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The natural gas highway: A wide open road (Dan Walden/Associated press/Dan Walden/Associated Press)
The natural gas highway: A wide open road (Dan Walden/Associated press/Dan Walden/Associated Press)

The natural gas highway: A wide open road of opportunity Add to ...

Have you heard about the “new” alternative transportation fuel? No, it's not hydrogen, corn ethanol, or biodiesel.

It's natural gas, and here's what U.S. President Barack Obama has to say about it. In a recent speech in Las Vegas, he said his administration’s Alternative Fuels Plan will help support development of natural gas refuelling infrastructure, along with tax incentives for conversion of truck and bus fleets.

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“Because of new technologies … we can now access natural gas that we couldn't access before. We've got a supply … that can last America nearly 100 years. Developing it could power our cars and our homes and our factories in a cleaner and cheaper way,” Mr. Obama told workers at a UPS truck-fuelling site.

So what is this “new” technology that has made natural gas so plentiful that it can power America's trucks and buses? And is it really new?

As I watched Mr. Obama's televised speech, I reflected back to 1976 when, as young engineer, I supervised the drilling of the first well of our new company, which grew to become North America's biggest natural gas producer, Encana Corp. That well was drilled into so-called tight rock that would produce no gas at all when the drilling rig pulled off the site. Then came a fleet of massive trucks carrying hydraulic pumps, tanks full of specially formulated fluids and loads of what we called “frac sand.”

When all of this was connected to the wellhead, powerful engines made a deafening roar, driving high pressure pumps that drove a fluid-and-sand slurry down the wellbore, fracturing that tight rock and forcing the porous sand into the gas bearing formation more than 400 metres below. When the trucks had pulled off the site, I opened the valve and out came natural gas.

So what is now called “fracking” isn't fundamentally new at all. But over the decades, technologies enabling the drill bit to be turned horizontally into the gas-bearing rock, along with extremely sophisticated fracturing fluid chemistry, have unlocked more and more “tight” gas. Now the brass ring – getting gas to flow commercially from enormously plentiful shale deposits – has been seized.

Using natural gas as a transportation fuel isn’t a new concept, either. Statistics compiled by the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles indicate there are 13 million natural gas-fuelled vehicles worldwide. And the “green highways project” has brought together South Korea, China, Thailand and 17 other Asia-Pacific countries in a massive strategy for natural gas-fuelled vehicles.

Given that the United States has the world's largest fleet of high fuel-consumption trucks and buses, the Alternative Fuels Plan’s support for natural gas has staggering potential.

It's also a major opportunity for suppliers of natural gas motor-fuel technology, including Canadian companies. (IMW Industries, of Chilliwack, B.C., is a leading supplier of natural gas refuelling equipment, exporting it to 25 countries including China. And Vancouver-based Westport Innovations Inc. is a leader in technology to convert diesel engines to natural gas.)

The creation of transportation corridors for natural gas-fuelled trucks, and the conversion of smelly urban buses to clean-burning natural gas, helps the environment. It also offers big opportunities for companies in the supply chain of refuelling stations, high-pressure fuel tanks and truck engines. But if Canada doesn't move forward soon, it will be difficult for Canadian natural gas fuel-technology companies to keep up with their U.S. counterparts.

So what’s the plan for converting Canada's truck and bus fleets to natural gas?

Two years ago, natural gas producers, transporters, distributors and equipment manufacturers joined together in the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance to develop the “Natural Gas Use in the Canadian Transportation Sector Roadmap,” which focuses on converting truck and bus fleets, both urban and highway, to natural gas.

After meetings in Ottawa in December, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver agreed to provide support for implementation of this initiative, including two regional truck-fleet support hubs and development of updated codes and standards for natural gas vehicles. This work needs to be a top priority, so Canadian companies aren't left stranded on the new natural gas-fuelled highway.

 
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