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Switch to natural-gas state vehicle fleet advances

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's abundant natural gas supply has Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ready to order a cost-benefit analysis of switching at least part of the state's vehicle fleet from gasoline and diesel, according to administration officials and those who have been asked to serve on the resulting task force.

Tomblin plans to issue an executive order that also would promote this alternative source among the public, said Rob Alsop, his chief of staff.

"He thinks that, given the price of natural gas and what looks like the long-term development of the Marcellus Shale, this can become a resource for our fleet, instead of depending on oil," Alsop said. "It could help with job creation and lowering transportation costs in the state."

The task force is expected to include top executives from gas producers and companies with such relevant holdings as service stations.

"We're interested in demonstrating that we can improve our nation's energy security -- hopefully by converting at least part of the vehicular fleet in this country -- starting here in West Virginia," said Phil Reale of the state's Independent Oil and Gas Association, who is among those asked to join the task force. "We want to demonstrate that West Virginia has vision and can lead the way in changing the energy sector of our economy."

Scott Rotruck, a Chesapeake Energy executive and another task force member, called switching at least part of the fleet "an excellent first step in a broader movement that would change the way we all fuel our cars in the U.S.

"The state has several large roles to play, notably this time as a 'market player' with fleet conversion."

Tomblin is among 13 governors who appealed to automakers in an April 27 letter to help them jointly shift their fleets.

"A bipartisan partnership between governors and auto manufacturers in the U.S. makes sense and has the potential to create new options for alternative fuel vehicles and transportation fuel diversity," the letter stated. "We are committed to explore the aggregation of our annual state fleet vehicle procurements to provide an incentive to manufacture affordable, functional natural gas vehicles."

West Virginia has been part of a multi-state push to encourage natural gas vehicles since at least January, when Tomblin announced a cooperative agreement during his State of the State address. Tomblin then also pledged to explore converting state vehicles to that alternative fuel.

"It makes sense to start using fuels for our cars and buses that we produce right here in West Virginia," he said in that speech. "It is in America's best interest, and we can lead the way."

The 13-state campaign includes neighboring Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Another state involved, Mississippi, recently sought bids for changing 10 of its vehicles to test the concept.

West Virginia explored natural gas vehicles in the 1990s. As part of partnerships with gas companies, Frank McCullough helped build a dozen or so compressed natural gas filling stations around the state as part of this effort.

"You could literally drive throughout West Virginia without running out of natural gas, if you knew where they were located," McCullough said.

The Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority converted some of its transit buses to natural gas during this 1990s experiment, said Doug Hartley, the authority's assistant general manager.

The concept failed to catch on.

"Back then, to make this work, you needed a lot of people converting," Hartley said. "I think we were just very much ahead of the curve."

After a few years, the transit authority switched its buses back to conventional fuel, and the public fueling stations closed.

"It was the classic, proverbial chicken-and-the-egg problem," McCullough said. "How do you build stations to encourage people to go out and buy vehicles, and how do you get people to buy vehicles to encourage the building of stations?"

At least some things have changed since the 1990s, McCullough said, including tax incentives meant to encourage such development. He and Rotruck also cited the significant difference in fuel prices.

"Natural gas should maintain a long-term price advantage at the pump, being approximately one half the cost of gasoline or diesel," Rotruck said.

The U.S. Department of Energy counts about two-dozen alternative fuel stations in West Virginia. Only one, a private facility operated by the FBI in Harrison County, offers compressed natural gas.

About 110,000 natural gas-fueled vehicles travel on U.S. roads, out of 14 million worldwide, according to figures from the Natural Gas Vehicles for America. The advocacy group says the U.S. vehicles include more than 11,000 transit buses, nearly 4,000 garbage trucks and more than 3,000 school buses.

Supporters of the move toward natural gas include Bill Maloney, Tomblin's Republican opponent in this year's race for governor. A Morgantown drilling consultant and business owner, Maloney cited some of the U.S. vehicle statistics in a recent op-ed that called for converting state government vehicles.


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