The auto field has seen interesting twists and turns over the years as it has explored the use of alternative fuels and advanced technologies to improve environmental performance. I have witnessed the ebb and flow of focus on fuels ranging from hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, propane, and natural gas to battery electric, gasoline-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell technologies.
While electric drive is a primary focus among automakers and others for some obvious reasons, it’s just as obvious that plug-in electric vehicles, with their costly batteries and often substantial incremental price, are not likely to displace internal combustion engine vehicles in the mass market anytime soon. These vehicles are important. But their commercialization in mass market numbers is a process that will unfold over many years, perhaps decades.
It’s important to reflect on the mission at hand. If our goal is to resolve America’s near-total dependence on petroleum – and specifically the oil we import from far-away nations at great cost to our economy and our energy security – then we should be thinking about fuels that can make a realistic difference in the short- to mid-term, at affordable cost. Clearly, an important focus is also emissions reduction, as it has been for several decades as we’ve sought to improve the air quality in our cities, plus the imperative of decreasing CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.
Natural gas seems an ideal answer. This fuel can be used seamlessly in internal combustion engines that have been designed or modified for its use. It is the cleanest-burning
fossil fuel so creating extremely low emission vehicles is not only possible, it’s being done today with great success. In internal combustion engines, reducing CO2 emissions corresponds directly with higher fuel efficiency. Thus, using natural gas fuel in the increasingly efficient mass-market vehicles being required by government regulation in the years ahead will provide multiple benefits.
And, of course, let’s not forget that our domestic reserves of natural gas are significant. Shifting reliance from a fuel in short domestic supply – petroleum – to an abundant domestic fuel is important economically and strategically. It’s something we should be focusing on now, not at some point in the future when government decides it’s an expedient or politically useful answer.
If you think this is a relatively new line of thought, you would be wrong. T. Boone Pickens, known best for the current ‘Pickens Plan’ that urges a transition to natural gas transportation, was encouraging NGV use two decades ago when foreign oil imports then accounted for more than half of the U.S. federal trade deficit.
We have also been highlighting the benefits of NGVs and the use of natural gas as a motor fuel since our first issues of Green Car Journal in 1992. In the 1990s, we were reporting on production NGVs available for sale at the time like the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, Chevy Corsica and Caprice sedans, Chevy G30 cargo and passenger vans, Dodge B-Series Ram van and wagon, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans, Ford Crown Victoria sedan, and the Honda Civic GX.
This diversity of light-duty natural gas models faded years ago as attention focused on other potential answers. It’s time to refocus once again in ways that allow greater choices of natural gas vehicles and enable widespread use of a domestically available fuel. America will be stronger because of it.
Ron Cogan is editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of CarsOfChange.com