Peddling natural fuel for the gas pedal | AspenTimes.com

Peddling natural fuel for the gas pedal

John ColsonGlenwood Springs correspondentAspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoThe Honda CGX, the only consumer-oriented car that rolls off U.S. assembly lines ready to burn natural gas.

RIFLE, Colo. – Natural gas-powered vehicles may soon be a more common sight around the Western Slope, if government and industry efforts bear fruit. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is working with the oil and gas industry and other entities to establish natural gas “filling centers” on the Western Slope, in the hope of encouraging consumers to switch from regular gasoline.But the effort is expected to take some time, as both the state and the industry are not sure how best to get the job done for public, non-fleet vehicles.In the meantime, an area fuel company is gearing up to pump natural gas for fleet vehicles as well as any passenger cars or private pick-ups that are able to burn natural gas.Kirk Swallow, of Swallow Oil in Rifle, confirmed this week that the company is working on selling natural gas at its new station in Parachute.But he also said that the process is proving somewhat problematic, mostly due to finances. He said he and his family owned company applied for a grant from the Governor’s Energy Office, but it was rejected. He plans to apply for more grant money as it becomes available.”It’s not cheap to put those in,” Swallow said, estimating that installation of a tap in a nearby gas line, as well as compressors, storage tanks and dispensers at the station, will cost “somewhere around $700,000.”EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), a Canadian-based energy company, is one of numerous companies exploiting the Piceance Basin gas fields in western Colorado, and a leading voice in the drive to get CNG outlets on the Western Slope.According to Wendy Wiedenbeck, an EnCana public relations advisor, EnCana is working with other companies such as Williams and the Bill Barrett Corp. on the issue.But, said EnCana spokesman Doug Hock in Denver, “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation.”He explained that distributors would like to be assured of a sufficient number of customers to justify the cost of establishing the fueling centers.”We need volume in order to make it work,” he said.The industry maintains that natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, emitting lower amounts of carbon to the atmosphere and contributing less to global warming.Increased use of natural gas also is seen as a way to reduce the U.S. dependency on petroleum from foreign sources, and as a transition type of fuel as the U.S. converts to a greater use of renewable energy sources.Last July, for example, EnCana announced it was embarking on a plan of converting a number of its Colorado vehicles to run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.In statements from the company, the move was touted both as a way of ultimately reducing its “environmental footprint” and a way to encourage the public to look more favorably on CNG as a viable alternative for gasoline in the U.S. transportation market.Currently, officials said, there are a dozen and a half fueling centers along the Front Range, none in Western Colorado and a network of them along I-15 in Utah.The effort to establish fueling centers along the I-70 corridor, according to Hock and Simms, is still in its early stages and springs in part from a newly formed Colorado Natural Gas Coalition, which initially is focusing its attention on the fueling needs of businesses with fleets of CNG vehicles.Also involved, Simms said, is the Clean Cities Coalition, which has offices in Denver and across the nation working on ways to reduce air pollution.Natalie Swalnick of the Clean Cities Coalition said it is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by the American Lung Association, with a goal of reducing the consumption of petroleum and the pollution that comes from it. She said corporations such as AT&T and UPS have expressed interest in converting their fleets to CNG, and the Fed-Ex package delivery service reportedly already has natural-gas vehicles in its fleet.”The timing is really right, right now,” Swalnick said of the coalition’s work.”We need to find a way to get from Kansas to Utah driving a natural-gas vehicle,” to attract truckers and other commercial travelers, she declared.The only consumer-oriented car that rolls off U.S. assembly lines ready to burn natural gas is the Honda CGX. And while production is rising, Swalnick said, it is still relatively limited.”It is an incredibly complex challenge,” she said of the overall effort to encourage greater use of natural gas in vehicles, despite federal tax credits and rising consumer awareness.She said there is no timetable set for the process, although she hopes things will become more definite next year.jcolson@postindependent.com