SAFE: Expanded use of natural gas as US motor fuel ‘sensible strategy’

Expanding the use of natural gas to fuel US motor vehicles, even partially, is the most sensible strategy for reducing petroleum’s dominant fuel position—and the nation’s reliance on oil imports from politically unstable parts of the world. This was one of many messages shared by panelists during a day-long conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by Securing America’s Future Energy that examined lessons learned in the 40 years since the start of the Arab oil embargo.

At the conference, General Motors announced plans to respond to “range anxiety” created by compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles’ distance limits by introducing a bifueled Chevrolet Impala that has a gasoline backup to its CNG system. “Next summer, we will offer the ground-breaking Chevrolet Impala with an engine that can switch seamlessly from CNG to gasoline,” said GM’s Chief Executive Daniel F. Akerson. “There will be nothing like it on the road—literally.”

The bifueled vehicle will carry a factory warranty on its entire powertrain and fuel system, like GM’s other CNG vehicles, and will be the only such bifueled passenger car any automaker builds, Akerson continued.

“Our volumes will be small initially,” he said, adding, “Most of our customers are going to be commercial and government fleets, and selling 750-1,000 units in the first model year would be a home run.” That’s because there are only about 1,200 CNG refueling stations nationwide despite hundreds of millions of dollars in private-sector investment, and only about half are open to the public, he explained.

“To give the CNG infrastructure time to play catch-up, we got creative and engineered two energy reservoirs for the Impala, just as we did for the Volt,” Akerson said. “This approach takes range anxiety completely off the table by offering 150 miles of range using CNG and an additional 350 miles on gasoline.”

Move away from oil

Former US Defense and Energy Sec. James R. Schlesinger said the US doesn’t know yet how extensive its shale oil resources are, “but there are endless amounts of natural gas which can be converted to fuel for our automobiles.”

T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital, noted, “I have been selling this ‘natural gas in vehicles’ idea for a long time. It’s good to see it taken seriously. This country has vast reserves, and it’s priced very low. Natural gas does not require a refinery. It’s a 130 octane fuel out of the ground that’s 30% cleaner than diesel fuel. The environmentalists should love it. If the 8 million trucks in this country began to use it, we’d cut [the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] out of the picture.”

Natural gas powertrains are one area where GM has increased investments because it believes the technology can solve the “green” needs of both the environment and the company’s investors, according to Akerson.

“Hypothetically, if the nation’s entire heavy-truck fleet switched from diesel to natural gas, we could reduce oil imports by about a third and sharply cut the fuel component of shipping costs,” he said. “It also makes business sense in smaller trucks, which is why GM has introduced a range of vans and pickups that use CNG.”

Still fuel of choice

Despite GM’s success with advanced technology vehicles, Akerson said he believes gasoline will remain the primary fuel in the near term. “That’s because we’re making so much progress in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, powertrain control strategies and weight reduction,” he explained.

“These ‘efficient fundamentals’ are being complemented by advanced transmissions, turbocharging, ‘stop-start’ technology and other features,” Akerson said. “Together, they will help consumers go farther on a gallon of fuel and save money at the pump.”

GM will continue to innovate on all fronts, but there is a growing list of matters that the federal government needs to address so the nation can realize the full benefits of its gas reserves, Akerson said.

“These include our export policy, pipeline capacity, a refueling infrastructure strategy, and clear, sensible standards for hydraulic fracturing,” he indicated. “We also need to rationalize the country’s alternative fuel laws and incentives.”

Government, industry, environmental, and labor groups will need to work together to find the best US energy policy solutions, Akerson said, adding that it’s already happening to some extent. “It is now time for the administration and Congress to seize this unique moment in history by facilitating and even expanding the dialogue already under way,” he said. “This is our first, best, and perhaps only chance to create a new consumer-driven national energy policy from a position of strength and abundance.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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