Columbia proceeds with natural-gas deal despite environmental questions

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 | 5:52 p.m. CDT
A natural-gas filling station at 1900 Lake Ridgeway Drive is estimated to be completed at the end of July. The station is being built by Clean Energy in collaboration with the city.

COLUMBIA — The city struck an agreement with a natural-gas distributor in September to build a station to fuel 35 natural-gas vehicles that the city has ordered. Six have arrived as questions continue about how much the city should depend on natural gas for its fleet.

The city plans to purchase even more natural-gas vehicles, which would eventually constitute up to 14 percent of its approximately 1,000-vehicle fleet, City Manager Mike Matthes told the Columbia City Council on Monday.

The council heard a report from the Environment and Energy Commission that concluded, "There is no convincing environmental reason to add more compressed natural gas fueled vehicles to the city fleet at this time."

The Transportation Fuels Report, dated May 27, recommended choosing hybrid vehicles when replacing or buying new city vehicles. There are 15 hybrid vehicles in the city fleet, Fleet Operations Superintendent Eric Evans said.

The last hybrid vehicle purchased by the city was a 2011 Ford Escape that cost $28,604, Evans said.

The commission's report also recommended that the city "significantly increase the use of biodiesel" in its fleet. The city uses 2 percent to 5 percent biodiesel in all of its diesel vehicles, Evans said. Each additional percent of biodiesel increases fuel costs by a penny per gallon.

All equipment manufacturers approve biodiesel blends of 5 percent, with the majority approving blends up to 20 percent. By using all biodiesel for diesel vehicles, the city can reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to three-fourths compared with petroleum diesel, according to the commission’s report.

Biodiesel is economically attractive because much of it is made with locally produced soybean oil, according to the report. Therefore, more of the money the city uses on fuel would end up in regional pocketbooks and would help stimulate the local economy.

The Environment and Energy Commission understands that the city's decision to adopt natural-gas vehicles into the fleet is based on economics and not on environmental factors, commission Chairman Lawrence Lile said.

But the argument that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than petroleum "does not hold water," he said.

The commission's "ultimate goal is switching to electrical energy for transportation with some fraction of renewable sources," Lile said.

The report pointed out many troublesome environmental factors of the fuel, one of which is that "compressed natural gas is about equivalent to gasoline" in emitting greenhouse gases from production to final use. This is due to leaks of methane in the extraction process, which has a greenhouse effect approximately 25 times more than carbon dioxide.

In addition to its environmental impact, the cost of the fuel is unstable, according to the report. It says the cost of natural gas could "change significantly in the future" as the production and transportation of liquefied natural gas progresses overseas.

"From an environmental view, I feel like compressed natural gas is a step backwards," Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said. "I do not accept (compressed natural gas) as a clean fuel."

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala told the council on Monday night that he still believes in the benefits of using natural-gas vehicles despite the dangers of methane leaks during extraction.

"I think that diversification is a wise strategy when it comes to our entire fleet," Skala said.

The city has agreed to buy 15,000 gas-gallon equivalent of compressed natural gas per month in the 15-year contract with Clean Energy, a natural-gas distributor, for the filling station, located at 1900 Lake Ridgeway Drive.

The station will be open to the public, with private consumption of natural gas going toward the 15,000 gas-gallon equivalent contract. Private trucking companies in the region will also adopt some natural-gas vehicles, Evans said, which will help the city meet its contract requirements.

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Mark Foecking July 10, 2014 | 8:56 a.m.

So 35 vehicles need to use 15,000 gallon equivalents per month, which is about 430 gallons a month. Even a garbage truck that gets 6 mpg would need to drive about 2500 miles per month (do they even come close to that?), much less a passenger vehicle. And I think I can confidently predict there is not a single private vehicle in Boone County that runs on CNG. Same with long haul trucks. The energy density of CNG is so much less than gasoline or diesel that I don't see it as any more than a niche fuel.

The city is going to take a bath on this. Environmental concerns are secondary (the gas will be produced and burned whether we use it or not).


(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble July 10, 2014 | 11:18 a.m.

I think the city will come to regret this.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders July 10, 2014 | 11:43 a.m.

What's important to remember here is this, how much cash can be acquired by federal grants to fill the holes in the City's budget? The feds meanwhile, want to create this infrastructure to show that "they care" and that they are doing something that looks good come election time.

Never mind that all of these alternative fuels still rely upon oil/coal in their production, whether it be petroleum based fertilizers for soybeans, the mining associated with the tons of batteries needed for hybrids, or all of the energy required to create/maintain the infrastructure needed for CNG distribution.

Then with bio-diesel (and ethanol) there's the whole idea of using food for fuel at a time when prices are already vastly outpacing income growth, as well as the reality that we're consuming our remaining top-soil to do so. Then there's also the water requirements.

IMO, it's nothing but more malinvestment in an effort to generate positive PR, and it will back-fire spectacularly. Especially given that they're tied to a fifteen year contract with one Mr. T. Boone Pickens (the only clear winner in this deal).

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 10, 2014 | 6:29 p.m.

When working toward the solution to any real or supposed problem it's helpful if you already know the correct answer.

You must also, of course, be aware aware there really IS a problem, and have some understanding of what that problem is.

Then, having declared to every one that you've solved the problem, you need to understand that's frequently when far more serious but previously hidden problems start to surface.

I wonder whether that DOT approved hydrogen fueling at Rolla on I-44 (first one in Missouri - assuming any have been built since) is doing? Has it justified its existence? There's a possible subject for a future Missourian article.

(Report Comment)

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