The Current Stagnation of Natural Gas Vehicles in America
Special to The Auto Channel
Michael Fitzsimmons Seeking Alpha
March 8, 2009: Most of you already know I believe natural gas transportation is the key to ending US reliance on foreign oil, protecting the America from the economic and social implications of peak oil (some of which we are experiencing today), and meaningfully reducing CO2 emissions. With a desire to practice what I preach, I embarked on a mission to study the non-fleet (consumer) NGV status quo in America and determine how I can obtain and refuel a NGV. Here’s what I found out.
It’s well known both GM and Ford (F) manufacture and sell NGVs in Europe and elsewhere. However, they refuse to build and sell these vehicles in the US. The only natural gas car sold in America, the Honda (HMC) Civic GX, is not available in my state and is only sold in CA and NY.
Yet Toyota’s announcement, after listing all the reasons why this car makes sense, then states the company has no plans to manufacture them(!?). That statement is emblematic of the current state of affairs in the NGVs: the technology is proven, uncomplicated, cleaner, will reduce foreign oil, has a readily available US produced fuel, and yet I cannot buy one! What ever happened to the Toyota of the 1970’s that produced fuel-efficient, economical, and reliable small compacts? It seems it has chosen to imitate the US auto makers and focus on large trucks, expensive luxury cars, and increasing market share.
The next logical step was to investigate converting my current vehicle, a 2002 Toyota Tacoma, to run on natural gas. After a few googles, I found a document listing all vehicles for which an EPA and California Air Resources Board (CARB) certified vehicle conversion kits are available.
The first thing to note here is that all legal conversion kits are made by small volume manufactures (SVMs) as opposed to the original auto manufacturer. Secondly, the list is limited to a few Ford and GM models. There is no legal EPA/CARB certified conversion kit for my Toyota Tacoma. There are no certified kits available for any Toyota or Honda.
Undaunted, I sent out a handful of emails to a few of the references listed at the end of this document. One response was very informative. I’ll list the key points here:
- Once a vehicle is 10 years old or has accumulated 120,000 miles, the EPA’s jurisdiction no longer applies as the vehicle has passed the threshold of “useful life”. There are small conversion shops that will convert these vehicles to natural gas.
- Toyotas are notoriously bad performers following aftermarket conversion kits and there could well be serious drivability issues.
- Natural gas conversion kits affect all aspects of fuel delivery, combustion, and emissions.
- An engine control module (ECM) contains a microprocessor to control fuel/air mixtures, ignition and spark advance among other control factors to compensate for temperature, pressure, altitude, and driving habits. The ECM software must be optimized for natural gas operation, and therefore new code must be downloaded as part of any conversion process.
- Catalytic converters are highly tuned to vehicle fuel and ECM operation. An incompatible ECM/catalytic converter combination can yield an NGV that has worse emissions than its gasoline counterpart. This despite the fact that natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than gasoline to start with.
- The EPA treats SVMs as though they are OEMs and insists they are a “neutral” regulator. However, the $100-150k cost for EPA certification, and the $300k CARB costs, effectively favors OEMs, who obviously aren’t interested in manufacturing NGVs or conversion kits. Net-net, EPA regulations support big oil and more pollution. No wonder Robert Kennedy Jr. calls the EPA the “Environmental Destruction Agency”.
- Aftermarket CNG conversion companies are required to get an emissions multiplicative deterioration factor (DF) applied while the OEMs do not. So, the EPA effectively further stacks the deck against NGV conversions.
- The EPA charges an annual recertification fee, which further increases cost for SVMs.
- CARB has been adopted by many other states like NY, Maine, and Massachusetts, further decreasing the market for SVMs by increasing conversion costs in those states.
The root of some of these barriers to NGV conversion kits lies in memo 1A of the “Clean Air Act”.
This Act effectively subsidizes and protects the oil companies and hampers NGV availability. How hypocritical that the “Clean Air Act” basically ensures the US will continue to pollute our air and water. Further, what politician would stand up and fight against the “Clean Air Act”? It’s the “Patriot Act” all over again, and it would be political suicide because uninformed public voters react off headlines.
Now let’s take a look at the refueling side of the chicken-n-egg NGV/nat gas refueling equation. Here is a website detailing the US CNG refueling locations and current price.
If you zoom all the way out on this map, it's clear things look pretty good – if you live in California, Utah, or Oklahoma. Most states don’t have a single public CNG refueling station on this map.
Switching to the home front, the only garage appliance for refueling a NGV in your garage is the “Phill” made by Fuelmaker.
Fuelmaker is a Canadian firm. Apparently the US can put a man on the moon but cannot manufacture a device which simply compresses natural gas. Further, the “Phill” is fairly difficult to obtain and is not “supported” in most states. It cost over $4000 (uninstalled). I’d bet you $100 I could design a unit and place an order in China (after all, the US can’t seem to manufacture anything real any longer) for a million units and sell them profitably for $1250.
The bottom line here is NGV availability and the necessary natural gas refueling infrastructure in the US today is effectively non-existent. There are many roadblocks to insure this remains the case. In my state (TN), it is impossible for me to buy a natural gas vehicle or to legally convert my existing vehicle. That is the situation in over 90% of the United States.
