Lafayette moving toward natural gas

12 27, 2011 by The Advocate

Two public fueling stations for natural gas-powered vehicles are set to open next year in Lafayette as part of nitiatives that include new natural gas buses and the conversion of at least 40 city-parish vehicles to run on natural gas.

The efforts come in a wider push by government and industry to develop natural gas as an alternative vehicle fuel that is touted as a cleaner burning and cheaper alternative to gasoline.

City-parish government is planning to open a natural gas fueling station at the public works facility on East University Avenue by next fall, said Tony Tramel, Lafayette city-parish director of traffic and transportation.

A second natural gas fueling station is already under construction off East Verot School Road by Apache Corporation, a Houston-based oil and gas company that has been at the forefront of promoting natural gas as a vehicle fuel.

That fueling station is expected to open by February, said Frank Chapel, who oversees Apache’s natural gas initiative.

He said the company has already built seven natural gas fueling stations in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico and is planning nine more, including the one in Lafayette.

The Apache and city-parish government fueling stations will be open to the general public, but the main market is expected to be the large vehicle fleets maintained by government agencies and private industry, particularly the oil-and-gas service companies in and around Lafayette.

“Lafayette has the largest concentration of fleet vehicles in Louisiana,” Chapel said.

He said natural gas could offer those companies an alternative fuel that is on average about 30 percent cheaper than diesel or gasoline.

Lafayette city-parish government has already seen the savings since rolling out five natural gas-powered buses earlier this year, Tramel said.

The new buses had been traveling to Baton Rouge for natural gas before a temporary fueling station was installed in Lafayette this month, he said, but the fuel costs have still been cheaper than the older diesel-powered buses.

“Even driving over there and back, we were still saving money,” Tramel said.

He said city-parish government plans to replace the entire municipal bus fleet with natural gas-fueled buses when the older diesel vehicles are retired in the coming years.

If the entire fleet of about 20 buses all ran on natural gas, the annual fuel cost for the bus service would likely drop from $800,000 a year to less than $600,000 a year, Tramel said.

Fuel savings could be seen in other departments after city-parish government completes a project to convert 40 government vehicles to run off natural gas.

The conversions are expected to be done by April, Tramel said.

The caveat, he said, is that the economics would not work if city-parish government had to pay the up-front costs of converting vehicles, building a new fueling station and retrofitting maintenance facilities to work with natural gas vehicles.

“The only way this works is if we get grant money to make this happen,” Tramel said.

City-parish government has received more than $2.5 million in federal grants and state appropriations for natural gas initiatives, most of which has gone toward the $1.7 million natural gas fueling station.

City-parish government has been approved for an additional $750,000 in federal funds for the conversion of another 65 government vehicles to run on natural gas.

Tramel said the money is available because other cities in the state that had initially applied for federal dollars to pay for natural gas initiatives have not moved quickly enough to meet the deadline for spending the money.

Tramel said it is still uncertain whether Lafayette will be able to take advantage of the windfall, because the additional conversions would probably need to be done by April.

That’s a tight deadline considering that the project must be put out to public bid and that it is difficult to find a company to handle a large volume of natural gas conversions on such short notice, he said.

The two new natural gas fueling stations taking shape in Lafayette will expand the network of existing natural gas stations in the state and could spur more interest in using the alternative fuel, said Louisiana Oil and Gas Association Vice President Gifford Briggs.

He said that the only publicly accessible stations at this time are in Baton Rouge and in the Shreveport/Bossier City area.

LOGA has been active in promoting natural gas as a vehicle fuel, in part to find a new market for a supply of natural gas that has increased dramatically in recent years because new drilling technologies have opened up massive finds like the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana.