ONCE again, state officials want to convert state-owned vehicles to run on natural gas. West Virginia has plenty of natural gas, and the price of natural gas right now - in gasoline gallon equivalents - is half that of gasoline.
In converting 6,000 state vehicles, officials hope not only to save money, but also to beef up demand and spark the establishment of natural gas filling stations across the state.
"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," said Hallie Mason, director of public policy for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Some cautious optimism is advised.
State government tried this two decades ago and by 1998 had 1,200 vehicles that could run on natural gas. That number fell to 492 three years later, as gasoline prices also fell and natural gas prices rose.
By 2008, the price of natural gas had risen so high - topping $10 per 1,000 cubic feet - that the idea of running a car on natural gas seemed crazy.
But the high prices and new technology triggered an onslaught of drilling in deep shale formations in West Virginia and elsewhere. That - along with a mild winter - caused natural gas prices to plummet to $2 per mcf.
Then producers began to curtail production. As Matthew Philips of Bloomberg News observed in April, "Essentially, gas is so cheap that it's no longer profitable to drill."
Gasoline prices also fluctuate. The price at the pump was less than $2 a gallon when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009 but shot past $4 a gallon this past summer and is now down to $3.50.
Experts believe the growing demand for gasoline from developing nations, especially China and India, will keep gasoline prices high. Natural gas, on the other hand, is produced domestically and is difficult to export, so that may keep downward pressure on its cost.
This is a guessing game, of course, so the stakes are high for state government and the operators of other fleets.
Ford, GM, Chrysler and Honda do sell vehicles that can run on either fuel with separate tanks for each.
The state Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force will report to lawmakers on its recommendations in January.
Farmers do not place all their eggs in one basket. State officials should not be in a big rush to select one fuel for all their vehicles.