Why We Aren't Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars

America is in the midst of the biggest energy boom since Texas' 20th Century Gusher Age. All over the country, new drilling techniques have created an abundance of cheap natural gas. With domestic production at more than 25 billion cubic feet per day, prices are as low as they've ever been.

So why aren't we all driving natural gas powered cars like Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, the world's top natural gas vehicle (NGV) users? I tried out a natural gas-powered Ford F250 last month, asking myself the same question. Here's what I found out.

Even if it seems to make little sense that we're still using foreign oil when there are thousands of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas sitting in shale below the U.S. of A, there are at least two strong reasons why we aren't using more of it. First, no one (well, except maybe T. Boone Pickens, but he was mostly just talking) has stepped up to the plate to take on an entrenched oil industry by investing in natural gas infrastructure. Oil still makes people money. That's the market side of things.

Then there's the part that has to do with human health, the environment, and a little bit of math. Gas companies say drilling is perfectly safe, and while it may not be the worst thing we've ever done to get fuel, there are more and more cases of drilling harming the environment and affecting people's health. Plus, when we begin crunching numbers, it raises a big question: is natural gas actually that cheap to produce? It uses a lot of water, and with no pipeline infrastructure, transportation costs money and adds to air pollution.

As you know, we at Jalopnik love our cars and trucks, but we also like to think about what driving will look like in the future. Because, as we've all seen in recent years, even the coolest car doesn't do you much good if you can't afford to fill it up. But if we can get cheaper fuel without making ourselves sick, and build cars and trucks that run on it without breaking down, we might have something.

America's got gas

Compressed natural gas (CNG) use in passenger vehicles is already widespread in parts of the world where the fuel's lower cost drives motorists to have their cars converted. As of 2010, countries in Asia and the Pacific have increased NGV use by 42 percent since 2000. China and India have the fastest growing fleets there, but Latin America's CNG use is also on the rise, and in Europe, Italy has been using NGVs since 1930. The Mediterranean nation, not often known for being cutting edge in anything other than race cars, fancy shoes, and political scandals currently has more than 700,000 NGVs on the road compared to America's 120,000 or so.

Why We Aren't Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars

Here in the U.S., we don't tend to like drastic departures from the status quo. Natural gas has expanded in more or less unnoticed ways — it's replacing coal in a lot of electric power plants, and has made its way into many U.S. cities' bus and municipal truck fleets. This is a good thing. The U.S. Department of Energy says natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil — producing about 70 percent less carbon emissions — and estimates that replacing 3.5 million oil-burning heavy duty vehicles (trucks) with CNG-powered ones by 2035 would reduce oil consumption by 1.2 million barrels per day. Score one for the "we're too dependent upon foreign oil" crowd.

Oil prices have risen over the past several months. Have you noticed at the pump? I have. It costs more than $40 to fill up my old crapcan '80s Subaru. Natural gas, on the other hand, is cheap and plentiful. But the glut of gas on the market from so much drilling has caused a couple of problems. First, its price has dropped so low that energy companies are turning back toward oil, and profit. Second, there isn't enough space to store it all because we haven't invested in pipelines and storage tanks.

The question of whether or not natural gas is actually cheaper than oil depends a lot upon who you're asking for numbers. With a huge supply sitting right beneath our feet, it's easy to say NGVs are the way to go. Well, until you start considering the real cost of production. As it stands now, most natural gas is transported by tanker trucks — a lot of tanker trucks. Trucks are also used to carry the water used in the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves pumping a high pressure mix of mostly water and a cocktail of chemicals that help break up shale to release tiny gas bubbles. Most fracked wells use a few million gallons of water each to get gas out of the ground. According to Pro Publica there are 424,216 gas wells in the U.S. (click on their interactive map to find out how many are in your state), and many are in remote locations reached by long stretches of desolate highway. That's a lot of fuel used and truck exhaust spewed into the air.

Why We Aren't Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars

But transporting oil from overseas also costs money. Daniel Whitten, Vice President of Strategic Communications at Washington, D.C.-based America's Natural Gas Alliance, said, quoting more DOE stats, that because 98 percent of the natural gas used in the domestic market comes from North America, it could be used to reduce America's dependence upon foreign oil, which would in turn cut shipping costs from wells half a world away. It's a popular argument in his circle.

Daniel Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program, suggested that as far as cars and light trucks go, American natural gas would be consumed more efficiently by using it to produce electricity that would then power electric and plugin hybrid vehicles.

"Natural gas companies are trying to expand their markets because they're running out of storage space," he said. "There are benefits to giving consumers options other than oil and breaking the monopoly of oil companies on transportation, but the question is, how much oil are you really displacing?"

Would a huge pipeline network get rid of the truck problem? Maybe, but someone would have to try it to find out.

