Alternative fuel gains momentum in northeastern La.

09 06, 2012 by The News Star

It's clean, abundant and cheap, and a compressed natural gas pump may finally be coming to a auto fueling station near you.

Though northeastern Louisiana remains void of a public CNG fueling station, Hollis Downs of Hunt Guillot & Associates said the Ruston firm has a client who wants to open one in Ouachita Parish in 2013.

"There are a lot of things happening that are close to blowing the lid off of this," said Downs, who said the firm's unidentified client is exploring sites on U.S. 165 North near Sterlington.

Five of the state's 10 current public CNG fueling stations are clustered in northwestern Louisiana, where the Haynesville Shale natural gas play sparked immediate interest.

The others are in Alexandria (one station), Baton Rouge (two stations), Lafayette (one station) and New Orleans (one station) with eight more scheduled to come online this year.

"The Haynesville Shale gave the CNG development a lot of energy in Shreveport," Downs said. "Monroe hasn't had similar interest, but it's coming."

Today, the state's CNG stations primarily serve fleets of vehicles from companies that committed to use them like Chesapeake Energy, an exploration and production company among the leaders in advocating for natural gas use in vehicles.

Lott Oil of Alexandria, a traditional fuel distributor, was the first private company to build a CNG station after it received a commitment from Chesapeake to refuel its fleet at Lott's station in Mansfield. Most of the other public stations have been built by local governments like Bossier City.

"We liked the concept; everything we looked at made sense," said David Dollar of Lott Oil. "We're taking natural gas from under our feet and driving with it."

"Right now it's simple," Downs said. "You have to marry the users, which are primarily fleet customers in the early stages, to the fueling station to make sure you have customers to buy the (CNG)."

Chesapeake's Katie McCullen said it's not hard to convince companies to convert their fleets once they see the ultimate savings.

CNG currently sells at an average of $1.75 gasoline gallon equivalent.

"Fleet customers get it," McCullen said.

But so far individual consumers don't. Few have been willing to convert their existing vehicles to natural gas without reliable sources of fuel.

That's changing, McMullen said, pointing out that automakers like General Motors, Chrysler and Ford have committed to produce bifuel pickup trucks that run off of CNG and traditional gasoline as early as the end of this year.

"The tipping point comes when original equipment manufacturers are producing vehicles that consumers can buy straight off of the lot," she said.

But the infrastructure must be in place as well.

"(Automakers) have to have confidence that fueling stations will be there if they produce the vehicles, and consumers have to know fueling stations will be there if they buy them," she said.

Dollar said installing a public CNG pumping station can cost almost $1 million, but he said their two stations are already breaking even.

"Our business is growing; it's been a good investment," he said. "And when individual consumers do buy (bifuel vehicles), we'll be well positioned. This isn't going away."