Twenty years ago, Oklahoma Natural Gas converted its fleet of service vehicles to run off of compressed natural gas. With direct access to both the gas and the pipelines, it was a logical step. This led to a network of fueling stations across the state to service these vehicles, which then led to infrastructure that enabled general consumers to use CNG as a personal use everyday fuel. 

CNG is one of the cleanest burning fuels and is abundant in the United States, especially Oklahoma. This ability to run cleaner engines and reduce dependency on foreign oil has been a driving force behind a number of incentive programs and pieces of legislation that seek to improve availability and infrastructure growth.

However, for most who have purchased CNG vehicles or converted vehicles to operate on CNG, the decision has been largely economical. Prices for CNG across the state range from 71 cents to $1.39 per gallon equivalent, according to State averages for gasoline stand in stark contrast at about $3.25 per gallon, according to AAA.

In 2009 Paul Wood bought a Honda Civic GX, the only car that currently rolls off the assembly line fully fueled by CNG for the retail market. Wood’s daily commute takes him some 100 miles roundtrip from his home north of Depew to his job in Sapulpa. Because of the miles Wood travels each day, the return on the upfront investment of a CNG vehicle purchase made economic sense.

Since switching to CNG Wood has seen a decrease in his monthly gas bill from $520 to $225.

“You could make about six or seven car payments with the gas savings,” says Wood.

Mark Spraz, of Joe Marina Honda in Tulsa, says the gas prices drive the popularity of CNG vehicles.

“When gas prices are high, my phone rings off the wall,” says Spraz, who has driven the Civic GX since 2008.

Leader In Infrastructure

Wood would not call himself an early adopter. He waited until there was a proven and reliable infrastructure in place to make the switch. 

Wood’s car gets about 190 to 200 miles per tank, which is less than a typical car. Even with the increased need to fill his tank, Wood has found CNG to be a feasible daily use fuel. He says the infrastructure is strong enough now that anyone can do the same as long as they pay attention to where CNG is available. Wood drives his CNG vehicle for shuttling his kids to school and any other driving.

There are a number of online resources like to help drivers locate CNG filling stations, see prices and even plan a trip.

The infrastructure in Oklahoma is one of the strongest in the nation for consumer use of CNG. Oklahoma had the unique opportunity to steadily build the infrastructure during the last two decades with the initial purpose of providing more economical fuel for industry and municipal fleet vehicles. By the time consumer demand for CNG was growing, the infrastructure and supply could support it. 

Today there are 41 publicly available CNG fueling stations in Oklahoma. The skeleton of this network began with the ONG service stations. Companies like Oncue Express, Love’s and QuikTrip have further grown the retail infrastructure by adding CNG to some of their locations.

A number of factors play into Oklahoma’s unique position in this industry, says Don Sherry, communications manager at ONG.

“Part of it is that we are close in proximity to the natural gas. Part of it is that we are close to production,” says Sherry.

Sherry points to the creation of Oklahoma’s utility system during the early part of the last century as benefiting the success of natural gas. It established a network of natural gas delivery for home heat.

Oklahoma is one of the top three states in the nation for natural gas production and home to many leaders in the oil and gas exploration and drilling industries, including Chesapeake Energy, the most active driller in the United States. 

“Oklahoma is really setting the standard and setting the bar. Everyone is talking about Oklahoma’s great expansion of the fuel,” says James Roller, manager of corporate development and government relations at Chesapeake Energy.

Lack Of Vehicles

Even the auto industry is taking notice, says Roller. Companies like Ford, GM and Chrysler are paying attention to what is happening in Oklahoma.

This is good news. While availability of the fuel is abundant in Oklahoma, the availability of the vehicles that run on it is not.

Spraz has been selling the Honda Civic GX for about five years. The vehicle is generally affordable, at around $26,000, but Honda doesn’t produce many. They must be specially ordered and availability is spotty, Spraz says.

Oklahoma was initially one of only four states authorized by American Honda to sell the CNG vehicle. Last fall Spraz says American Honda opened this up to all 50 states. However, due to lack of infrastructure elsewhere sufficient to support general consumer use of CNG, there have not been any other states jump on the bandwagon.

“The more cars we can get on the road, the more fill stations we can get. The more fill stations the more cars.”

Another option for those interested in CNG is conversion. This is done with an EPA-certified conversion kit by a certified technician typically on new or nearly new vehicles. It can be expensive, ranging from $8,000 to $16,000. 

“As the market grows, you will see more and more vehicles offered,” says Roller.

GM recently released a cargo van that runs on CNG. Roller expects the introduction of a CNG-fueled heavy-duty pick-up sometime in 2013. These vehicles could be used as oil and gas and telecommunications work trucks. He points out that small businesses, such as plumbers and florists could also benefit from the fuel savings of these vehicles. This increases demand for the fuel, which encourages infrastructure growth. Roller says this will eventually spur the creation of more light duty vehicles for personal use. 

This would in turn generate yet more infrastructure growth.

“The more cars we can get on the road, the more fill stations we can get. The more fill stations the more cars,” says Spraz

CNG producers, distributors, retailers and users alike are passionate about expansion of this market in Oklahoma and nationwide. For some it is to make full use of Oklahoma’s natural resources. Two-thirds of the natural gas produced in Oklahoma is currently exported. Keeping it here supports local industry and could serve to reduce the operational costs of industry and government. For some it is all about the cost savings. Others look to promote independence from foreign oil. And still the individuals who drive the cars look forward to widespread installation of CNG filling stations.

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