An icon of the American car industry for decades, the Ford 150 pickup truck is getting a major environmental upgrade next year — and businesses are paying attention. Customers will have the option to purchase the flagship truck outfitted with an engine compatible with compressed natural gas, or CNG. With some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, the U.S. has seen natural gas as a partial solution to promoting energy independence and more environmentally-friendly energy consumption. As with gasoline production, methods of collecting natural gas do pose threats to the environment, yet in comparison, natural gas emits less pollutants than gasoline and is much cheaper. If the new CNG compatible F-150s are a success, it could transform a portion of the American automotive industry, creating a beneficial and cost-effective market for business owners and individual consumers.
Trucks running on natural gas have been around for a while, but Ford is the first manufacturer to offer a compatible engine on a half-ton pickup. It will now have 8 vehicles with a CNG engine option, and the firm plans to sell 15,000 CNG models this year, a 25% increase from 2012 sales. Ford expects further growth once the CNG F-150 model is released.
Natural gas engines reap immense benefits to fleet owners. While purchasing one of these models can cost the customer an additional $10,000 upfront, according to Kevin Koswick, Ford's director of North American fleet, leasing and remarketing operations, the buyer could see a return on the investment within 2 or 3 years. The fact is — natural gas is much cheaper than gasoline. The average price of CNG in the U.S is $2.11 per gallon, and in some places $1. The national average price of gasoline is $3.66. The prices difference can have a strong, positive financial impact, especially for companies who own thousands of cars.
AT&T plans to employ 15,000 alternative fuel vehicles by 2018, perfectly illustrate how companies are increasingly using more environmentally, economically sound fuels. These include 650 CNG F-150s recently purchased from Ford. AT&Ts Vice President of Global Fleet Operations, Jerome Wbber, said that this move has saved the company from purchasing 7.7 million gallons of fuel in the past 5 years.
Environmentalists do not share the same enthusiasm about natural gas as some producers. While the production of natural gas does emit less carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide than oil, it still can have serious environmental impacts. In order to harvest the natural gas — many of the gas pockets lay beneath layers of dense sediments — from the ground, a process known as fracking must take place. The technique involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into a wellbore, creating small fractures via which fluids like gas can flow into the well. This can cause a variety of environmental hazards, such as releasing unnatural levels of methane into drinking water.
Roland Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that he is not opposed to natural gas, but disagrees with the methods used in the U.S. to harvest it. "When you look at that F-150 or whatever vehicle in the showroom, you're thinking about whether [it] is a good choice for the environment," Hwang says. "You got to keep in mind and you got to ask the question [of] how this fuel is being produced. Is it better or is it just different?"
In contrast, the former CEO of Shell, John Offmeister, is an advocate for the potential success of CNG engines and natural gas. "The fact that Ford would begin to put CNG into a very popular consumer vehicle ... is a major step along the way to a transformation of the total fleet of American vehicles." Yet he recognizes that insufficient natural gas infrastructure hinders the adaptation of CNG cars by a consumer market.
There is limited availability of natural gas pumps, with the majority located in California, Oklahoma, and New York, as shown in this map. "Before you will spend the money to put in the [CNG] infrastructure," said Offmeister "You want to know that you're going to be able to sell enough [CNG] to enough vehicles to pay the bill."
As both regulating agencies and consumers push to emphasize efficiency, car manufacturers are trying to find innovative ways to increase fuel economy. To businesses that own large fleet of cars, the increased availability of CNG trucks is an extremely beneficial modification that could end up saving them a considerable amount of money. For the individual consumer, the lack of infrastructure of natural gas stations around the country will not make the extra $10,000 upfront worth it. Studying the outcome of the F-150 release will be a great test model to see if individual consumers are willing to participate in and adapt to a natural gas market.