Natural Gas Vehicles—how much can they reduce oil imports?
By Tom Standing
On February 18 a cadre of political and energy heavyweights gathered in a teleconference with
reporters to map out a new direction for U.S. energy policy. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, Interior
Secretary Ken Salazar, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and energy entrepreneur T. Boone
Pickens discussed strategies to develop clean energy sources that will reduce U.S. oil imports. The
teleconference was a prelude to a conference on February 23 of the National Clean Energy Project
that featured former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore (1).
A key element discussed during the teleconference was a plan to power the long-haul trucking
plan that Boone Pickens has been promoting since 2007.
“We need to work hard to use more domestic energy in our transportation and rely less on foreign oil.
Natural gas is the only way to make a difference now,” Pickens said. “We are absolutely
overwhelmed with natural gas…it’s so abundant…the United States has plenty of natural gas onshore
in shale basins,” he said.
Secretary Salazar agreed, saying, “There are natural gas resources being developed all over the
country.” However, he added that increased demand for natural gas to power vehicles will not lead to
expanded leasing of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Senator Reid and Mr. Pickens focused on the trucking industry as a likely first stage for conversion to
natural gas. “We want to start by fueling almost 400,000 18-wheelers immediately. This would cut
imports significantly,” the senator said (1).
CNG or LNG for Trucks?
We can test this red-hot plan to fuel the trucking industry with natural gas, by combining real-world
numbers with cool-headed analysis.
The first item we need to settle is, what form will the gas be in at fueling stations and on-board? We
have two choices: compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). I will argue that
LNG is the better choice based on the critical feature of energy density, measured in BTUs per unit
volume. CNG has only 25% of the energy density of diesel fuel, while LNG’s density is 58-60% (2). It
means that a given volume of LNG will power a truck almost 2.5 times farther than the same volume
Personal observations apply here. The organization I work for has a fleet of CNG vehicles: several
small cars and a few pickup trucks. CNG pickups are assigned to field personnel who travel to
construction sites throughout the region, typically driving 100 miles a day. Almost every day they
must drive 3 miles from our yard to a special CNG fueling station and wait in line to gas up. The high-
pressure fuel tank, protected by a hard, plastic shield, occupies almost one-fourth of the cargo bin.
Employees who drive the small CNG cars have learned from unpleasant experience not to venture
onto a freeway with less than a half tank of gas. The gauge can plunge to “E” with alarming swiftness.
Stranded employees have no recourse but to call our garage for help. The garage cannot simply
send out a pickup with a gallon of gasoline, for they are not equipped to dispense CNG. They must
send a wrecker to tow the car to the fueling station. So it goes with CNG vehicles.
Long-haul truckers, whose livelihood depends on continual travel pulling full loads, do not want to
worry about making it to the next fueling station; few wreckers can tow a fully-loaded 18-wheeler. Nor
do truckers want to surrender 25% of precious cargo space to CNG tanks.
If our leaders are serious about displacing diesel fuel with natural gas, LNG is the logical direction for
future long-haul trucking. But LNG has its caveats. The existing LNG fueling stations scattered
around the country require highly-specialized, energy-intensive refrigeration and compression
equipment to chill the gas to -260 deg F
and compress it to high pressure to liquefy it. But extensive
expansion of LNG stations may not be economically feasible considering
that the special equipment
might cost $1 million a pop(2). Most refueling stations take LNG deliveries by tanker truck. Truckers,
in turn, need insulated, high-pressure tanks on their rigs to maintain the temperature and pressure of
LNG. Rigs need roughly twice the tank volume to store LNG vs. diesel for the same driving range.
How Much Would LNG Reduce Oil Imports?
Assuming that the added costs are covered to produce and store roadside LNG, and that truckers
take to the road with LNG-fueled rigs, how much will the conversion reduce oil imports, and how much
would demand increase for natural gas? Putting Sen. Reid’s “400,000 18-wheelers” to the test, we
can estimate how much gas the trucks would consume and how much diesel fuel would be saved.
Trucks, their loads, and distances traveled, vary in size and mileage, but let us say that a typical 18-
gallons a year. Scaling up to 400,000 trucks, diesel consumption is ~4 billion gal/yr. Expressing this
in bbl/day, we divide by 42 gal/bbl and 365 d/yr; we come up with a diesel saving of 260,000 b/d.
The U.S. now imports roughly 13 million b/d in crude oil and products. Thus converting 400,000 18-
wheelers to LNG would reduce oil imports by roughly 2 %.
Now let us see how much demand for natural gas would increase. To compare diesel to gas, we
need to express both fuels in BTU.
–One gallon of diesel supplies ~138,000 BTU. Doing the math, our truck consumes roughly 1.4
–One cubic foot of natural gas supplies ~1,000 BTU. Annual diesel energy expressed as natural
gas, then, is 1.4 million cubic feet per truck.
–Scaling up to 400,000 trucks, annual gas consumption would be 560 billion cf.
–The last few years, the U.S. gas consumption was roughly 22 trillion cf/yr. The increased
consumption to fuel 400,000 trucks, then amounts to about 2.5%/yr.
We should note that this gas consumption only powers the truck fleet. Cryogenic chilling and
compression to produce LNG is not included, but could increase gas demand by 10%.
Is the Gas Plan Realistic?
The U.S. may be capable of fueling a major portion of long-haul trucks by increasing domestic gas
consumption by 2.5 %, but we would only reduce oil imports by 2 %. In order to achieve that small
increment, downstream energy providers would have to overhaul fuel distribution at great cost by
producing and trucking LNG all over the U.S. Then there is the expense to replace the fleet of
400,000 trucks to burn LNG.