In spite of all the rhetoric by both political parties to reduce foreign oil imports and to fight a “war on terror”, the US has instead enacted legislation to keep us addicted to that foreign oil and to guarantee we continue to fund the terrorists. The guns of peak oil and terrorism are pointed directly at our head, and all that is needed to sink the US is another peak oil price spiral to pull the trigger. US law not only insures the gun remains pointed at our heads, it has actually focused the crosshair right between our eyes. All the while we stand on top of huge US natural gas reserves and NGV technology is readily available. What a dangerous and moronic state of affairs.
Natural gas is the only domestic fuel that can be scaled-up for transportation and meaningfully reduce foreign oil imports as well as CO2 and particulate emissions. The US has an abundant supply of clean and affordable natural gas. A 2.2 million mile natural gas pipeline grid is already in place. It delivers natural gas to most major cities and to homes and businesses in every state. 63 million American homes are connected to the natural gas grid where 130,000,000 cars and trucks go every night and could be refueled while their owners sleep. A large percentage of gasoline stations are already on the natural grid and could easily be outfitted with a CNG pump. We could create millions of jobs with a natural gas centric transportation policy:
- In the automobile industry, both building NGVs and converting existing cars and trucks
- Manufacturing and installing home refueling appliances
- Building CNG refueling stations
- Manufacturing compressors and pumps for these CNG stations
- Exploring, drilling, and producing natural gas
- Keeping $700 billion/year from leaving the US for foreign oil
- Providing thousands of US landowners and farmers with natural gas royalty checks instead of funding our terrorist enemies with our energy dollars
At the same time, NGVs emit 30% less CO2 than do gasoline powered vehicles. Just as important, natural gas doesn’t have any of the toxic particulate emissions of gasoline. Environmental “purists” who continue to support only fully electric vehicles and electric hybrids are foolishly misguided. A significant increase in electric cars prior to a build out of green wind and solar electrical generation capacity will increase the very toxic coal emissions these same environmentalists want to limit. Most electric hybrid vehicles only get 40 or 50 miles on their electric motors and then switch over to gasoline. Again, what the auto manufacturers should be building are electric/natural gas hybrids, not gasoline based hybrids.
The US should embark on a broad natural gas centric transportation policy, with a goal of migrating half of all US cars and trucks to natural gas over the next 5 years. This policy would not only reduce foreign oil imports by 7-8 million barrels a day, it would pay for itself over a short period of time, and then pay dividends to all US citizens for decades - much as the interstate highway investment did. More importantly, it would rally the country behind a meaningful goal that everyone could understand. It would increase our own confidence in the future, and show foreign governments that we were serious about tackling energy issues head on. It would strengthen the US dollar, our financial system, and protect our economic future from the crisis of peak oil.
I give the new Obama administration credit for the wind, solar, and electric grid elements of his stimulus plan. I also applaud the effort to reopen the California emission issue in the court system. However, the truth of the matter is the Obama administration has not enacted robust natural gas policies. Is this because Obama comes from a coal producing state? I certainly hope not. What else could explain their hesitancy? President Obama, like every President since Richard Nixon says he wants to significantly reduce foreign oil imports. Yet, he hasn’t enacted the common sense policies in order to do it. We are not talking about rocket science or splitting the atom here. Natural gas transportation technology has been around for decades!
What a shame we are going through another natural gas price collapse with natural gas prices hovering just over $4. The economics of such cheap nat gas means marginal players will be sidelined or go out of business. Many jobs will be loss. Production rates will decline and prices will pop again in the future. What we need is a predictable long term comprehensive energy policy which would take us off this economic roller-coaster of foreign oil and yield a more sustainable, stable, and secure economic environment. I have updated my energy policy recently after reading Robert Hefner III ground-breaking book “The GET: Grand Energy Transition”. The changes are significant, so please give it a quick re-read.
What can you do to change things? If you agree that a natural gas transportation policy is vital to the future of American economic, environmental, and national security success, please write to President Obama and his administration officials - Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and EPA chief Carol Browner at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
I believe letters delivered by US mail to be much more effective than are online emails which are many times simply electronically processed with the result that you will get a campaign contribution solicitation email in your Inbox. Tell them you want the following policies:
- Require US auto manufactures make NGVs and home fueling appliances available (bundled together) in the US as a condition of tax-payer bailout funds.
- Require US auto manufacturers to sell OEM conversion kits for their top 5 volume models sold in the US over the last 10 years.
- Give tax-credits for natural gas conversions, natural gas home refueling appliances, CNG refueling station construction, and natural gas purchases at CNG refueling stations.
- FIX the EPA’s ridiculous regulatory roadblocks and at least level the playing field if not slanting it directly toward natural gas.
- Begin a nationwide policy of building CNG refueling stations on the interstate highway system to allow easy cross country travel by NGV.
Contact your local politicians and natural gas provider as well.
Similarly, contact the auto companies (by letter and online customer service) and demand NGV and home refueling appliance availability:
Ford Motor Company
Customer Relationship Center
P.O. Box 6248
Dearborn, MI 48126
General Motors Corporation
P.O. Box 33170
Detroit, MI 48232-5170
American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
Honda Automobile Customer Service
1919 Torrance Boulevard
Mail Stop: 500 - 2N - 7D
Torrance, CA 90501-2746
Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.
19001 South Western Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
Disclosures: the author is long COP and natural gas. The author would buy Toyota Motor, TM, in a heartbeat if they would make the Camry electric/natural gas concept vehicle referred to in this article.