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The Power of Natural Gas

Everyone loves politics whether they want to admit it or not. Merely knowing the right thing to do, or having the best solution, does not promote legislative change. The political game must be played. When it goes your way, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t, you say the system is broken and corrupt. Both statements are partially correct, but the reality is the political process is an impasse of ideology. By the time this article goes to print, a bill providing extra weight for natural gas powered trucks will be probably be sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting ratification or veto. Where do you stand?

There are not many political arguments which invoke emotional fervor quite like the environment. Few will argue that being good stewards of our planet’s natural resources is not important, but the polarization of opposing views is astounding.

Over the last 20 years, incredible strides have been made to clean up the pollution caused by large commercial vehicles. Gone are the days black smoke billowing from the exhaust stacks. The introduction of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) has cleaned it even further. Aerodynamic side skirts, trailer tails, wheel covers and undercarriage diffusers have made trucks more fuel efficient than ever before.

But it all comes with a cost. It not only takes money to make money, but to save money as well. Some environmental controls are elective. Others are regulated with hefty price tags, making industry profit margins even slimmer.

As the nation as a whole grapples with foreign oil dependence, multiple power alternatives have been developed for non-transportation industries. Wind and solar are leveraging an ever increasing market share of the residential and commercial power industry. For trucks, natural gas is the wave of the future in domestic energy.

There are two main types of natural gas being outfitted for commercial vehicle power, compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). In Illinois, fleets in the garbage industry began testing natural gas powered vehicles a few years ago. This use continues to grow as cement mixers and other local, short haul commodities have begun to not only outfit their trucks for natural gas power, but also building natural gas fuel plants in their yards.

As a means of sweetening the pot for industry to transition their vehicles from diesel to natural gas, states have begun granting extra weight tolerances for those who adopt the new technology. Ohio, Indiana and Colorado have passed legislation which grants natural gas powered vehicles an extra 2,000 pounds of weight.

Illinois is following in their footsteps. Senate Bill 3574 is a stone’s throw from the Governor’s desk. If approved, the extra weight will be of consternation to many, yet a blessing to others. The politically conservative see this move as business friendly and for once, Illinois is not the last to approve such measures. The politically liberal see this as a beneficial move for the environment.

The rest see it as another measure by which those with political and financial clout are leveraging more savings for themselves. regardless of the wear and tear on an already crumbing infrastructure. All of these arguments hold some kernel of truth and validity.

If trucking must move away from diesel fuel dependence, then this weight tolerance is necessary. While natural gas is lighter than diesel fuel, the equipment needed to power a truck on natural gas is heavy. Without an extra weight tolerance, less material or freight can be hauled, resulting in a financial loss for the carrier. A loss pssed back onto all of us as consumers.

A major irony of the natural gas powered truck movement is loss of fuel tax revenue. As the federal and state governments have mandated more alternative fuel sources in an effort to make commercial vehicles more efficient, less fuel tax revenue is being generated. States around the nation are struggling with how to compensate for this loss while facing unprecedented highway infrastructure failure.

Could natural gas powered vehicles be a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Will legislators look for new ways to make up for lost fuel tax revenue on the backs of the truckers? Will future profits gained from fuel efficient trucks in turn be passed onto the very same tuckers for whom the extra weight was created?

Only time will tell.

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