Cross-country caravan

Geologists Take CNG Road Trip to Convention

To no one’s surprise, attendees at the recent AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif., arrived at their destination via the ordinary modes of transportation, i.e. jet fueled planes and gasoline-burning automobiles, for the most part.

A striking exception was the group of geoscientists from Southwestern Energy Corp. (SWN), who made the trek in a three-vehicle caravan powered by compressed natural gas, or CNG.

The two large SUVs and a truck were driven and occupied by employees from the company’s Arkansas and Texas offices. They traversed 2,782 miles, encountering no problems, according to caravan participant and SWN communications adviser Mary Faucett.

The unique expedition was the brainchild of AAPG member Damian Friend, chief geologist at SWN, who first conceived of the idea during the summer of 2011.

He noted there were three things they wanted to accomplish:

  • Go to the AAPG annual meeting safely and to make geologic stops along the way for training purposes.
  • Advertise and celebrate CNG as an alternative and affordable fuel, while demonstrating a trip that length can be done.
  • Use the journey as a recruiting trip for college recruiting.

“When recruiting, we usually talk geology and what we do to explore for oil and gas,” said AAPG member John Jeffers, director of geosciences of the Fayetteville shale division at SWN. “In this case the focus was the other end of the process, which is all the success we’ve had in finding this tremendous resource and what we can actually do with it.

“We think it opened some eyes in this direction,” he said.

Planning a Priority

No doubt you’re wondering how this high mileage jaunt could happen given the known lack of a significant CNG refueling infrastructure.

It was all about the planning.

Refill availability definitely had an impact on the route taken.

“We googled where to find CNG, mapped it out and made sure the facility was open and operational,” Faucett said. “Some were attached to retail stations or even standalone. The private ones were CNG only, such as a mechanical yard, where there was a fleet of vehicles.”

Friend noted there was a lack of stations on a part of the route across the Texas panhandle, New Mexico and into Colorado.

Even so, the caravan had to rely on gasoline power for a mere 165 miles during the lengthy trip.

“One of the neat things about these vehicles is they switch seamlessly,” Faucett emphasized. “There’s a gauge to let you know it’s coming, but you don’t notice at all when you run out of CNG.

“We were at a high altitude on the highway the first time, and it just seamlessly switched to gasoline,” she said.

“One of the highlights of the trip was meeting other drivers who had been driving CNG vehicles for several years,” said AAPG member Rich Whittington, geologist at SWN. “These early adopters were passionate and committed to CNG; they demonstrated the long-term viability of CNG vehicles and praised the economic benefits.”

Faucett noted the average price they encountered for gasoline was $3.90/gallon versus $1.65 for CNG per gasoline gallon equivalency. CNG is measured in cubic feet but priced at CNG stations at a per gallon conversion rate so customers can more easily understand it.

Jeffers emphasized the environmental payback with CNG vehicles.

“CNG is a significantly cleaner burning fuel than gasoline or diesel, emitting 30 percent less CO2,” he said. “There are almost no organics or particulates, which is a huge environmental bonus.

“Plus, engines don’t have the carbon buildup,” he added, “so they have an extended life with lower maintenance costs.”

Long-Term Benefits

For now, the rub comes in the form of cost to convert vehicles.

Think $5,000 to $8,000 per.

For most individual drivers who tend to rack up “average” mileage, that can be a tough pill to swallow.

There’s a definite monetary advantage in converting fleet vehicles, which travel long distances on a daily basis. Financial payback comes sooner rather than later.

According to Steve Mueller, president and CEO at SWN, there currently are more than 110,000 CNG powered bi-fuel vehicles on U.S. roadways. An expanding infrastructure is supporting existing users, but he emphasized the need to invest more in infrastructure development to accommodate the growing interest in these vehicles and to support new adapters.

SWN added more than 100 CNG vehicles to its fleet in 2011 and has plans to convert an additional 66 this year. The company invested in its own CNG fueling station in Arkansas in 2011 and has provided financial support to city-owned stations in the state.

“The company recently gave away 21 already-converted trucks and SUVs to our employees,” Faucett said. “There’s another employee program to reimburse conversion of their own vehicles.”

She succinctly summarized the trip statistics:

  • Total miles: 2,782.
  • Miles on CNG: 2,617.
  • Percentage of trip using CNG: 94 percent.
  • Average price of CNG: $1.65.
  • Percentage of CO2 emissions saved: 26 percent.
  • Fuel cost savings: 51 percent (more than $300 per vehicle).

“If we were able to drive on CNG the whole time, we would have saved 54 percent over the price of gasoline,” Faucett noted.

“Fuel cost savings were calculated per gasoline gallon equivalent and on a market by market basis, i.e. the price of filling up on CNG in Denver versus the price of filling up with gasoline,” she added.

“When you think that we were a bunch of geoscientists going to the AAPG convention, and we’re the ones who find and develop this resource, it was a lot of fun for us to show the end product on a trip to AAPG,” Friend said.

“We encountered a lot of enthusiastic support there,” he noted. “If we were selling CNG vehicles, I think we could have sold quite a few at the convention.”

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