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Posted: February 04, 2013

New hope for natural gas autos

Eric Peterson

"Many people claim there are environmental upsides to NGVs," says Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Energy Program. "That can be true, but there are major questions about fugitive methane emissions. Relatively small leak rates in the supply chain can undo the greenhouse gas benefits you think you are getting. For NGVs to be a win in terms of climate, more attention needs to be paid to the magnitude of the leaks and where they’re coming from."

The potency of methane as a greenhouse gas is far higher than carbon dioxide, the argument goes, and leakage rates could be 2 percent. The threshold for a positive climate outcome from mass adoption of NGVs is closer to 1 percent, says Brownstein.

"There is no definitive data what the leakage rates are," he adds. "The engineering estimates vary widely. We need to get better data and make it publicly available."

Asked whether the environmental lobby’s push for natural gas to replace coal at power plants was contradictory to resistance for NGVs on the country’s highways, Brownstein says it’s a matter of relative evils. "Coal is much more carbon-intensive than oil," he says.

The fact that natural gas releases 25 percent less carbon emissions than diesel "is a relatively easy set of talking points to rattle off," Brownstein adds. "We’re not rooting for NGVs to fail, but we’re looking to have them address this issue of fugitive emissions."

Ford’s NGV road map

Chrysler is building its bifuel Ram on the assembly line in Mexico and GM is working with one Indiana upfitter to convert a few trucks and vans, but Ford has seven upfitters working on aftermarket NGV conversions of the whole spectrum of vehicles, from light-duty to cargo vans, says Jon Coleman, Ph.D., Ford’s fleet sustainability and technology manager in Dearborn, Mich.

He says Ford’s strategy fits the bill for state fleets, just like the MOU ordered. "What the states have asked for is breadth of portfolio," Coleman says. "If you’re going to invest in infrastructure, you want to spread it around every vehicle you have. That’s an affirmation of our strategy moving forward."

Ford’s plan is to continue working with upfitters rather than build NGVs on the assembly lines. "It’s a question of market demand," Coleman explains. "The last three years, Ford has made about 25,000 NGVs, which is about twice GM and Chrysler combined. In an industry where the total volume is 15 million, 25,000 is a rounding error."

To wit, Honda made only 2,000 natural-gas Civics in 2012, versus about 220,000 gasoline-powered Civics.

Coleman says he sees the MOU as something of a road map to the future for NGVs and gives Detroit a good indicator of market demand, but his optimism is tempered by the reality of the market.

"I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the governor’s office in Denver trying to make this work for Colorado," he adds. "I think we’ve made some good first steps, but this is going to take a concerted effort over a long period of time."

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at

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