In recent weeks, we’ve all felt the pain at the gas pump. It seems the price of gasoline has been sky rocketing at an accelerating rate and it is not even “driving season” yet. Here in the Washington, DC area where I live the price of Regular grade gasoline is now over $4/gallon. We all know the impact this is having on family budgets.
What some people don’t realize is that diesel prices are also on a similar trajectory. Last week, the average price of diesel fuel across the US was a staggering $4.09 per gallon. And even though you may not drive a diesel powered vehicle, the price of diesel impacts the cost of virtually everything you buy.
The good news is that new technologies and the discovery of vast amounts of natural gas right here in the US provides an attractive solution to the issue of high diesel prices. As a replacement for diesel fuel in heavy duty freight trucks, liquefied natural gas (LNG) hold tremendous promise by providing significant economic, environmental and energy security benefits.
LNG – Sizing the Opportunity
First, some numbers to define the opportunity. The United States is the largest petroleum consumer in the world, consuming 18.8 million barrels per day of petroleum products in 2009. 51% of which was imported.
The transportation sector represents approximately 72% of U.S. demand for petroleum products, and after gasoline, diesel fuel represents the 2nd most important transportation fuel. On-highway diesel consumption was, by far, the largest segment of the diesel market representing more than 30 billion gallons of demand in 2009. To replace this demand for diesel would require approximately 4.7 Trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas, which is less than 0.2% of the estimated 2,552 Tcf of potential domestic natural gas resources.
A Clean Alternative to Diesel
LNG is produced via a liquefaction process that cools natural gas to temperatures of -260 degrees below zero. This process also purifies the fuel, increasing the combustible methane content to over 95%, and thus making it a very clean-burning fuel. According to the U.S. EPA, LNG can reduce particulate emissions by half, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic hydrocarbon emissions by half, carbon dioxide emissions by one quarter, carbon monoxide, toxic, and carcinogenic pollutants significantly, as compared to diesel fuel. These significant emissions reductions will improve air quality and help address global climate change.
The Cost Advantage vs. Diesel
Over the last two years oil prices have varied from a high of $140 per barrel to a low of $40 per barrel and currently sit at roughly $110 per barrel. Meanwhile, natural gas prices have stayed relatively stable and low in comparison. Due to the abundance of domestic shale gas, natural gas prices are expected to remain fairly low for the foreseeable future. A current “pump-to-pump” price comparison of diesel vs. LNG reflects these cost ratios. With current diesel prices at just over $4/ gallon versus current natural gas prices, LNG could be produced and delivered to a fueling station for less than $2 per diesel equivalent gallon, a significant cost discount to diesel.
While the market opportunity is still emerging, the technology is available and mature. Natural gas has been used in “diesel” engines for a long time and major engine and truck manufacturers including Cummins Westport, Peterbilt, Kenworth, and Freightliner offer natural gas products. What is lacking is infrastructure. While there are approximately 130,000 gasoline fueling stations across the United States, there are only roughly 45 LNG fueling stations currently in operation. In order to create this market, significant development of liquefaction and fueling infrastructure is needed. But with the all the uncertainty surrounding petroleum and the price of diesel, I feel the time is right for LNG.