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the green highway

Westport will convert a Ford F-Series pickup to bi-fuel by adding a compressed natural gas tank.

When gasoline prices spiked in the early 1980s, swarms of Canadian taxi cabs, airport limos and even private cars were converted to CNG (compressed natural gas). That rush of enthusiasm resulted in more than 20,000 of them on Canadian roads and about 220 CNG service stations to fill them up.

Then came the collapse. Natural gas prices went up and the savings (of money and emissions) weren't enough to justify the upfront costs. The CNG fleet disappeared and now there are only seven CNG filling stations in Ontario.

But the CNG pendulum started swinging back the other way because of the introduction of horizontal drilling and fracking, which got serious in 2009. That's when the cost of natural gas and gasoline decoupled for the first time.

Demand has shot up for now-abundant and inexpensive natural gas not only for power generation but in the vehicle sector as well. This is because the cost of compressed natural gas as fuel for cars, buses and light trucks is about a third that of gasoline.

A sign of the new interest in CNG as a transportation fuel is seen in the recent announcement that Ford dealers will soon be offering the F-Series pickup truck in a natural gas version. The F-Series is a huge seller and was for more than 20 years, back in the days of cheap gasoline, the best-selling vehicle of any kind in North America.

Ford will build the vehicle with some simple modifications to the base 3.7-litre V-6 engine and then will turn it over to Westport Innovations, which is headquartered in Vancouver. Westport will convert it to bi-fuel by adding the CNG tank, fuelling system and engine controls and ship it back to Ford who will in turn ship it off the dealer. A Ford warranty covers the whole vehicle.

It will cost about $12,000 on top of the sticker price of the new truck but, for that, you wind up with a pickup that should be able to go more than 300 km on CNG plus another 600 on gasoline. The point is to use up all the cheap CNG first and hopefully refuel before you get too far into the gasoline.

I drove a "Westport" Ford F-Series for a week. It's the big F-250 Super Duty Truck and it has a big CNG tank in the bed of the truck right behind the crew cab. In fact, the tank takes up about a third of the truck's cargo space, which wouldn't please me if I were a contractor. However, it is aimed at high-mileage fleet users, mostly in the United States, who likely have their own CNG filling station back at the garage.

In some places in the United States, especially where they're fracking lots of shale gas, the economics are highly attractive. Said one gas field executive, "We all know people who drive around town to save 10 cents a gallon. Now imagine being able to save $2 or more a gallon by switching to CNG."

In Oklahoma, for example, there are more than 75 CNG filling stations and the price of CNG is less than $1 per gasoline gallon equivalent. But Oklahoma is one thing and Toronto's another. I went looking for one of the few and far between CNG stations in the Toronto area and managed to miss it. So when the CNG ran out I poured expensive gasoline into a thirsty truck.

However, when it was running on the natural gas, the tailpipe emissions were odourless and relatively clean. Natural gas is a fossil fuel but its carbon content is about 25 per cent lower than either gasoline or diesel.

The United States is the world's largest producer of natural gas and American policy makers are extremely enthusiastic about the virtues of domestic energy security. This fits well with the cost-saving objectives of owners of large truck fleets. Tony Soprano taught me to refer to it respectfully as the waste management industry, but garbage truck conglomerates are totally into CNG.

Municipalities, which contract out garbage collection, like the elimination of black clouds of diesel exhaust and the reduced carbon footprint. Owners of garbage dumps – I mean engineered landfills – can draw methane (natural gas) for free and put it in their trucks. The penetration of CNG into U.S. garbage trucks fleet is higher than any other sector.

The United States is in love with natural gas at the moment. It's interesting that a Canadian company, Westport Innovations, which has certainly had its share of ups and downs since 1995, is a leader in making CNG a significant part of our multi-fuel future.

Next week, I'll see if taking natural gas off the pipe in your house makes sense for you as a fuel for your car.