Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Natural gas vehicles, yet again

The “natural gas vehicles are a huge environmental win” meme simply won’t die, thanks to media outlets like The Wall Street Journal doing things like this (emphasis added):

The recent deluge of low-cost shale gas is already changing the way the country runs. Electric utilities are turning to gas to power their turbines, and chemical companies that rely on the fuel are coming back to the U.S. after years of investing overseas.

But the holy grail is transportation.

Every day, we consume 70% of our oil getting from place to placeā€”and produce more than 30% of our greenhouse gases along the way. If we could run our vehicles on natural gas, it could kill two birds with one stone: Not only is natural gas a lot cheaper than oil right now, but its emissions are much cleaner than gasoline or diesel.

For the benefit of those late to the party, here’s the deal:

Yes, burning natural gas in your car or truck emits a lot less Bad Stuff than does burning gasoline. The problem is the definition of “Bad Stuff”. If you count everything, then it looks pretty good; if you’re focused on greenhouse gases and the potential for getting locked into a too-high emissions infrastructure, then natural gas vehicles are a terrible idea. The core problem is that while natural gas vehicles do emit less CO2 than an equivalent gasoline fueled vehicle, it’s not enough of a reduction to warrant the long and expensive transition to a new infrastructure that we’ll have to abandon before it’s fully built out.

As I pointed out in September 2011 (CNG vehicles: A cheap, shiny new bridge to nowhere), the Civic GX (a natural gas vehicle) emits more CO2 per mile driven than does a Civic Hybrid. Comparisons don’t get any more apples-to-apples than that.[1]

And don’t forget the early infrastructure choices adopters will have to make: Live with limited refueling locations or install and then run a natural gas compressor in your garage that consumes a non-trivial amount of electricity and has to run for hours every night. And that compressor costs about $4,000 (sans installation costs), or you can lease one under a new program mentioned in the WSJ article for $60/month, presumably not counting the cost of electricity to run it or the cost of the natural gas.

Where does this leave us with natural gas fueled vehicles? At the mercy of the market price of the fuels in question (natural gas vs. gasoline) and the cost of the various vehicle options (plain old gasoline fueled vehicles, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, natural gas vehicles, electric vehicles, etc.). In other words, we will, as always, make decisions based on short-term economics, with no accounting for the very significant costs of our decisions that don’t happen to show up on the window sticker or our monthly credit card statement. We need to be saved from our own stupidity, but the only force that can save us from ourselves is us, and we really don’t want to do it, it seems.


[1] For those who don’t want to bother clicking through to that prior post, here are the numbers: The Civic GX reduces CO2/mile over the gasoline version of the same car by 19%, but it still emits about 10% more CO2/mile than the hybrid version.

1 comment to Natural gas vehicles, yet again

  • Via OPatrick at P3: Leo Hickman at the Gruaniad: the UK’s committee on climate change is urging the govt to avoid the ‘gash for gas’ for just the reasons you state. I very much doubt it’ll make the blindest bit of difference, mind. p.s. I linked to this article in that P3 piece too, hope that’s OK.