West Virginia explored natural gas vehicles in the 1990s. As part of partnerships with gas companies, Frank McCullough helped build a dozen or so compressed natural gas filling stations around the state as part of this effort.
"You could literally drive throughout West Virginia without running out of natural gas, if you knew where they were located," McCullough said.
The Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority converted some of its transit buses to natural gas during this 1990s experiment, said Doug Hartley, the authority's assistant general manager.
The concept failed to catch on.
"Back then, to make this work, you needed a lot of people converting," Hartley said. "I think we were just very much ahead of the curve."
After a few years, the transit authority switched its buses back to conventional fuel, and the public fueling stations closed.
"It was the classic, proverbial chicken-and-the-egg problem," McCullough said. "How do you build stations to encourage people to go out and buy vehicles, and how do you get people to buy vehicles to encourage the building of stations?"
At least some things have changed since the 1990s, McCullough said, including tax incentives meant to encourage such development. He and Rotruck also cited the significant difference in fuel prices.
"Natural gas should maintain a long-term price advantage at the pump, being approximately one half the cost of gasoline or diesel," Rotruck said.
The U.S. Department of Energy counts about two-dozen alternative fuel stations in West Virginia. Only one, a private facility operated by the FBI in Harrison County, offers compressed natural gas.
About 110,000 natural gas-fueled vehicles travel on U.S. roads, out of 14 million worldwide, according to figures from the Natural Gas Vehicles for America. The advocacy group says the U.S. vehicles include more than 11,000 transit buses, nearly 4,000 garbage trucks and more than 3,000 school buses.
Supporters of the move toward natural gas include Bill Maloney, Tomblin's Republican opponent in this year's race for governor. A Morgantown drilling consultant and business owner, Maloney cited some of the U.S. vehicle statistics in a recent op-ed that called for converting state government vehicles.