Is natural gas a natural fit?

by Lou Smyrlis

Is natural gas a natural fit to replace diesel as the fuel of choice in trucking? Skip back three decades to the early 80s and Canada was a pioneer in supporting the development of natural gas vehicle technologies.

But the infrastructure issues never got resolved, there were concerns about natural gas reserves, diesel prices were low and people stopped talking about natural gas by the mid-90s.

There are more than 16 million natural gas vehicles worldwide today but, despite the recent efforts of pioneers such as Robert and Bison Transport, you won’t find many in Canada.

We are near the bottom of the list with less than 15,000 natural gas vehicles.

Well, as they say, what goes round comes around and natural gas is back in the spotlight as an alternative fuel.

The emergence of large shale gas reserves in both Canada and the US in recent years have been a game changer.

Now I’ve been accused of being a “tree hugger” more than once in my life and it’s a badge I wear proudly. (If you don’t believe clean air and water should be a priority, how can I take you seriously?)

Some of my fellow “tree huggers,” however, are critical about natural gas exploration. But I am in favour of it. Why? Because in addition to being an environmentalist, I’m also a pragmatist.

Transportation is the second largest sector in Canada in terms of energy consumption and it accounted for more than a third of the spike in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2008.

By 2020, it’s estimated the demand for energy from the transportation sector will increase by as much as 30%. While I don’t believe natural gas is the ultimate solution for transportation, I do believe it’s a step in the right direction. By using natural gas to power medium- and heavy-duty trucks in Canada we can reduce GHG emissions by a quarter.

At the same time, natural gas is at least 30% less expensive right now than diesel with plenty of supply available to keep pricing steady, which answers the concern that what is environmentally friendly must also make economic sense.

There are legitimate concerns about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracking (the method by which natural gas is extracted from shale) but as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, another tree hugger who is also a pragmatist, points out, the best studies show fracking can be done in a safe manner and most of the riskiest practices have been employed by a small number of lowest-cost producers. In other words, there is simply a need for sensible regulation.

And speaking of sensible, we must also hear more from engine manufacturers about their plans for LNG-powered vehicles, more from fuel producers about planned investments in a natural gas infrastructure and more from government about how and when they plan to tax natural gas.

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