Is This Already the End for Natural Gas Vehicles?

A joint study, published in the journal Science on Friday has revealed that natural gas as a transportation fuel provides no net benefit to the climate, when compared with diesel. The report, written by numerous researchers from some of the United States' most prestigious universities, as well as NOAA and the Department of Energy, flies in the face of what most of us have come to believe about "clean-burning" natural gas. This could yield big problems for companies like Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ: CLNE  ) and Westport Innovations (NASDAQ: WPRT  ) that are carving out their niche in the space. Let's take a closer look.

A truck fills up on natural gas at a Clean Energy station. Photo Credit: Clean Energy Fuels.

First and foremost, the scientists aren't disputing that natural gas burns cleaner than diesel. That remains absolutely true, as natural gas, or methane, produces 30% less carbon dioxide than diesel when burned. The problem comes on the production end of things, where methane leaks during the drilling and extraction process negate the benefit of using the commodity as a transportation fuel. Methane traps 30 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, a dangerous level of potency despite the fact that methane doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does.

The study also revealed that methane emissions are 25% to 75% higher than previous estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So what does this mean for Clean Energy Fuels? The company is building America's Natural Gas Highway and its success very much depends on long haul trucks buying into the natural gas story. The same is true for Westport Innovations, the company that upfits many trucks with natural gas engines. 

Here's a quick recap some of the biggest story lines from the past year:

Bi-fuel Chevy Impala. Photo credit: General Motors.

In other words, there's a lot of economic activity surrounding natural gas as a transportation fuel right now; dollars are saved, and jobs are created. Now that much of corporate America is finally embracing natural gas vehicles, does this study mean that it's suddenly time to abandon ship?

Not necessarily. Methane leakage is an important issue, but it is also an addressable issue. The conclusion of the report suggests that investment by the oil and gas industry to prevent leakage during production and processing could significantly curb emissions. In fact, USA Today has reported that a previous survey of natural gas processing plants revealed that of the 75,000 components at such facilities, 50 faulty parts result in roughly 60% of the methane leakage.

That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss the findings of this report out of hand. Again, this is a preventable problem, and it would behoove the industry to begin addressing it very quickly -- and very publicly -- on account of the sheer number of businesses and state governments that have made a significant push for natural gas vehicles. That should be the way forward.

The Fool's top stock pick
There's a huge difference between a good stock and a stock that can make you rich. The Motley Fool's chief investment officer has selected his No. 1 stock for 2014, and it's one of those stocks that could make you rich. You can find out which stock it is in the special free report "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2014." Just click here to access the report and find out the name of this under-the-radar company.


Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 2:17 PM, Cody700 wrote:

    The end of Natural Gas Powered Vehicles? ROFLMAO Of course this isn't the end of it. We haven't even scratched the surface of the capabilities. They are MUCH more efficient than EL powered vehicles, and they are MUCH more kind to the environment as well. What do these morons think our EL vehicles are powered with? The other most viable alternative is going to be fuel cell vehicles. EL is a passing fad unless the technology that not only powers the vehicles, but also powers the electric generation facilities.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 3:26 PM, jkirchhoff wrote:

    Interesting that they are now focusing on the production end of alternative fuels. Will they PLEASE look into the emissions/wastestream of battery production, recycling and disposal???? The time bomb of electric vehicles is locked up in the batteries and the caustic and poisonous leachants that will come from the disposal of 1000's of their spent batteries and the production waste that occurs.

    Then, hopefully, they will turn their attention to the witches brew of chemicals that go into solar panel production. The wastestream and chemicals used in their production would make a Who's Who list of dangerous and water-contaminating by-products that would make people gladly embrace NGV.

    Publciation authors should have to disclose their political affiliations and non-profit memberships because this article smells like it "magically" appeared at the time of the Keystone Xl approval time and the expansion of natural gas in transportation and power production.

    That is, I think I disagree (to steal a Beatles' line).

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 3:48 PM, MartinGugino wrote:

    "That remains absolutely true, as natural gas, or methane, produces 30% less carbon dioxide than diesel when burned."

    Doesn't the amount of carbon dioxide produced depend on the amount of fuel burned? What are the comparative numbers for miles per pound of CO2?

