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Debate: Natural gas vehicles

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Should NGVs be prioritized in plans to fight global warming? Pros and cons?

Background and context

A Natural gas vehicle or NGV is an alternative fuel vehicle that uses compressed natural gas (CNG) or, less commonly, liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a clean alternative to other automobile fuels. Worldwide, there are roughly 5 million NGVs as of 2006, with the largest number of NGVs in Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Pakistan and Thailand.
In Europe they are popular in Germany and Italy. See Wikipedia's article on natural gas vehicles for more background. The debate regarding natural gas vehicles surrounds whether they are a good replacement for gasoline vehicles, helping lower emissions, combat global warming, and transition away from gasoline. The following questions frame this debate: Are natural gas vehicles cleaner than gasoline vehicles? Will they significantly help combat global warming, or do they still emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? Is this acceptable, when some 0-emission vehicles exist? Are natural gas vehicles economical compared to gasoline vehicles and the other various alternatives? Can natural gas vehicles scale economically? Is there an adequate infrastructure to support natural gas vehicles? Are natural gas vehicles safe? Do they perform well compared to the alternatives? Are they practical for consumers? How do natural gas vehicles compare, in all of the above regards, to the available alternative forms of transportation (electric, hydrogen fuel cell, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, etc.)? Do natural gas vehicles deserve greater attention and priority in any plans to combat global warming and improve energy security?

Contents

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Global warming: Do natural gas vehicles help cut emissions, fight global warming?

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Yes

  • Natural gas burns more cleanly than gasoline in general "The Natural Gas Alternative". ConsumerReports.org - "CNG is much cleaner-burning than gasoline. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CNG can reduce carbon-monoxide emissions by 90 to 97 percent and nitrogen-oxide emissions by 35 to 60 percent when compared with gasoline. CNG can also potentially reduce non-methane hydrocarbon emissions by 50 to 75 percent, while producing fewer carcinogenic pollutants and little or no particulate matter. When the 1998 Civic GX was introduced, the EPA cited it as having the cleanest internal combustion engine ever tested."
  • Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available T Boone Pickens says, "Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today". The important conclusion is that, if we want to immediately begin the process of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas can help now. Other alternatives cannot be pursued as quickly.
  • Existing gasoline vehicles can be converted to cleaner natural gas. Gasoline vehicles can be converted to run on natural gas. This means that heavy-polluting vehicles can be transformed into much lower-emission vehicles. This is key, as the millions of gasoline vehicles on the road currently cannot be immediately removed from the road. They must be made cleaner. Converting them to burn on natural gas is a good way to achieve this.
  • Natural gas can help smooth the transition to renewable energy. Natural gas is a good first step in cutting emissions, and can act as a bridge to cleaner alternatives. The supporters of the Broadwater LNG terminal in Long Island Sound make this case: "Natural gas play a vital role in providing a bridge from traditional fossil fuels to a renewable energy future".


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No

  • NGV's may reduce emissions, but still contribute to global warming Natural gas vehicles run on natural gas, a fossil fuel, so emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, albeit smaller amounts than gasoline-fueled cars (roughly 30% less). If our goal is to aggressively fight global warming, does it make sense to invest in slightly cleaner technologies, or fully 0-emission ones? If we are serious about combating global warming, we should be focusing our energies and investments solely on 0-emission electric vehicles.
  • Natural gas hardly reduces emissions compared to petroleum The Wall Street Journal quoted a California Energy Commission: "When natural gas replaces gasoline, greenhouse gases are reduced by just 20 to 30%. When natural gas is used instead of diesel in trucks, greenhouse gases are reduced just 10 to 20%. If diesel is almost comparable, then it makes more sense to fund that as a stop gap as that infrastructure is already in place."[1]
  • Gasoline vehicles converted for natural gas are inefficient. Gasoline/petrol vehicles converted to run on natural gas suffer because of the low compression ratio of their engines, resulting in a cropping of delivered power while running on natural gas (10%-15%). This inefficiency is costly economically and in terms of global warming.
  • Natural gas will decrease price of oil and coal and increase consumption. Natural gas will simply relieve demand pressures on coal and petroleum and, subsequently, decrease prices. This will only make it easier for people to buy and consume oil and coal. Natural gas will not, therefore, replace coal and petroleum. It will only add to the absolute amount of fossil fuels we are burning, and greenhouse gases we are emitting.
  • Methane in natural gas is a major contributor to global warming. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than C02. Methane is very prominent within "natural gas". This is of concern because the drilling and transportation of natural gas will inevitably lead to leaks and large-scale "spills" that will release this highly harmful gas into the atmosphere and contribute substantially to global warming. These risks should not be taken.


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Footprint: Is the environmental footprint of natural gas drilling tolerable?

