The future or the flavor of the month?
Some of the businesspeople who crowded around as driver David Cox pumped natural gas into his 18- wheeler Monday weren’t sure that the fuel – plentiful and cheap in the United States because of shale drilling – is inevitable as a substitute for diesel.
But that didn’t stop them from pulling out their iPhones to document the moment as they considered the evidence.
“You see the oil companies getting into it,” said Marion Barnes, president of Frontier Trailer Associates in Rocky Mount, N.C. “They’re spending billions, not millions. Boone Pickens is spending billions, not millions on it, and it’s right here in the United States of America.”
Barnes was one of several dozen people touring the Clean Energy Fuels Corp. liquefied natural gas fueling station at the Pilot Flying J truck stop in Baytown, part of a daylong kickoff for the World LNG Fuels 2013 conference.
Convention-goers also toured Clean Energy’s plant in Willis, which produces vehicle-grade liquefied natural gas. The conference continues through Wednesday at the George R. Brown Convention Center with discussions of expanding natural gas as a transportation fuel.
Clean Energy has more than 300 natural gas refueling stations across the country, said Mike Sullivan, the company’s business development manager. About 80 percent offer compressed natural gas, for passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Long-haul trucks generally use liquefied natural gas because it is lighter and takes up less space, freeing room for cargo.
Shell Oil Co. and Travel Centers of America said last year they will offer natural gas pumps at 100 truck stops nationwide.
Tom Campbell, an analyst with Zeus Development Corp., the Houston-based consulting and research firm producing the conference, said another sign of the growing interest is the number of people signed up.
About 200 people attended last year; about 500 are registered this year – 800 including attendees at a related expo.
Natural gas isn’t just for trucks: Earlier this month, Houston’s Apache Corp. became the first exploration and production company to power an entire hydraulic fracturing job with engines running on natural gas, cutting fuel costs by about 40 percent.
Railroads and the marine industry are also interested, Campbell said.
Cox, a Linde Group driver, paid $2.76 per diesel gallon equivalent Monday as he filled up with liquefied natural gas. (The pump displays the “diesel gallon equivalent price” rather than pricing it by cubic feet.)
Diesel was selling for $3.96 a gallon at the Flying J Monday, so the natural gas was more than a dollar cheaper.
Campbell said it burns more cleanly, adding to the attraction.
But members of Monday’s tour group peppered Cox with questions about performance and convenience.
He said he mostly uses the truck on local runs, since there aren’t enough refueling stations to accommodate long-distance trips easily.
Linde plans to install a portable liquefied natural gas tank in Corpus Christi so drivers can take the trucks to the company’s operations there from Houston, he said.
Cox said the truck gets slightly poorer mileage with natural gas than a similar truck using diesel, but overall performance is good.
“It does a good job on the road,” he said. “As far as pulling, it’s a little less, but in town, it’s great.”
Natural gas has drawn increasing interest as prices remain low in the midst of the shale production boom.
But not everyone is sure the technology has hit a turning point.
“I don’t know,” said Glen Smith, mechanical discipline manager at Argos Consulting in Kansas City, Mo. “It depends on who you talk to.”
But like others at the conference, he and his company don’t want to be left behind.
“It’s obviously the future, but it’s obviously not tomorrow,” said Bill George, president of Eagle Transport. His company, based in North Carolina, moves petroleum products and he is considering whether to expand into transporting natural gas.
“It may be the day after tomorrow,” he said.