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Governor's group ready to move forward on natural gas vehicles

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With prices currently at about $1.85 a gallon, the time may be right for natural gas-powered vehicles, members of the Governor's Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force believe.

"We believe this can happen. It will happen, and when consumers see natural gas prices at the pump that are half the price of gasoline, they'll be excited," Hallie Mason, public policy director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said after Thursday's task force meeting.

While an initial effort to convert the state vehicle fleet to natural gas in the late 1990s collapsed when gasoline prices temporarily fell below $1.50 a gallon, members of the task force --made up of state officials, and representatives of the natural gas industry, gas and convenience store operators and others - said they were confident that won't happen again.

Also, in the 1990s, fluctuations in natural gas prices and supply made it an unreliable fuel source, an issue that task force members believe has been put to rest with Marcellus Shale natural gas production.

In what was expected to be the group's final face-to-face meeting before it submits its findings to the governor and the Legislature in January, the focus Thursday was less on if natural gas is a feasible alternative fuel, but how to implement a conversion.

Issues included how to set up fueling stations around the state, whether to offer tax incentives to encourage private businesses and consumers to switch over, and issues about how to tax the alternative fuel -- particularly with the development of home-fueling systems for natural gas vehicles.

Converting the state fleet of just fewer than 6,000 vehicles may be comparatively easy, the task force learned, with 80 percent of the fleet stationed in high-population counties along major highways, and with major natural gas pipelines located in those counties.

"We certainly want to affirm Gov. Tomblin's sincere interest to convert part of the state fleet to natural gas," Mason said. "It make sense for West Virginia and it makes sense for the consumer."

She said costs to the state could be minimized by phasing in purchases of natural gas vehicles as the state retires gas-powered vehicles on its normal replacement cycle.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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