June 3, 2011

Weld County gets pumped over natural gas vehicles

With more than 17,000 active wells, Weld County runs on natural gas. Now, county officials and energy companies are hoping to fuel thousands of vehicles with compressed natural gas.

Officials are revving up the Weld County Smart Energy initiative this summer, with plans to establish the first public CNG stations along the northern Front Range by the end of the year. Long-term goals for the public-private partnership include building 25 natural-gas filling stations and getting 10,000 natural-gas vehicles on the road in Weld County.

County commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said the program is “win-win-win” for Weld — and other gas-rich parts of the state — to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, lead the transition away from gasoline-powered cars and trucks, and support a booming, local industry.

But building a natural-gas vehicle infrastructure does raise some issues. Despite its regional and national abundance, natural gas, like petroleum, is a fossil fuel that requires heavy drilling and processing. Extraction practices using hydraulic fracturing continue to draw opposition from some who think the risks outweigh the relatively clean fuel properties of natural gas.

Not to mention, natural-gas vehicles aren’t exactly common on the road. As the Smart Energy program gets in gear, partners will have to answer the question: If you build it, will they pump?

Developing technology

Natural-gas vehicle technology has steadily developed in the last decade. In the United States, there are an estimated 120,000 equipped vehicles, many that are considered “bi-fuel” that can run on gasoline or natural gas, and 1,100 fueling stations. Much of that infrastructure is government operated, serving buses and fleet vehicles, but otherwise not available for public use.

The numbers are a drop in the bucket when compared with the total number of American cars and gas pumps, and there isn’t a single natural-gas station open to the public between Denver and Cheyenne.

That Weld County was a natural-gas vehicle fueling desert didn’t make sense to Kirkmeyer. (The county has a government-fleet-only CNG pump at its public works office.) There are more gas wells in Weld than anywhere else in the state, but it felt like the county and the industry were missing opportunities.

A few years ago, Kirkmeyer approached officials from Encana, Anadarko, and Noble Energy, which all operate wells in Weld County, about new arenas for promoting natural gas. The partners came up with the Smart Energy program.

Besides the economic benefits, the program is also set to deliver significant environmental advantages. Compressed natural gas is much more efficient and cleaner than gasoline or diesel, reducing vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, nitrous oxide emissions by up to 60 percent, and carbon monoxide releases by over 90 percent. Converting a heavy-duty truck to run on CNG instead of diesel is equivalent to removing 325 cars from the highways, according to county officials.

The pollution reduction from the program should improve air quality over time, an especially big deal along the northern Front Range, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated an ozone non-attainment area in 2007. The expected impacts have helped Weld County Smart Energy win $5 million in grants from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program, the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Industry partners have put up matching funds.

Public pumps open by end of year

A chunk of the money will go to build public pumps, likely at existing gas stations, with proposed sites in Fort Lupton, Windsor and Evans, among other towns. Weld County traffic engineer Janet Carter said two or three natural-gas stations should be open for business or under construction by the end of the year. Regionally, the first public CNG pumps in Wyoming will open this summer in Riverton.

Some of the grants will also go toward county fleet conversion, and Carter said the program could eventually share funds to convert local towns and school districts’ vehicles, too. Weld County has committed to converting 50 vehicles over the next six years, and the energy companies will take similar action over the next decade or so. The county is also undertaking a public-education program to increase awareness, and has included Aims Community College in the Smart Energy partnership to design a curriculum for natural-gas vehicle technicians.

“We’re on the forefront. Weld County is the leader for doing this,” Carter said. “The state is modeling off Weld to promote similar steps on the Western Slope.”

But not everyone in Colorado is interested in encouraging more natural-gas development. As production has exploded in the state over the past decade, the gas industry has faced tougher scrutiny over extraction practices that use a mix of injected chemicals in a process called hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to recover the resources.

Kirkmeyer and other county and industry officials insist fracking is safe, but critics point to the increased number of methane-contaminated water wells and environmental illnesses occurring in gas-drilling regions as evidence that the industry is contributing to an environmental and public-health catastrophe. A recent study from Cornell University researchers concludes that gas produced through fracking actually emits more carbon dioxide than burning coal.

And, while the fuel-efficiency benefits of natural-gas vehicles are impressive, converting a car to run on natural gas can cost upward of $10,000, not a cheap undertaking, although state rebates and federal incentives have helped reduce costs in the past. Gas companies expect to make back the cost of converting a truck to bi-fuel over about three years, but families might not expect to spend as much time in a car.

Kirkmeyer has promoted natural gas as “the” alternative fuel during presentations, and there’s good reason for county officials to get behind the idea. Energy companies already inject more than $48 million in taxes into the county economy and provide 2,200 local jobs. Smart Energy will expand transportation options and play a role in regional air-quality improvement.

But whether drivers can be converted, so to speak, to natural-gas vehicles remains to be seen.

Joshua Zaffos is a freelance journalist based in Northern Colorado who covers environmental issues for the Business Report quarterly. Contact him at news@ncbr.com.

With more than 17,000 active wells, Weld County runs on natural gas. Now, county officials and energy companies are hoping to fuel thousands of vehicles with compressed natural gas.

Officials are revving up the Weld County Smart Energy initiative this summer, with plans to establish the first public CNG stations along the northern Front Range by the end of the year. Long-term goals for the public-private partnership include building 25 natural-gas filling stations and getting 10,000 natural-gas vehicles on the road in Weld County.

County commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said the program is “win-win-win” for Weld — and other…

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