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Yes

  • Technology minimizes environmental "footprint" of natural gas "Natural Gas - A Fossil Fuel". Energy Information Administration - "Exploring and drilling for natural gas will always have some impact on land and marine habitats. But new technologies have greatly reduced the number and size of areas disturbed by drilling, sometimes called "footprints." Satellites, global positioning systems, remote sensing devices, and 3-D and 4-D seismic technologies, make it possible to discover natural gas reserves while drilling fewer wells. Plus, the use of horizontal and directional drilling make it possible for a single well to produce gas from much bigger areas than in the past."


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No

  • Waste from natural gas extraction jeopardizes water resources Mr. Gennaro, chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee responding to the concept of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation by saying, “no” and “no.”...This is an activity that is completely and utterly inconsistent with a drinking water supply. This cannot happen. This would destroy the New York City watershed, and for what? For short-term gains on natural gas?"[2]
  • Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are inherently primitive and destructive to the environment. They involve extracting a fuel source from the ground instead of extracting it from the various forms of the sun's energy. This is unsustainable, and should be avoided.


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Economics: What are the economical pros and cons of natural gas?

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Yes

  • Natural gas can cost much less than gasoline per gallon The cost of CNG can be as little as half that of a gallon of gas if you use a home refueling device. And at commercial stations, the cost is still less than gasoline. Some research pegs the fuel savings at about 30 percent less than gasoline on average. In Utah, in August of 2008, compressed natural gas was selling for roughly 87 cents a gallon compared to gasoline, according to the New York Times.[3]
  • Natural gas is abundant, cheap, and will last for centuries. One 2007 study in the United States found that natural gas deposits are sufficient to supply 118 years of U.S. demand at 2007 levels. Natural gas is similarly abundant around the world. Essentially, it is as abundant as oil was 50 years ago, largely because it has not been exploited on a large scale yet. Such abundance means that it is likely to cost much less than oil.


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No

  • Compressed natural gas vehicles cost more "The Natural Gas Alternative". ConsumerReports.org - "CNG-powered vehicles have generally cost more to purchase new than comparable gasoline models. Suggested retail for the Civic GX is $24,590 plus $635 for freight. A comparably equipped, gasoline-powered Civic LX lists for $17,760. Honda concedes GX resale values can also be $1,000 to $3,000 less than their gasoline counterparts. Add to that the cost of a Phill refueling unit at $3,400 plus the installation cost, upwards of $500, and the premium could easily top $10,000."
  • Natural gas vehicles are not yet commercially viable. Natural gas vehicles are in the early stages of development. The technology behind CNG and LNG vehicles is very uncertain. In addition, the infrastructure for natural gas vehicles is not yet established. Natural gas vehicles, therefore, are not yet commercially viable on a large scale.


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Infrastructure: Is a natural gas vehicle infrastructure feasible?

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Yes

  • NGV's can be refueled anywhere from existing natural gas lines. NGV's can be refueled anywhere from existing natural gas lines. This makes home refueling stations that tap into such lines possible. It is not true that an entirely new infrastructure would have to be created for refueling natural gas vehicles. Modifying existing infrastructures will work.


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No

  • Natural gas stations are unavailable in some places Natural gas pumps are rare. In the United States, for instance, only 1% of all gas stations have natural gas pumps. This relates to the fact that the natural gas industry is young, and natural gas pipelines do not extend to all places where natural gas stations are needed. This severely limits the growth of natural gas vehicles, as people will not buy the vehicles unless they know that a robust refilling infrastructure exists to support them.


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Safety: Are natural gas vehicles safe?

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Yes

  • Natural gas vehicle fuel tanks are very strong and safe "Natural Gas Vehicles The Clean Way to Go with a Domestic Fuel". Washington Gas. - "Is using natural gas in a vehicle safe?...Yes. First, the natural gas storage cylinders are very sturdy, a half-inch thick compared to an eighth or sixteenth of an inch for gasoline tanks. Second, natural gas is lighter than air, so even if a leak develops, the gas dissipates into the air instead of forming a spreading pool or vapor cloud on the ground, as other fuels do. Third, the combustion temperature of natural gas, 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, is higher than that of gasoline, 600 degrees Fahrenheit. An American Gas Association study reported no injuries or fatalities after more than a half billion miles driven with natural gas vehicles."
  • Natural gas is less flammable and explosive than other fuels Natural gas is a safer fuel than gasoline and diesel fuels. This is related to the fact that it has a limited range of flammability; it requires the correct mixture of air and fuel to burn—somewhere in the 5 to 15 percent range, and an ignition temperature of approximately 1100 degrees F. This compares favorably to gasoline and diesel fuels which both have lower concentrations of flammability and lower temperatures of ignition.[4]
  • Natural gas utilities have a long record of safety Natural gas already has a long history of extraction, transport, and use in homes and utilities. In that history, there are very few instances of safety issues, leaks, fires, or explosions. The safety record of the industry is very solid, and should be expected to remain so into the future.
  • Natural gas safety regulations are very strong Natural gas is already heavily regulated in terms of safety. These regulations have worked very well to virtually eliminate any major risks associated with the fuel. Sensors, for example, can be added to cars and utilities to detect leaks. Any problems in regards to the safety of natural gas, however, can and should be addressed through further regulation.