The lesson learned here is that significant changes in processes by which energy is supplied and
consumed require massive influxes of capital across multiple industrial sectors at considerable
financial risk. Energy developments evolve slowly over decades, not in years. Senator Reid’s plan
cannot be accomplished in 10 years, much less “immediately” as he said.
Tom Standing is an engineer with 44 years of experience in the energy sector in both chemical and
civil disciplines. He continues to use his background to assess the many developments taking place
throughout the energy sector. He has contributed many Commentaries to Peak Oil Review.
1. “Clean Energy Strategy Must Include NGV Component, Reid and Pickens Say,” Oil and Gas Journal,
February 18, 2009
2. “Natural Gas Vehicles Gain in Global Markets,” Ibid, February 16, 2009
First of all, I’m and new and big fan of Dr. Martenson. Great work, Dr. M.! I learned A LOT.
I viewed "the 17s" today and was shocked. Though I’m quite familiar with Peak Oil, seeing it in those terms ruined my day. However, the US is blessed with abundant Natural Gas, as we’ve come to learn in the past 2 years or so. Compressed Natural Gas cars are already in use in serious volumes world-wide. Honda makes one for sale to the public. As per Damnthematrix’s post, it doesn’t sound like tractor trailers are good for CNG, but the CNG family sedan looks like something we can live with. That should take a lot of wind out of the Peak Oil devastation. Sure, P.O. is going to hurt real bad, and put mucho pressure on the corrupted financial system, but with natural gas, at least it’s not the end of the world as we know it. Any thoughts?
I understand you concern. I’ve been working on my vehicles to run on multiple sources of fuel. Propane and CNG. Just need to finish the work. I believe that Natual gas is also going to out last Oil and we can create it easier than other fuels in the future and has energy content greater than batteries in cars by weight, thus better potential efficiency. NH4 is also a potential and basic like CH4.
Really good info.
CNG is simply compressed natural gas. Gas stored in a tank at normal temp but at higher pressures (2500-3500 psig). LNG is at very low pressure but at extremely low temps (-162 C or -260). A cryogenic device is needed to super cool the gas. For this reason LNG is not practical in small vehicles. It is used to ship NG long distances. CNGs volumetric energy is approx 42% of LNG and 25% of diesel.
I too wonder about the feasibility of CNG for semis. It does not seem to be a good fit to me. Part of what seems to be missing from the equation is what can be done to replace the need for semis. The rail industry for instance is much more efficient for moving goods long distances.
I do believe that CNG is a good fit for personal transportation as a transition fuel. I just think we are going to be doing much less personal travel as the future moves forward.
These and many other items must be answered. I think PO is going to hurt a little more then the average person now realizes.
I respectfully disagree with LPG for 18-wheelers. 18-wheelers should be bi-fueled – diesel//CNG. The tanks can be put under the trailers. Easily and with enough capacity. CNG vehicles with extra tanks are wonderful vehicles. Cleaner than electric cars. And, I don’t have to worry about replacing those batteries. Do you really want to buy a used Prius? SE Wisconsin has a wonderful network of CNG stations do to smart grants from the Government in the 90’s. It is a shame that more CNG vehicles are not produced by auto manufacturers. If we have to wait for LPG it will be forever – We will be on Mars before then. People ask me what is “CNG?” Well, it is something you can do at home – “Filler up.”
We are omitting perhaps the biggest advantage of NG vehicles – the cost of developing methane (the main component of NG) from renewable biomass sources is FAR lower than other biofuel alternatives such as ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol, or even methanol. It is also far more efficient; for a given amount of biomass, you get about twice the energetic content in methane fuel compared with producing ethanol.The optimal vehicle in the future would be a PHEV capable of both NG and gasoline fueling. This allows the vehicle to play with the existing gasoline infrastructure, and provide additional range.
We need to work hard to use more domestic energy in our transportation and rely less on foreign oil. There are approximately 6.5 million Commercial trucks on America’s highways.Just upgrading 350000 will reduce 5-6 percent of oil imports. Natural gas is the only way to reduce oil imports.Also Electric cars hold greater promise for reducing emissions and lowering U.S. oil imports if these cars are made less costly and more efficient.
This is really a good information and I support using less oil for vehicles. As we know oil prices are going high and high. It is very necessary for us and for other moving companies to find another alternative. CNG cars has been one close example it ha been a good success but employees who drive the small CNG cars have learned from unpleasant experience not to venture onto a freeway with less than half a tank a gas . The garage cannot simply send out a pickup with gallon of gasoline, for they are not equipped to dispense CNG.I wouuld also like to make a note on the trucks which carrys heavy loads and also travel a very long distance and the information surprised me that truck burns about 10,000 gallons a year which is really very much and I knew this information for the first time. I appreciate this blog for this important information and also through this article I have difinet6ly learn a serious lesson on significant changes by which energy is supplied and consume across industrial sector at financial risks.
Switching to LNG or CNG is a viable plan, especially for long term resource consumption wise. However, he feasibility of implementing it in the current economy might not be the best. The will encounter much opposition from truckers and companies who rely heavily on petroleum, as well as the costs involved with implementing a large scale change.
It’s kind a interesting topic. Well everyday it has been part of people lives to hear the same news of increasing gas price. With the unstopping war happening in the different part of the world particularly in the Middle East that brought to us the crude oil. Well seems the fuel economy deal will not be better that much. And looking for the future in the face of toughening standards in many countries, as well as a need to not depend on foreign oil, the world’s car makers have all dabbled in various technologies and fuels than the traditional gasoline engine. Electric automobiles seem to get all the attention from the media, but many feel natural gas-powered engines are the way to go. Besides running cleaner, cheaper and more efficiently than gas engines, you never have to plug them in. Natural gas-powered automobiles are clean-running, fuel efficient and economical to drive. Lastly, CNG is about half the cost of gasoline.
Article source: Natural Gas-powered vehicles: the other green