A prognosis of T. Boone Picken’s LNG vehicle future

I stumbled across this piece by Alan Krupnick this morning while browsing Real Clear Energy (one of my stops along my daily morning news adventure). Essentially, he offers us an evaluation of the state of play for T. Boone Picken’s vision of a LNG vehicle future. The prognosis, by Krupnick’s account, is still to uncertain to call, but I think we can make something of it.

Liquid Natural Gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel because of its newly accessible abundance via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but it also has drawbacks. The vehicles themselves are more expensive than gasoline or hybrid alternatives (e.g. – Honda’s new LNG Civic as compared to its gasoline and hybrid counterparts) so the payback point takes longer to reach through savings on fuel costs alone. Of course there are subsidy programs that could bring down the cost, but they expired in 2010, and the prospect of getting Congress to agree on much of anything is, well…bleak, let’s say.

LNG vehicles also have significantly shorter range than gasoline or hybrid alternatives — and that’s before mentioning that LNG fuel tanks can take up to 50% more space than gasoline tanks or hybrid batteries, and even with severely reduced cargo or passenger space they still have shorter ranges (LNG: 218 miles per tank v. Gas: 383 mpt v. Hybrid: 504 mpt [looking again at different models of the Civic]). So, given the space issue, it may make more sense to focus on using LNG in large trucks, vans, and buses. But forecasts of the costs of maintenance are unclear, so fleets of LNG vehicles will have to struggle with uncertainty on that front for some time.

Finally, there is the question of infrastructure for LNG vehicles, which Krupnick frames as a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Infrastructure developers want there to be plenty of LNG vehicles on the road before taking on big projects, but consumers want infrastructure to be in place before they’ll be willing to take the risk of buying a non-gasoline or non-hybrid vehicle. Perhaps this gap can be bridged through commercial cooperation, where prospective LNG truck fleet purchasers coordinate with infrastructure developers to start building refueling stations in strategic locations along pre-established routes. Maybe if LNG starts showing up at Love’s or Buc-ee’s it’ll start making more sense for people to make the change (the same applies for electric vehicle plug-in stations, or even hydrogen powered vehicles), but until that happens most will probably see it as too risky, especially considering the reduced range of LNG vehicles.

Of course, there are still plenty of concerns worth raising about how we get our natural gas these days (fracking), the actual economic ripples of the industry, and the climate change/air pollution impacts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with natural gas production. But T. Boone Pickens is convinced that LNG should be the future of transportation and Krupnick nods toward optimism, despite citing “uncertainties” about the environmental dimensions of such a transition.

So ask yourself — what is the real issue at hand? Cheap energy? Energy security? Environmental stewardship? Climate change mitigation? Energy independence? Economic growth?

At its core this represents one of the latest technological stabs at perpetuating our energy intensive standard of living while attempting to accommodate other competing values — but for all that it’s worth, we’re still talking about a short-term fix. And it’s one with many uncertainties surrounding it. Switching from oil to natural gas, at best, is like a first stitch in mending a deep wound. It may stop the bleeding a little, but we’re still lost in the woods if sustainable energy is our goal. Natural gas is, in many ways, desireable, questionable, risky, and perhaps inevitable (though not in some cases re: Longmont, Boulder, Yellow Springs, Broadview Heights, Meyers Lake, Cincinnati & the State of Ohio), so if we are going to use it, we ought to use it as best we can to pave the way for or to buy us time until sustainable, renewable energy technologies become competitive. In the meantime, I would still recommend going the Hybrid route or carpooling if you must drive — and even further, consider alternatives to personal automobiles like walking, biking, or public transit. Of course this isn’t always feasible, practical, or compatible with our established ways of life (especially living in places like North Central Texas) but small steps eventually traverse the world. We must, in this case and many others, take Ghandi’s advice and be the change we wish to see.


JM Kincaid

Science Progress publicizes study of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas


As a follow up to the Science Progress article I co-authored with Dr. Adam Briggle earlier this July, we have written another short piece that again explains the subject of our study, Technology and Society: Fracking Ideology, and requests reader participation. You can find the article linked here and above.



Is Denton fracked?

At this point, one can surmise that natural gas drilling is a booming issue. This is especially true on big shale plays like the Barnett shale in North Central Texas. The challenge for municipalities, Denton among them, then, is to regulate this new gas drilling and production activity as best they can.

With this in mind, on February 7, 2012, the Denton City Council placed a 120-day moratorium on new natural gas well permitting applications so that it could revise the city’s gas drilling and production ordinance. In June, with the revisions still incomplete, the Council extended the moratorium ordinance another 120 days, setting it to expire on October 4, 2012.

But, not surprisingly, the ordinance is still in the works, so last night the Council gathered in City Hall to vote on another amendment to the moratorium ordinance. But last night’s vote wasn’t only on whether to extend the moratorium – the amendment also redefined three exemptions to the moratorium ordinance allowing applications already in progress when the moratorium was established, as well as applications filed prior to the moratorium, and applications for projects not using hydraulic fracturing, to move forward.

These exemptions are particularly contentious because they apply to four gas wells owned by EagleRidge Energy – a company known around the Denton community for poor environmental and public health and safety practices. The predominant citizens position represented at last night’s meeting was clear: strong support for extending the moratorium and strong opposition to the redefined exemptions.

But these two provisions of the amendment would either live or die together.

In a unanimous 6-0 vote, the Council passed the amendment to extend the moratorium until December 18, 2012, and redefine the exemptions. Despite being sympathetic to the views of the citizenry, the Council argued that these exemptions better reflect standing state laws of vested rights, which provide that moratoriums of this kind not affect permitting applications retroactively.

This is, I think, an important point – Texas municipalities cannot simply ban fracking, as some might believe. Texas state law prevents moratorium ordinances from having a retrospective effect. In other words, permitting applications already approved or already underway will be valid no matter what new ordinances the City Council passes. The Council’s power stops at halting new permitting applications, meaning old drilling projects are still happening, and after last night’s vote, so too will the four controversial EagleRidge wells.

So, these exemptions better accommodate state regulations, fine. Nevertheless, there’s reason to suspect that other motivating factors were at work in this decision; that is, to not pass the exemptions redefinition would have been very risky for the City Council. EagleRidge has been petitioning for “variance” from the moratorium on the four aforementioned wells for some time now, and if the Council had left the exemptions as they were, EagleRidge has likely been preparing to file a lawsuit against the City of Denton under current state vested rights law and the 5th amendment compensations clause, claiming that the moratorium is causing undue financial harm to the company without just compensation. For this issue to go to trial at all would set a dangerous precedent – one that the Council wants to avoid. So, in order to extend the moratorium, they had to redefine the exemptions. Call it losing a battle to win the war.

In either case, it was a tough spot to be in: the vote was either against extending the moratorium or in favor of the redefined exemptions. Both are politically sticky – painfully ironic, even – putting the Council between a rock and a hard place. But is Denton fracked? Not exactly. The priority is still getting a strong gas-drilling ordinance in place, a goal that remains, I think, entirely reasonable.

See this post also on the Bard CEP blog.


JM Kincaid