Friday, June 19, 2009


Natural Gas and Motor Vehicles

R-Squared Energy Blog (a thoughtful and informative blog if you are interested in following energy issues) has a post on the possibility of replacing gasoline with natural gas for transportation. This topic was bound to get more attention because of the increase in natural gas realized by new drilling technologies. No matter what happens, having more natural gas available will at least help stave off the inevitable “freezing in the dark” for some of the population a little longer. As such, I certainly welcome this news (even though I myself do not use any natural gas).

But how easy would it be to convert a significant portion of the US vehicle fleet to natural gas? Some problems are mentioned in the blog post, such as cost. In view of the deteriorating economic situation and the debt implosion — which appears to be just getting started, even large corporations with fleets of vehicles might not be able to field enough capital to convert many existing vehicles, or acquire new ones.

A second problem is that of course not all fossil fuel reserves are economically recoverable. How much of all this new natural gas will actually be produced? Remember, the numbers include “probable, possible and speculative reserves.” Some of those might not even exist.

Third, natural gas production, as well as the manufacturing of natural gas vehicles, are dependent on oil and coal.

Fourth, a great deal of new infrastructure will be needed because vehicles would require a far-flung and reliable fueling network, just like our present ubiquitous gas stations. How many gas stations also have natural gas on tap? And you would need a fleet of tank trucks to service the network. That should give you an idea of the magnitude of such an undertaking.

Fifth, building and maintaining that infrastructure will generate more competition for the funds (read: energy and resources) that are badly needed for maintaining and replacing our existing infrastructure, which is already crumbling, and for all the other new infrastructure, such as renewable-energy equipment (wind turbines, solar panels, etc.) and the “smart grid,” which alone could easily cost a trillion dollars.

And sixth, the rising cost of energy is putting the kibosh on “economic growth,” which in itself means that progressively less money will be available for everything.

So, we need to at least look at this realistically and realize that there is a great distance between having lots of natural gas in the ground and using it to fuel vast fleets of vehicles. Instead, I think it would make more sense to use the gas for space heating, electricity generation, and fertilizer manufacturing, and concentrate on economic re-localization that would substantially reduce vehicular traffic. Using large natural gas reserves as an excuse to perpetuate an economy heavily dependent on long-distance shipping and the general overuse of motor vehicles would only aggravate the situation and make it all the worse in the long run.

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