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No

  • Odorless natural gas can escape detection risking fire/explosion. Odorless natural gas can escape detection by smell, which means that a house, factory, pipes or other natural gas utilities can release and be filled with natural gas. A spark or flame can, subsequently, cause a major fire or explosion.


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Health: Is using natural gas healthy for humans?

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Yes

  • Natural gas is non-toxic. Natural gas is a non-toxic gas. The presence of the gas in the air does not present any direct toxic risks to humans.
  • Odors added to natural gas to enable human detection "Why Natural Gas Is Dangerous". Alliant Energy - "When natural gas first comes out of the ground, you can’t see it or smell it. That’s why gas companies add a chemical that smells like rotten eggs to the gas to make even the smallest leaks easy to notice...Luckily, natural gas leaks are rare. Fires and explosions are even more uncommon – the rotten egg smell helps people get help quickly before anything bad happens. A minute amount of odorant such as t-butyl mercaptan, with a rotting-cabbage-like smell, is added to the otherwise colorless and almost odorless gas, so that leaks can be detected before a fire or explosion occurs. Sometimes a related compound, thiophane is used, with a rotten-egg smell. Adding odorant to natural gas began in the United States after the 1937 New London School explosion. It is substantially improved the detection and safety of natural gas.


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No

  • Odorless natural gas presents greater risk of ingestion. Natural gas is colorless, tasteless, and oderless. Without any added odor, it can escape olfactory detection and be ingested by people.
  • Burning natural gas releases ultra-fine particles; a health risk. Burning natural gas releases a significant amount of ultra fine particles that are less than .1 micron in diameter. Several studies indicate that ultrafine particles may have an even more dramatic impact on health than those in the fine category (for which diesel has always been a concern).[5]\
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Performance: Do natural gas vehicles perform well?

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Yes

  • Natural gas cars perform comparably to petrol cars "The Natural Gas Alternative". ConsumerReports.org - "The driving experience. Drivers are not expected to notice a significant difference in performance between a CNG-powered vehicle and one fueled by gasoline. Acceleration is comparable, and the car starts and drives normally. Gas mileage is about the same. As a bonus, in some states, drivers of CNG vehicles can use the HOV lane. A study of New York City taxis running on natural gas concluded that maintenance costs were also reduced."


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No

  • The performance of natural gas vehicles is not notable. Natural gas vehicles are not anything special, as far as performance goes. It should, therefore, not be considered an advantage.


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Practicality: Are natural gas vehicles practical?

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Yes

  • NGV's operate just like gasoline vehicles (no training required). "Is any special training needed to use natural gas vehicles? No. A natural gas vehicle operates like any gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle. In the case of bi-fuel vehicles, some simple instruction may be needed to use the fuel selector."


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No

  • Natural gas cars have a smaller range than gasoline engines. Natural gas vehicles have a shorter driving range than regular gas-powered vehicles. This is because natural gas has a lower energy content compared to gas.[6]
  • Refueling will only be easy with a natural gas infrastructure. In order for natural gas refueling to be convenient, a natural gas infrastructure will need to exist early on. Assuming this will take time, natural gas vehicle owners will have to deal with having far fewer natural gas stations. This will be prohibitive in some areas and a major hassle in others.


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LNG: What are the pros and cons of liquefied natural gas?

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Yes

  • Liquefied natural gas can be a good fuel for vehicles. Vehicles require a fuel that is easily transportable and that is capable of working with existing or modified combustion engines. Liquefied natural gas is capable of this. This is particularly important in the context of the fact that one of the largest contributors to global warming is vehicles. Because LNG is capable of being used in vehicles, while many other "energy" sources are not (or less so), it is a very important "clean" alternative.


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No

  • LNG tankers are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. LNG tankers are massive tankers with multiple large, highly-compressed liquid natural gas tanks on board. When entering a port, a tanker could be attacked by a boat carrying a large bomb, which could set off a massive series of explosions from the natural gas chambers. This could devastate a port city. Such risks should not be taken in the face of 21st century terrorism threats.



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Pro/con sources

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Yes


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No




See also

External links and resources

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