Cover Story
Could LNG be a lifeline for truckers?
Diesel-dependent industry takes a look at another option

By Clarissa Kell-Holland
staff writer

 

For most truckers, 2008 will be remembered as a dismal year of slim profit margins because of record-high diesel and oil prices, plummeting freight rates, and a recession unlike anything this country has experienced since the Great Depression.

However, in 2009, there is a renewed call to take control of our country’s energy security by depending more on our own domestic energy sources. For instance, the liquefied form of natural gas – or LNG – can be used for things such as an alternative to diesel to power America’s trucks.

Although some may see LNG as a “pie in the sky” fuel alternative, some short-haul and regional trucking companies are already successfully using LNG to move their freight.

 

Fuel of the future?
LNG is natural gas cooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to form a liquid. The cooling process removes impurities and heavy hydrocarbons, making it one of the cleanest burning fuels because it produces nearly zero particulate emissions.

And with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ratcheting down emissions standards on trucks, all truckers must be concerned with lowering their greenhouse gas emissions.

There is already a natural gas pipeline distribution network of 1.5 million miles that pumps natural gas to every major city in the country, according to Greg Roche, director of business development for Clean Energy Fuels in Seal Beach, CA. However, he added that more LNG fueling stations are needed along the way to fit the fueling needs of long-haul truckers.

Right now, local and regional trucking operations, like those who do drayage in and out of the ports daily, are seeing the most benefit from using LNG-fueled trucks. The trucks return to the yards every night for fueling, which makes it cost-effective to have a fueling station on-site or nearby.

Roche said the LNG infrastructure plan is being built out in key metropolitan areas in states such as California and Texas, and then to the Southeast.

The next step will be to connect these metropolitan areas with fueling stations along key interstate corridors so that all truckers can actually use LNG.

 “Now, realistically, it’s going to be awhile before they can drive randomly all over the country, but certainly on key goods corridors it will be very viable. And depending on how things pan out in the stimulus package, it could happen sooner rather than later,” Roche said.

Besides being cheaper than diesel, LNG emits up to 95 percent less pollution than trucks running on diesel.

An LNG tank with fuel weighs about 500 pounds more than an equivalent diesel tank with fuel.

Roche said the LNG fuel tank works like a “thermos bottle.”

 “Just like a full thermos bottle maintains temperature longer than a near-empty bottle, the same idea applies to the LNG tank,” he said.

An advantage to using a domestic fuel source like natural gas, according to Roche, is that the U.S. has plenty of it to go around.

 “We have at least a 120-year supply of it, maybe just 100 years if natural gas is successful beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. “Natural gas is also insulated from the global energy market, unlike oil, because some of the countries we import oil from don’t like us very much.”

 

What is energy security?
Even President Barack Obama said he is firmly committed to promoting “the responsible domestic production of oil and natural gas” and to curbing our current imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years.

 “The energy challenges our country faces are severe and have gone unaddressed for far too long,” according to the Obama administration’s energy and environment policy. “Our addiction to foreign oil doesn’t just undermine our natural security and wreak havoc on our environment; it cripples our economy and strains the budgets of working families all across America.”

When diesel skyrocketed to nearly $5 per gallon and the price for a barrel of oil spiked to $147 in July 2008, fuel prices had truckers over a barrel – of oil. Truckers really had only two choices: They could either pay the staggering fuel costs and keep their trucks moving or shut down until prices subsided.

In 2008, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the U.S. spent more than $475 billion on foreign oil. Nearly 20 percent of every barrel of oil is used for diesel.

During the height of this fuel crisis last summer was when Texas oil billionaire

T. Boone Pickens went to work writing the “Pickens Plan” to propose solutions as to how this country could “alleviate its addiction to foreign oil.”

Pickens, who is also the Clean Energy founder and a board member, suggests that the U.S. could keep between “$350 and $450 billion” in this country by replacing diesel with LNG as the principal transportation fuel for heavy trucks and fleet vehicles.

Besides using a domestic fuel source like natural gas, Pickens is also committed to promoting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

 “By investing in renewable energy and conservation, we can create millions of new jobs. New alternative energies allow us to shift natural gas to transportation, securing our economy by reducing our dependence on foreign oil and keeping more money at home to pay for the whole thing,” the Pickens Plan claims.

 

OOIDA officials weigh in
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association was founded in 1973 during an oil embargo when fuel rationing and high prices starved a lot of truckers out of the industry.

Although there have been other oil crises since then, truckers had another wake-up call this past summer when fuel spiked to nearly $5 per gallon. This sparked a renewed interest in exploring alternative fuel sources.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president for OOIDA, said while fuel prices are down significantly from this past summer’s highs, there is the lingering fear they could spike back up at any time.

“We have already seen this movie before, and we know how it ends,” Spencer said.

 He said if there’s a fuel like LNG that’s already out there and available for some of our members to take advantage of right now, the Association “would be naive not to look in that direction.”

 “If we don’t change how we view energy, how we utilize it and how we get our energy, we will again pay a huge price down the road like we have in the past,” he told Land Line Magazine.

Spencer said OOIDA is concerned that the 2010 emissions standards are a “bridge to nowhere” for truckers needing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

 “You can pour all the urea you want into diesel, but I don’t think that’s the direction we should be going when there are cleaner alternatives,” he said. LL

 

clarissa_kell-holland@landlinemag.com

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