A Free-Market Energy Blog

Robert Bryce on Natural Gas Vehicles

By Robert Bryce -- June 26, 2010

[This excerpt from Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future is used with permission of the author. Copies of Power Hungry can be purchased here.]

Making fun of T. Boone Pickens is easy. But give him his due: he’s right about using more natural gas in the transportation sector. That concept makes economic sense for many fleet operators.

But – and it’s a big but – Pickens has grossly exaggerated the ability of the U.S. to make a quick transition to natural gas fueled vehicles. On the Pickens Plan website (PickensPlan.com), the billionaire claims that using more wind power and “increasing the use of our natural gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years.”

That’s an easy claim to make. But Pickens can’t do it. And he can’t do it even if he were somehow able to manage a 100-fold increase in the number of natural gas-fueled vehicles in the U.S. and do so in just ten years. Building a large fleet of natural gas vehicles – and more importantly, the refueling infrastructure to support them – will take decades, not years.

The numbers simply don’t work. Let’s look at oil imports: In 2008, the U.S. imported an average of 12.9 million barrels of oil and oil products per day (EIA data). One-third of that volume – the amount Pickens claims he can save – is about 4.25 million barrels of oil per day. Fine. Let’s run the numbers.

According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGV America), a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, there are about 120,000 natural gas vehicles now in use in the US. Each of those vehicles consumes about 1,500 gasoline-gallon-equivalents per year. (1) Using that 1,500-gallon-per vehicle figure, those 120,000 NGVs conserve the equivalent of about 180 million gallons of oil per year.

Now let’s multiply that number by 100. Doing so increases the US fleet to 12 million NGVs which could save 18 billion gallons of fuel per year, which is the equivalent of 1.17 million barrels of oil per day. (To convert gallons per year to barrels per day, divide by 15,330.) That type of reduction is significant. But getting to that fleet size would require a Herculean effort. If the U.S. had 12 million NGVs, that fleet would be larger than that of the current global fleet of NGVs, which numbers about 9.6 million vehicles. (2)

Pickens led a gullible media and an even-more-gullible public, to believe that the evils of foreign oil could be overcome if only the public provided him with a few more subsidies for his pet projects. And Pickens put forward his plan without discussing any fuels other than wind and natural gas.

The fact that his deeply flawed plan was so readily accepted by so many journalists and politicos provides additional evidence for the lack of skepticism about green energy in general and wind power in particular.

(1) NGVAmerica.org. “Fact Sheet: Potential Contribution of NGVs to Displacing 35 Billion Gallons of Non-Petroleum Fuels by 2017,” undated. While the 1,500 gallon figure is used here, keep in mind that the average personal car in the US only uses about 600 gallons of fuel per year. Thus, any move toward NGVs in the passenger car fleet will have an even smaller impact on overall oil consumption.


(2) International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles, “Natural gas vehicle statistics,” undated.


  1. Ed Reid  

    DISCLOSURE: I worked in the natural gas industry. I have experience with Vs and the NGV industry association. I also have worked with Boone Pickens on NGVs in the past.

    NGVs work. NGVs emit less carbon per vehicle mile than gasoline and diesel vehicles. They also emit less criteria pollutants per vehicle mile. However, that might not be sufficient.

    It makes no sense to make major investments in NGVs and an NGV fueling infrastructure if the US intends to reduce national carbon emissions by “83% by 2050″. It makes even less sense if “83% by 2050″ is not the ultimate end point of the carbon reduction program.

    Imagine yourself in 2050, in an economy emitting 83% less carbon than in 2005, with a population larger by about 50%. Then, ask yourself what sources of carbon emissions are still operating. You can “bet your sweet bippy” it won’t be NGVs, or natural gas residential and small commercial appliances, or even natural gas power plants.

    Attempting to deal with “energy independence”, or even reduced energy dependence, in isolation from potential national carbon policy is lunacy.

    In the immortal words of my favorite American philosopher, Yogi Berra: “You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”


  2. Mark Krebs  

    My friend Ed said:

    “Imagine yourself in 2050, in an economy emitting 83% less carbon than in 2005, with a population larger by about 50%. Then, ask yourself what sources of carbon emissions are still operating. You can “bet your sweet bippy” it won’t be NGVs, or natural gas residential and small commercial appliances, or even natural gas power plants.”

    Ed; that’s why the smart money is on donkeys and carts. ;-)

    Seriously, there is a place for natural gas for fleets, MIT just did a study about this titled “The Future of Natural Gas.” The study can be found at http://web.mit.edu/mitei/naturalgas

    The American Clean Skies Foundation was the primary sponsor. The focus of the interim report is on using natural gas for electric generation. A far secondary focus is on using natural gas for displacing primarily diesel in primarily heavy-duty trucks. And these could go LNG, DME, methanol, etc., rather than CNG from natural gas LDC’s.

    Both of these markets are where the supposed action is for growing load. Load growth is the purpose; covered in greenwash. Maybe that donkey and cart isn’t a contingency plan. If only we could learn to heat and cook with the dried dung then we could really live a green lifestyle. Any takers?


  3. Ed Reid  


    The Chinese are trying to “move on” from dung for those applications. If you’ve been to China, you understand why. :-)


  4. Aaron Rizzio  

    It has only been in the last 2-3 years that CNG vehicles have been seriously looked into by policy planners as a major alternative fuel option and I think substantial credit goes to Pickens. However he’s clearly interested in developing a new market for natural gas in order to raise its market value since natural gas is trading back down to its pre-2000 lows. This is obviously why Pickens likes to promote wind energy (apart from the glossy pc-appeal), as wind turbines only generate on average 25% of their rated capacity — and that they are unpredictably intermittent — means they would all have to be backed up by natural gas on hot standby spinning reserve. Nuclear fission OTOH would just displace too much natural gas particularly in places like Texas and California, sinking its market value even further. But THIS WOULD BE A MAJOR SELLING POINT OF NGVs, since at $4-5/MMBTU NGVS would have access to fuel at 50-75 cents gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE).

    Market penetration can be rapidly achieved via mandates on low mileage vehicles, say SUVs averaging less than 25 MPG forced to incorporate dual-fuel technology (both gas & gasoline) already available in Europe from VW and Fiat. Major metro centers are already vary well served by natural gas distribution networks, pipelines; filling stations could just draw from the existing utility infrastructure in most major cities. Nationwide there are 175,000 gasoline filling stations only about 1000 public access natural gas filling stations, tax incentives could quickly change this and so long as consumers who like their SUVs have access to standard dual fuel vehicles they will have the option of low cost natural gas fuel.

    Transportation fuel currently accounts for only 0.15% of total U.S. demand for natural gas. Long term, if we want natural gas prices to remain low we cannot utilize gas both to displace coal in electricity generation and fuel our vehicles. Coal itself can be converted into synfuel and methane and burned in IGCC, but gas fired turbines are ideal for peak load generation; leaving base-load electricity generation to future fission frees up enough natural gas to, in turn, displace petroleum imports.


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