What's Wrong With My Water?

Spurred by economical hydraulic fracturing, natural gas drilling has boomed over the last decade, and state and federal regulators have had to scramble to keep up. In the case of energy production, regulation is a good thing, though. Drilling creates jobs, but before getting carried away by the golden calf, don't forget that it has, when unchecked, contaminated water supplies, polluted the air, and caused health problems.

Why We Aren't Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars

The way hydraulic fracturing works is pretty straightforward. The producer will drill to depths often exceeding a mile, then inject high pressure water laced with a thin slurry of chemicals to help break apart the shale and release tiny gas bubbles, which then come back out of the well at high pressure. It usually goes off without a hitch, but when it doesn't the volumes of gas, water and chemicals these companies are dealing with make catastrophe almost inevitable.

The water that comes back out of each well brings with it gas, water, minerals — often radioactive ones — and fracking fluid, which many states don't require companies to disclose the contents of. Underground gas leaks have caused groundwater contamination and surface explosions in some areas. Fracking juice and radioactive water have also been a problem, although gas companies seem to be making a better effort to keep that stuff out of rivers and groundwater. Regardless, people tend to freak out anytime a gas field is proposed near a residential area. They're legitimately concerned. Pennsylvania, for example, is still cleaning up its Industrial Age extraction and milling messes, and people there are wary that the state's 53,000 and counting gas wells might leave the same legacy.

"It's an industry that's expanded rapidly around the country, and a lot of families are concerned about their health," said Amy Mall, one of NRDC's senior policy analysts. "We don't think the rules are strong enough, and the industry shouldn't be expanded until the right rules are in place."

What's it feel like to drive a CNG truck?

Some in the auto industry see dollar signs in the potential to produce CNG-powered passenger vehicles. The Big Three all either offer or will offer bi-fuel pickups — that can switch back and forth between CNG and gasoline — and Honda has a CNG powered Civic on the market. (Most natural gas powered passenger vehicles are retrofitted, not factory built, at this point.) According to DOE testing, burning natural gas produces a fraction of the greenhouse gas of gasoline combustion, but with a 3 percent reduction in power.

I drove a bi-fuel Ford F250 set up by Arian, Mich.-based Venchurs Vehicle Systems last month at the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, and really couldn't tell the difference between when it was running on gasoline and when it was running on CNG. Other than the fact that it was painted with a park ranger scheme that scared the crap out of an RV camper (who, by the look on his face, must have been doing something wrong) when I pulled in alongside him on the banks of the Colorado River, it felt like a normal truck. The gasoline tank is in the normal place, and compressed natural gas goes in a tank in the bed-mounted tool box. With both tanks filled, it has a 650-mile range.

"It's an industry that shows a lot of promise, but it's over promised and under delivered," said Jeff Wyatt, VVS's CEO, adding that they've seen interest from natural gas companies wanting fleet vehicles for use on gas fields, as well as limited interest from a park agency or two. "We're going the other way and asking people to try this."

It's a fact that natural gas vehicles produce less greenhouse gasses than either gasoline or diesel cars and trucks. But clean or no, some concerns have naturally been raised about a major shift to CNG. The most obvious one has to do with refueling. Most gas stations are equipped to gas up gas burning cars and trucks. DOE's Alternative Fuel Data Center lists 1,000 CNG refueling stations in the U.S. as of April 2012, but only 46 percent of them are currently open to the public. Also, that's less than 1 percent of the total number of filling stations nationwide. Of course, if the CNG ball gets rolling and someone invests in refueling infrastructure, that could all change.

Why We Aren't Driving Natural Gas Powered Cars

Wyatt said he thinks gas drilling companies are being pretty up front about wanting to be as clean as possible, but either way, he sees a future in building CNG vehicles. His company worked with Ford to develop a truck that burns CNG as efficiently as possible, in order to avoid the guesswork inherent in many retrofits. They've created something so OE, nobody could tell the difference, aside from the weird refueling socket next to the gasoline filler nozzle.

If CNG passenger vehicles take off, it will be the biggest change in fuels since people switched from horses to cars. But as with railroads and gasoline powered automobiles, CNG's success depends as much upon vehicle manufacturers as it does on drillers and infrastructure investors. We won't be using gasoline forever. CNG vehicles work, and can even be beautiful. We just have to decide whether or not we want them.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some sort of CNG powered plugin hybrid. Think about it: it would get you from A to B, wouldn't pollute too much, and would pollute less than a straight gas-burner. Because at the end of the day almost everyone in America, even environmentalists, drives cars. If we can drive without using too much of our resource, and within the guidelines of clean air and water standards, it could be a better way to get around.

Photo credit: Getty Images, Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons, Harry Wagner/Kahn Media