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 4:40 PM, btc909 wrote:

    The problem with natural gas is taking a fuel tank based vehicle and trying to stick cylindrical tanks in the same vehicle. Unless you start from scratch with a vehicle designed to carry cylindrical tanks; natural gas will be passed up by most buyers.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 5:02 PM, BloviationNation wrote:

    Hey Cody700, you wouldn't be able to ROLFMAO if you read the facts. Heres an excerpt from the FORBEs web site:

    "Efficiency. EVs tend to win hands down in this category, primarily because the large natural gas-burning turbines at power plants remain far more efficient than the small ones squeezed into cars. A 2010 report from MIT states:

    While both EVs and NGVs have significant infrastructure requirements, there are major differences in their relative efficiencies. An NGV does not have comparable efficiency gains relative to electrification via natural gas generation. In general, 1,000 cubic feet (cf) of natural gas, converted to electricity, yields 457 miles in an EV. This same 1,000 cf in an NGV would only have a range of around 224 miles."

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 5:05 PM, BloviationNation wrote:

    Hey Cody700, you wouldn't be able to ROLFMAO if you read the facts. Here's an excerpt from the FORBES web site:

    "Efficiency. EVs tend to win hands down in this category, primarily because the large natural gas-burning turbines at power plants remain far more efficient than the small ones squeezed into cars. A 2010 report from MIT states:

    While both EVs and NGVs have significant infrastructure requirements, there are major differences in their relative efficiencies. An NGV does not have comparable efficiency gains relative to electrification via natural gas generation. In general, 1,000 cubic feet (cf) of natural gas, converted to electricity, yields 457 miles in an EV. This same 1,000 cf in an NGV would only have a range of around 224 miles."

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 5:20 PM, comissar wrote:

    The economics of LiON battery production support extensive recycling of electric vehicle batteries. The components of these batteries are scarce and expensive; you won't see large numbers in landfills.

    The other advantage of electric vehicles is central power generation. Yes, electric vehicles still need power to be generated somewhere, but we do a much cleaner, more efficient job of power generation in bulk than when burning any kind of fuel in tiny individual engines.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 5:22 PM, Bradknowsall wrote:

    You know, its kind of sad but biodiesel doesn't live up to the hype either. I was working for a biodiesel company and we wanted to bid on the DARPA contract for the military. In doing the math, I concluded that there was no way to use biofuel to replace regular jet fuel they use in the amounts needed to replace it completely. The problem lies in not in the ability of the fuel but the inability to produce enough bio-crop to produce all that they need. You would have to scrap every acre of crop land and make them grow oil crops. Makes it hard to eat.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 9:39 PM, willy325 wrote:

    Typical scare tactics headline just trying to grab eyeballs at the expense of the real story. Cut it out you are shooting yourself in the foot! MF looses more credibility every time you do this.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 9:53 PM, virgodave wrote:

    Hemp seed oil can be burned by most diesel engines with a minimum of processing or engine modifications. It can be grown by American farmers here in America. Besides the fact that the rest of the plant also makes excellent fuel for gasoline powered cars. See Methyl alcohol.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 7:33 AM, andiconda wrote:

    Motley Fool writers are the worst, just plain ridiculous

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 8:51 AM, midnighteye wrote:

    Never mind nat gas fuelled vehicles, look for vehicles running on diesel made from natural gas. It's cheap and is the fuel of the future for trucks. Climate? Don't worry, it's doing just fine.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 9:13 AM, werfree wrote:

    Why do some Motley Fool writers feel the need to start articles so dramatically? Boom or Bust! Don't we hear enough of that from other sources?

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 9:48 AM, SchraderBrau wrote:

    How would the PA turnpike pileup have turned out if every one of those vehicles had a 3600 PSI CNG tank?

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 11:47 AM, agsb02 wrote:

    From what I've read, CNG offers no benefits when compared to modern gas and diesel engines!

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 1:56 PM, dtrahan wrote:

    Whats that smell when filling my car with gasoline or my truck with diesel? Oh yeah its emissions of volatile organic carbons. And on a hot day all the thousands of fuel tanks all over the globe vaporize volatile organic carbons. Nat Gas vehicles will represent only a small pinch of volume when we consider the many other source points for emission. Scale matters.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 7:22 PM, Goldenboys wrote:

    Solar industry grapples with hazardous wastes

    By JASON DEAREN

    Feb 10, 2013 6:15 PM

    .

    Chart shows the amount of waste generated from solar companies in California that was shipped to other …

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Homeowners on the hunt for sparkling solar panels are lured by ads filled with images of pristine landscapes and bright sunshine, and words about the technology's benefits for the environment — and the wallet.

    What customers may not know is that there's a dirtier side.

    While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.

    To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.

    The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar's carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product's impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.

Add your comment.

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 2841213, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 9/2/2014 1:23:08 PM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...


Advertisement