Diesel Is King, but Is Natural Gas a Contender for the Crown?

July 13th, 2016 by

Diesel has long been the trusted standard fuel in transportation, but ever-present political and economic concerns are driving a shift in thinking. With natural gases in abundance on American soil, many are advocating a switch. A standoff between owners and manufacturers is slowing progress, however, and the government is attempting to overcome these infrastructure hurdles with new incentives. In coming years, will natural gas usurp diesel’s crown?


The Trouble With Diesel


One of the biggest issues facing the diesel industry is a lack of information regarding how much oil is left. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported that there is enough to fuel current rates of use through 2040. At less than three decades away, this represents a finish line that must be met with energy alternatives. Some argue that these numbers are not reliable, though.


The reality is that little of the world’s oil resides on American land. In order to calculate into the future, one must rely on other countries providing complete and accurate information on their oil stores. In the present political climate, there are no assurances of this. When importing oil, there is also no guarantee of price stabilization.






As with any commodity, abundance lowers prices while scarcity drives them up. If it is impossible to tell how much oil there is, it is difficult to assess reasonable pricing. In many ways, the diesel industry is therefore at the mercy of other governments. Industry leaders and government officials are left wondering if there is a way to take control of this process at home.


The Appeal of Natural Gas


Natural gases have already come onto the scene in the private and industrial sectors. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, initiatives have tapped into large pockets of methane. This process has created a huge increase in wells on American soil; between 2000 and 2010, the number rose from 276,000 to a staggering 510,000. With an approximate 13,000 new wells being drilled every year, there is a great deal of readily accessible natural gas. The appeal here is clear: the United States could control its own fuel.


In addition to the political advantages, natural gases are considered the “cleanest” of all fossil fuels. With dramatic increases in CO2 emissions every year, these must be employed sooner rather than later. Estimates suggest that, at current rates of consumption, the earth has anywhere from ten to thirty years left before the carbon budget is spent.


This budget is exactly what level of CO2 emissions the earth can handle before temperatures worldwide increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius. This represents the line between life continuing somewhat normally and extreme weather and climate conditions taking over. Natural gases emit approximately 50% less CO2 than coal or oil. This would work to slow the spending of the carbon budget, giving researchers more time to develop solutions.


Though increasing in use, natural gas still has large markets to break into; it currently makes up about 25% of United States energy use. This total is divided equally among three primary functions: cooking and heating, industrial uses, and the production of electric power. At this time, only about 20% of 1% is utilized in the transportation industry. With millions of medium and heavy duty trucks on American roads, there is great potential for a new system.


Why Is This a Slow Shift?


The biggest hurdle in the move to natural gases for America’s transportation fleets is infrastructure. In order for manufacturers to produce natural gas-burning vehicles, there would need to be a market demand. That demand will not largely exist until fueling stations are readily accessible, which will not occur until there is a market demand based on the number of such vehicles on the road. This closed-loop has halted much progress.


Natural gas options in trucking boil down to two choices: Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). The first provides a solution for local routes. Drivers would need to return to their fueling station at least once per shift. Liquefied Natural Gas allows for a longer haul, maxing out at about 600 miles. This means an infrastructure would need to exist to support refueling every 600 miles along trucking routes.


Natural Gas Truck


Natural Gas Truck


The result of this catch-22 has been a standoff. Few companies have made the move to convert large numbers of vehicles, and manufacturers have held off development of the needed fueling infrastructure. The shipping system is so large and complex that it would take a massive investment to reinvent it. The government is therefore stepping in to provide incentives for people who make the shift.


Incentives to Combat Infrastructure Roadblocks


Government officials recognize that there will need to be a significant investment in natural gas vehicles before the system will change. Incentives vary by state but are now wide spread. Last year, California provided truck owners with as much as $65,000 for trading in diesel trucks in favor of a cleaner alternative. Most states have implemented some form of research and development fund, providing grant money to companies working on or implementing cleaner fuel programs. Tax credits and exemptions are also being granted to individuals and corporations who use energy efficient or clean vehicles.


Aside from the financial break, cost and environmental incentives are clear. Natural gases will remain less expensive than imported oil through the foreseeable future. They will also reduce CO2 emissions at a time when this is vital. The benefits of this shift are difficult to deny. Though slow to take hold, the future will likely hail the end of diesel and the adoption of natural gas.

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