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.