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State task force plans for shift to natural gas vehicles

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force is homing in on a way to build the necessary infrastructure to fuel natural gas vehicles across the state.

It's a chicken-or-egg problem: How can government agencies move to natural gas vehicle fleets without first having refueling stations? On the other hand, who would build a refueling station without first having demand for the product?

 The committee hopes to have possible solutions ready for lawmakers to review in mid-January.

The governor's task force held its final scheduled meeting at the state Capitol Thursday to discuss how to build a sizable natural gas vehicle fleet and fueling system.

Over the next few weeks, they plan to draft a final plan for the Legislature to review during interim committee meetings in January.

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel are clear: It's cleaner, abundant and costs about half as much as gasoline.

However, it will take a lot of money to build the necessary filling stations and infrastructure to fuel natural gas vehicles.

Hallie Mason, director of public policy for the Tomblin administration, said the state is trying to foster partnerships with private companies to encourage them to invest in the infrastructure.

Mason said switching vehicles to natural gas makes good economic sense for both the state and private entities.  

"We believe that this can happen, that it will happen, and once consumers see that natural gas prices at the pump are half of that as traditional gasoline, then we believe consumers will be excited about that," she said.

Task force members want the state to come up with some type of incentive or tax credit program to encourage filling station owners and consumers to make the switch.

The key will be demonstrating demand.

"It takes a lot of vehicles doing a lot of fueling to give a recovery on the cost of infrastructure" said task force member Frank McCullough, an executive at Spring Creek Energy in Summersville.

McCullough was the chairman of the West Virginia Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition in the early 1990s. That organization was set up by former Gov. Gaston Caperton to establish a natural gas vehicle fuel infrastructure system in the state.

That effort failed when gasoline prices took a tumble. When that happened, major vehicle manufacturers lost interest in natural gas vehicles.

Now the major manufacturers - referred to as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs - realize global economic forces are making high crude oil and gasoline prices an entrenched reality.

They are now committed to producing the vehicles and equipment to support the transition.

"I don't think ever before we have had the kind of support from the vehicle manufacturers to make this transition," said Phil Reale, lobbyist for the state Independent Oil and Gas Association.

But McCullough said the conversion would not take place unless there is a cooperative effort between government, private industry, fleet vehicle operators and the public.

"It's your typical 'Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?'" he said. "You have to get a lot of vehicles converted to use fuel, and you have to have a lot of stations (built) at high cost to provide the fuel."

Mason said the state is already part of a 12-state compact to support converting state fleets to natural gas. That is meant to help entice infrastructure investment across the Appalachian region.

"The private sector is very interested in having a fleet to fuel," Mason said. "The governor felt we should take the first step and provide them with the market."

The task force has identified 6,000 state vehicles, 10,000 private vehicles and 2,000 city or county vehicles that can be converted over the coming years.

Mason said conversions would be part of the regular state vehicle replacement program. State vehicles typically are replaced on a four-year rotation.  

McCullough said once consumers see the stations in place and others using the vehicles, they will consider making the switch.

"The economic impact of paying 50 percent of the cost of gasoline has got to be compelling for a lot of people," he said.

"What we need to do is work to have an infrastructure of stations, and an infrastructure of OEM vehicle manufacturers to provide service and availability of vehicles, and with that there's a real possibility you can see some dramatic changes," McCullough said.

The task force has located several counties that would be ideal for filling stations. Those include Kanawha, Putnam, Wood, Ohio, Monongalia, Berkeley and Jefferson.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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