There’s been so much talk over the past 12-18 months about natural gas being the fuel of the future for the trucking industry, you had to expect an explosion – in the figurative sense – was imminent.
That explosion may have happened over the past few weeks.
First there was Navistar International announcing a partnership with American gas supplier Clean Energy that effectively addresses the two primary barriers standing in the way of the widespread adoption of gas-powered trucks: the cost of the trucks and availability of the fuel. In short, the two companies formed an alliance under which they’ll provide fleets with gas-powered International trucks at the same purchase price as their diesel equivalents, provided fleet owners agree to fuel up at Clean Energy fueling stations. Clean Energy will essentially offset the incremental cost of the technology and then charge a premium on the gas for a period of five or six years, but all the while the fleet will still enjoy fuel prices significantly lower than diesel.
For its part, Clean Energy has committed to building hundreds of natural gas fueling stations on well-travelled highways throughout the US and eventually it vows to have a natural gas station every 250 miles. This program is feasible for Canadian carriers running south and at the announcement, I received assurance that Canadian fleets would not be excluded from the offer.
Just days later, Shell announced plans to build a natural gas corridor between Edmonton and Calgary, which will set the stage for the roll-out of a broader network of natural gas fueling stations across North America. Shell’s plan doesn’t offer a solution to the high cost of gas-powered trucks, but the company did promise to offer up gas trucks for one-week trials so fleets can gain some comfort with the technology.
It’s another forward-thinking initiative that should go a long way towards nudging natural gas closer to the mainstream.
There’s good reason to consider natural gas as a potential fuel for the trucking industry.
For one, we’re sitting on vast quantities of the stuff – at least 100 years’ worth – and new fracking methods are making it possible and cost-effective to extract natural gas from previously untapped depths.
There’s no other way to look at it; we’re sitting on a goldmine and, as natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens said at the Navistar announcement, we’d be foolish to let the opportunity unused.
Still, lest we get too enthusiastic, there is a potential fly in the ointment for natural gas. As Dan Einwechter, CEO of Challenger Motor Freight pointed out to me in the Executive View interview you’ll find starting on page 32, gas is cheap in part because there’s no road tax on it. If the trucking industry suddenly transitioned to gas en-masse, you can bet the feds would move quickly to tax natural gas in much the same way they do diesel today.
It’s a reasonable point. One we need to pause to consider before we go leaping headlong into natural gas. Still, the price gap between natural gas and diesel is significant and expected to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
It very well could be that we’ve reached the proverbial tipping point and that natural gas is ready to take off as the fuel of the future for the North American trucking industry.