Maybe it's time to be steered to natural gas

March 4, 2012 5:25 pm

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A few days before President Barack Obama spoke of a future with cars powered by natural gas, Lutitia Clipper drove one of those through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and onto the Parkway West.

"I went up Green Tree Hill, no problem,'' Ms. Clipper, a Peoples Gas executive, said of the Honda Civic GX. "I passed the trucks on the hill."

While the price of a gallon of gasoline is closing fast on $4, the cost of its natural gas equivalent is about half as much. Yet the cars that can run on the stuff are few. Those of us who have watched our heating bills shrink as Marcellus Shale drilling boomed can't help but wonder if the same thing could happen to the price of motoring around.

"We're taking every possible action to develop a near 100-year supply of natural gas, which releases few carbons," the president said last week in New Hampshire.

Sounds great, but he also said anyone touting a quick fix to high gasoline prices is a liar. He's right. Natural gas can help, but getting it out of the ground and into a healthy percentage of the nation's cars is going to be a much tougher climb than even Green Tree Hill.

Take that Honda Civic GX (made in the state of Indiana, by the way). Rick Price is executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, a coalition seeking to reduce petroleum use, and he's had the Honda demonstration model for three months, lending it to Ms. Clipper and others.

It averages 32 miles to the gallon and, after fill-up, it's good for about 250 miles. The last time Mr. Price went to the EQT Corp. fueling site in the Strip District, the light on the dashboard showed he had enough fuel for 12 more miles, and he filled it up for $11.96.

Using round numbers, let's figure the natural-gas Honda travels 240 miles for $12. Just to keep the math easy, let's estimate the equivalent amount of gasoline would cost $32. (If not tomorrow, then soon.) So you'd save $20 on every tank, right?

Not on your autographed picture of Lee Iacocca.

The natural-gas car costs about $6,000 more than the equivalent gasoline-powered car. A state alternatives fuel program provides a $1,000 rebate but, even with that, it could take 250 fill-ups before you break even. That's about 60,000 miles.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947. He will be signing copies of this book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century,'' at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show.
First Published 2012-03-03 23:10:38

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