Natural Gas For Long-Haul Trucking: Working Together to Get It Right
Q: The trucking industry is poised to increase its use of natural gas for heavy-duty, long-haul freight. Is this a good idea?
A: Natural gas sounds like a dream proposition. It's cheap, domestic, and, when it burns, it emits a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) of diesel fuel—and few other pollutants. So it potentially solves the two most pressing environmental issues related to freight: the volume of pollutants that diminish air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions that hasten climate change.
But there's a catch. If it doesn't burn, and instead escapes into the atmosphere, natural gas, which is mostly methane, is a greenhouse gas many times more impactful than CO2. Unless we're very careful about how we deploy this solution—how we capture, distribute, and burn it—we could actually be worse off, environmentally speaking.
When it comes to air quality, the trucking industry has made enormous progress—reducing particulate and nitrogen emissions 95 percent over the past 25 years. Going forward, the key environmental focus in trucking must be greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: Why is methane leakage and its impact on climate change so concerning?
A: As a global warming pollutant, methane is like CO2 on steroids. Even small amounts of leakage can erase the benefits of switching from diesel to natural gas.
About 1.5 percent of total natural gas production is lost to leakage, according to the most recent EPA greenhouse gas inventory. While different studies put that percentage higher or lower, our best science suggests we must limit these emissions to one percent or less. That's the total amount of methane that can escape, system-wide, before the environmental benefits of switching from diesel to natural gas disappear.
Q: How can we solve the problem?
A: The first step is fully understanding it. The Environmental Defense Fund is sponsoring a study by West Virginia University to measure methane leaks at various stages in refueling and operating trucks that run on liquefied natural gas. Other sponsors include Volvo, Cummins Westport, Westport Innovations, PepsiCo, and Shell; they all recognize the importance of working across the industry on a practical, sustainable solution. Study results, due out in early 2014, will give us an understanding of what actions are needed to drive down leakage rates to acceptable levels.
Q: In the meantime, what can shippers do to keep this issue front and center?
A: Stay informed, and ask questions. Learn what fuel suppliers, truck manufacturers, and for-hire fleets are doing to minimize fugitive methane emissions.
Natural gas is a homegrown resource that can reduce fuel costs, make us more energy independent, and create a safer planet. But the methane emissions issue must be solved for natural gas to realize its full potential in long-haul freight.
The good news is that the right players have banded together to drive toward a solution. With continued collaboration and a unified commitment to high performance standards, we can tackle this challenge and ensure natural gas is a win for shippers, carriers, and future generations.