Just a short time ago, news outlets were reporting on the limited ability for the natural gas industry to convince Congress of the importance of the alternative fuel in ending dependence on foreign oil. But now, boosted in part by recent comments by T. Boone Pickens, the industry has received another shot in the arm.
Pickens, 83, long known as the pre-eminent oil tycoon in the United States, has jumped aboard the natural gas bandwagon after natural gas futures have helped him recoup a bit of the huge financial losses he's said to have suffered over the past two years tied to plummeting oil prices. He's become a major supporter of federal energy legislation shifting the focus to natural gas as a transportation fuel.In the school bus industry, Blue Bird turned its own share of heads a few years ago when it announced it was bringing back new and improved propane-powered engine technology as an all-in-one solution that solved previous challenges that included horsepower. It was hard to find too many propane fans, but ever since the conversation has turned.
Propane, of course, is just one by-product of naturalgas. School bus operators, especially in California, have intimate knowledge of CNG, which has basically been required for the last two decades by CARB. All of the large school bus manufacturers have offered CNG models for years. Yet, escpecially outside of California with its CNG and Texas with it's propane infrastructure supported by millions of dollars worth of grant funds from the Texas Railroad Commission that regulates energy in the state, natural gas has been a bad word among legislators, environmentalists and even some pupil transporters. Diesel is still a preferred technology because it is more efficient.
But diesel contributes to the foreign dependence on oil that our nation has been struggling with for far too many years now. It also comes down to the issue of global warming. As Fred Julander, president of Julander Energy Co. in Denver, told NPR last fall:
"[Legislators] want to be honest brokers. They don't want to take advantage of something they don't believe in, even if it improves their bottom line if it's based on a falsehood — which is, I mean, is in some ways commendable, but in some ways is short-sighted."
Very slowly but surely, alternative fuels are making their way into the school bus industry, even as diesel engine improvements tied to EPA Clean Air regulations have caught up in terms of lower emissions, even besting natural gas in lower particulate matter . Some see natural gas merely as a bridge to electric vehicles, the latter simply being price prohibitive. School bus operators aren't interested in technology that won't be affordable for another 20 or 30 years but in the best alternative available today or even 5 years down the road. Talk to the people at Blue Bird, and you hear comments that indicate that natural gas and, specifically propane, is the fuel of the future now. And see recent developments at Collins Bus, the nation's largest producer of small school buses.
While advanced lithium battery technology is still being tossed about, the experts say there is about 90 years worth of natural gas shale in the United States, and as result there has been an uptick of late in promoting natural gas as a leading alternative fuel option for transportation. Look no further than the federal tax incentives, like a 50-cent per gallon rebate on propane. And, even with natural gas prices forecasted to jump from it's current $3 per gallon cost to the neighborhood of $8 a gallon once this recessionary choke hold loosens, that's only an increase from about a 37-cent equivalent of per gallon diesel to a $1 per gallon equivalent.
Demand for natural gas certainly appears to be on the rise.