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W.Va. task force looks again at natural gas vehicles

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than a decade after efforts to promote the use of natural gas-powered vehicles in the state floundered, a task force appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin met for the first time Thursday to revisit the issue.

Tomblin said he believes the time may be right to convert vehicles to natural gas, given the low price and abundant supply, compared to the late-1990s.

"The price of natural gas is a fraction of what it was at that time," Tomblin said Thursday. "A lot has changed."

The task force, made up of state officials, representatives of the natural gas industry and gas and convenience store operators, are to study the financial and practical viability of converting all or part of the state vehicle fleet to natural gas.

"We're not going to attempt something that's not feasible," Tomblin said of the task force study.

Frank McCollough, who was president of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition in the 1990s, said fluctuations in natural gas prices and supply problems doomed that conversion effort.

It didn't help, he said, that each of the four natural gas companies participating in the project acted independently, so fueling stations around the state were set up differently, and each had a different payment system.

However, he noted, "If you knew where the stations were located, it was possible to drive throughout the state on natural gas."

McCollough said the technologies for natural gas-fueled vehicles have improved significantly since the last fueling stations in the state closed in 2001.

Likewise, the price difference between gasoline and natural gas has grown significantly, Charleston lawyer Phil Reale noted.

In the mid-'90s, gasoline prices generally ran between $1.30 and $1.50 a gallon.

He cited a report about Waste Management Inc. converting a fleet of its trash trucks in Pennsylvania to natural gas. The purchase price of each natural gas-powered truck is about $30,000 higher than a conventional trash truck, but each recouped a fuel cost savings of between $25,000 and $27,000 a year.

"It really doesn't take you long to recoup the investment you've made," said Reale, who said operating the state vehicle fleet on natural gas would quickly accumulate considerable savings.

Tomblin said any switchover would be incremental, following normal replacement cycles for state vehicles and school buses.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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