Natural gas has a relatively comfortable relationship with the transportation world. It is largely seen as clean, domestic, and inexpensive, a win-win-win situation that is not often found in the transportation industry. While the market for natural gas vehicles (NGVs) remains comparatively small, the growing cost of petroleum based fuels and the high purchase cost of electric vehicles has many in the NGV industry thinking their ship is coming in.
The medium and heavy duty truck world is looking at NGVs as a solution to many of the woes of diesel without the high cost of batteries or there limited range. When combined with hybrid systems, the M/HD NGVs look even more promising. Although the market is not expected to grow substantially, consumers are also starting to get a taste for NGVs with increased vehicle availability from Honda and other converters like Altech-Eco.
But one method for retrieving natural gas from shale rock has started to cast a growing shadow on the NGV industry. At the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo last week, I received several questions about how bad hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is for the NGV industry.
The question is actually two-fold. First, there is the technology question surrounding fracking. Can gas drillers manage the chemicals and potential environmental damage from fracking? The DOE has formed a panel to address this question. While it seems likely that there is a technological solution, it will cost more, which will in turn drive up the cost of natural gas as a vehicle fuel. The fear is these technological solutions could make American drilled gas uncompetitive in comparison to importing liquid natural gas and would drive consumers back towards petroleum vehicles.
The second question is a marketing or branding question. Will gas drillers lose the public support for NGVs because of the damaging publicity surrounding fracking? This question is much trickier for gas suppliers and does have the very real possibility to derail the use of NGVs in the United States. The question comes from strong emotional reactions to reports of drinking water that can ignite in the movie Gasland, concern over the sources of earthquakes in Arkansas, air quality concerns in Wyoming, and numerous other articles, research, and videos that seems to damn fracking. Even the word, “fracking” has been used as a (slightly) more polite expletive in video games and television shows, something that no doubt contributes to the negative connotation of the drilling practice.
The organization, America’s Natural Gas Alliance is responding to some of these, but from a branding standpoint, it appears they are losing the opinion battle over fracking. Plus, time is not on their side. Fortunately, thus far, public opinion of NGVs remains positive, and seems largely disconnected from the fracking issue. However, the longer questions about earthquakes and air quality go without official responses (several searches I did found no response from the ANGA or NGVAmerica on these specific topics), the more consumers will believe those who are talking about it and may start making the connection to NGVs. The Toyota brand took a huge hit when they remained mum about unintended acceleration and only started to earn trust back when they recalled the questionable vehicles for inspection. A high cost move, but cheaper in the long run than a permanently damaged brand. While not completely comparable, there are some parallels in the natural gas industry.
As they say, actions speak louder than words. Actions like releasing information on the chemicals being used in hydraulic fracturing fluids helps. However, stating what chemicals they use does not have the same impact on public opinion that changing or eliminating the chemicals would.
Overall, the issue of fracking seems likely to lead to more legislation (we’re seeing the beginning of that process now). Whether that is on the state level with moratoriums, or if it comes at the national level with tighter EPA regulations. The fact is that as legislators start to hear more and more about the negative side of fracking from constituents, the more likely legislation will play a bigger role in the hydraulic fracturing for gas (and make no mistake legislation already plays a big role). Additionally, local governments may feel the pressure from local constituents to purchase technologies other than NGVs if natural gas becomes too closely associated with tainted drinking water.
Will this derail NGVs? Not likely in the near term, thanks to growing gasoline and diesel costs, continued pressure to deliver vehicle range with low emissions, and a continued need for employment in many of these key parts of the country fulfilled by natural gas drilling. But as electric vehicles and other biofuel alternatives become more competitive in coming years, the NGV industry could be painted as “dirty” in the court of public opinion, sending their ship back out to sea earlier than expected.
Article by Dave Hurst appearing courtesy the Matter Network.