CORPUS CHRISTI — SAN ANTONIO — The world has more than 14 million natural gas-powered vehicles, but there are just 140,000 of them on U.S. roadways.
It’s one of dozens of stark figures energy expert Ken Morgan drew at the Eagle Ford Consortium conference Friday, breaking down why America could be in the driver’s seat for production and consumption of cheap, abundant natural gas, but is still in the back seat.
That’s despite the United States leading global energy consumption, at 20 percent, with China and Europe following at 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
“This is a three-horse race for global energy,” said Morgan, director of Texas Christian University’s Energy Institute. “I haven’t even thrown in India, Brazil, some of the other places coming on.”
Morgan sees a nationwide fleet of natural gas vehicles as key to increasing energy independence, lower energy costs and a smaller environmental footprint. Smaller, he said, even than electric cars, which require rare earth elements that pose radioactivity and other environmental hazards.
Eagle Ford Shale and the dozen or more other shale basins in North America are key to unlocking the potential for a homegrown solution to America’s gasoline dependence, he said.
Yet the country is so far behind on support infrastructure for natural gas that its consumption has been relatively stagnant while exports have soared. Americans consumed about 25 billion cubic feet in 2012 while exporting about 125 billion, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It’s one of the reasons companies such as Cheniere Energy, working on a $10 billion liquefied natural gas export terminal on Corpus Christi Bay, are rushing to finish projects. Countries such as Japan, facing growing energy demands and reeling from its nuclear disaster, are looking to the world’s shale gas producers for help.
“Everybody else wants it; we just haven’t figured out how to aggressively go after it,” Morgan said.
From a cost standpoint, he sees it as an obvious alternative to gasoline. While oil sells at about $100 a barrel, the natural gas equivalent averages about $20, he said.
“It’s just an unbelievable asset sitting in the ground that’s so dirt cheap,” he said.
Of course, as demand and consumption of natural gas grow, market forces are likely to bolster its price and could curtail exports. Natural gas prices are expected to have higher annual growth than gasoline in the long term, but will remain a fraction of what oil costs, the Energy Information Administration projects.
There are encouraging signs that the United States can ramp up its natural gas infrastructure, Morgan reported.
The Texas Clean Transportation Triangle, a state-funded program to convert vehicle fleets to natural gas and improve infrastructure, started with plans for 20 fueling stations in the San Antonio-Houston-Dallas triangle. It’s now planning for at least 50, Morgan said.
GE is developing a $500 “compressed natural gas-in-a-box” home fueling station that hooks up to existing gas lines. Homeowners can fuel up their cars for about $1 a day at a home station that’s about the size of an additional bedroom.
More states and the U.S. military are converting their fleets, Morgan said.
And a few gasoline companies are establishing networks of natural gas stations along major U.S. highways for long-haul truckers.
Morgan noted one transportation pioneer, Henry Ford, didn’t worry about infrastructure when he developed and marketed his Model T. He figured the transportation networks would catch up with his innovation, nevermind the bumpy roads.
“What roads?” Morgan said. “They were ruts.”
The annual Eagle Ford Consortium conference ended Friday. Information: www.eaglefordconsortium.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
Annual global energy consumed, in BTUs
Amount consumed in the United States
World consumption by 2030
Starting price of Honda Civic natural gas car
Price of natural gas equivalent to 1 gallon of gasoline at a fueling station
Sources: TCU Energy Institute, Honda.com, CNGprices.com