see a new use for natural gas, as most is now used for heating, cooking, and power generation.

Hickenlooper and Fallin have joined with 11 other states — most rich with natural-gas stockpiles, as Clothier reports — in committing to buy thousands of natural-gas-powered vehicles per year for their fleets. Those other states include Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Utah, Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, and Louisiana, according to Pankratz. The coalition of states will issue a joint request to car makers for proposals on July 24, Clothier writes.

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