It’s now at least foreseeable — not certain, but foreseeable — that many Arkansans will power their cars with natural gas that is produced in their home state.
Clean Energy, a company founded by Oklahoma oilman and alternative fuels enthusiast T. Boone Pickens, has struck a deal with Pilot Flying J to install liquefied natural gas pumps at 150 truck stops across the country over the next two years. Those pumps will be located strategically along the nation’s major interstate corridors, including at stations in Little Rock and West Memphis, so that trucking companies could travel the country knowing they would have places to refuel. It makes natural gas a viable alternative for the trucking industry, which means it might become an alternative for the passenger car industry as well.
Natural gas is $1 to $1.50 cheaper than oil-based fuels, burns much cleaner and is found in abundance in America and in Arkansas. We don’t have to rely on corrupt foreign governments to obtain it or fight any wars in the Middle East to assure its free flow.
But here’s how hard it is to switch from one fuel source to another, even when it’s in the nation’s best interest. Drivers won’t buy natural gas vehicles until there are places to refuel, but fuel stops won’t install pumps until there are enough drivers to make it profitable. Drivers won’t buy natural gas vehicles until prices come down, but the prices won’t come down until a critical mass of buyers is reached. Meanwhile, drillers have figured out how to extract natural gas in large quantities, but there aren’t enough customers purchasing that commodity in large quantities, so prices are falling. If producers cannot make enough money to justify the expense and risk of drilling for natural gas, they’ll stop.
Natural gas comes in two forms: Liquefied and compressed. liquefied is cooled to a liquid at -260 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that you wear gloves and a face shield when you fill up as a precautionary measure. It’s the preferred form for trucking because the tanks are about the same size and weight as diesel tanks, so cargo size isn’t reduced.
Compressed natural gas is in a gaseous state and is preferable for passenger cars because it doesn’t have to be cooled and so therefore is cheaper. A downside — the tank fills at the equivalent of only two or three gallons per minute, so drivers have to learn to be patient at the pump.
In Arkansas, there currently are three compressed natural gas stations — in Fort Smith, North Little Rock and Damascus, a small town north of Conway in the heart of the Fayetteville shale natural gas play. The state wants more. The Arkansas Energy Office recently awarded two stations, one serving customers in Conway and one serving the city of Little Rock, $235,000 each to install pumps there. Until the end of January, drivers also could apply for rebates funded by the federal stimulus package that would pay for 50 percent of the extra cost of a natural gas-powered vehicle.
Meanwhile, Clean Energy is making sure the Pilot Flying Js where liquefied natural gas pumps will be installed also will be ready to install compressed natural gas pumps once large-scale buyers are found.
That means there could be seven compressed natural gas locations in Arkansas in the near future, with more potentially appearing in other parts of the state. That’s a start, but only that. More pumps will be needed to convince Arkansans to pay extra money for a natural gas vehicle. It has to be convenient in order for it to become common.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that natural gas, like all forms of energy, is an imperfect solution. The drilling process, known as “fracking,” involves injecting large amounts of water and chemicals into the earth in order to break up the rock to extract the gas. Arkansas calls itself “The Natural State.” Those chemicals aren’t natural. Effective government regulations — yes, government regulations — will be necessary to prevent bad actors from spoiling the state’s environment and drinking water.
Still, the benefits of natural gas simply cannot be ignored. As Matt Feighner, Clean Energy’s regional vice president of national accounts, said in an interview, “People ask me at cocktail parties what I do for a living. I tell them I stick it to OPEC. That’s what I do for a living.”
Hard to argue with that.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is email@example.com.