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Natural Gas-Fueled Buses and Trucks: Will the Climate Really Benefit?

camuzeauz-jonathan-EDFAt a time when companies and governments are looking more closely at alternative fuel sources to reduce their environmental impact, many players in the transportation sector are considering shifting their bus or commercial truck fleets from diesel to natural gas fuel.

They’re looking for an advantage in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as well as fuel costs savings to justify the higher vehicle costs and reduced fuel efficiency of natural gas vehicles.

Climate Benefits Uncertain at Best

They may be surprised to know, however, that natural gas-powered vehicles are not necessarily more climate-friendly than their diesel fumes-spewing counterparts.

To make sure a fuel switch brings immediate climate benefits, we must make engine-efficiency improvements and major cuts in potent heat-trapping methane emissions along the natural gas value chain. If these steps are not taken, moving truck fleets from diesel to natural gas could actually increase warming for decades to come.

This is a growing concern today as the market share for such vehicles seems poised to grow.

While only about 3 percent of new freight trucks run on natural gas today, some analysts suggest their market share could reach as high as 20 percent over the next decade if high oil and diesel prices return. Meanwhile, investments in natural gas-powered utility vehicles and transit buses are growing, with 11 percent of such vehicles already running on gas.

It means we must address the problem of methane emissions today, before market penetration becomes significant and the technology is locked in and harder to change.

Natural Gas Value Chain Full of Leaks

Methane – the main ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2 – is leaked to the atmosphere from the point where it’s first extracted from the ground to when it’s burned by a vehicle barreling down the expressway.

While natural gas releases less CO2 than diesel to the atmosphere when it is combusted, methane leaks from the production and transportation of natural gas has the potential to remove some or all of the climate benefits companies are looking for as they upgrade their fleets.

Adding to the challenge, today’s natural gas truck engines can be as much as 15 percent less efficient than diesel engines. Consuming more fuel for each mile traveled also reduces their net pollution reductions.

The Opportunity Ahead

Emissions in the natural gas value chain therefore represent a rare opportunity to achieve significant, cost-effective reductions in overall greenhouse gas emissions. If, in addition to reductions in methane leakage, the efficiency gap can be closed, natural gas trucks will fare that much better compared to diesel.

Much depends on several policy mechanisms currently in play, which could improve the climate prospects for these new buses and trucks. The new policies include anticipated federal methane regulations and upcoming federal fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for heavy trucks.

The proposed new standards for heavy trucks would bring welcome reductions of certain sources of methane emissions occurring at the vehicle level. While this will certainly help, reductions upstream are crucial to maximize the potential benefits of natural gas trucks – which is where the federal methane standards come in.

In the meantime, we need to use caution. Before we encourage the trucking sector to switch to natural gas fuel, the United States needs to act sufficiently to reduce emissions and improve natural gas engine efficiency.

If we don’t, we could go from bad to worse.

Jonathan Camuzeaux is a senior economic analyst in the Office of Economic Policy and Analysis at the Environmental Defense Fund. He provides economic analysis to support the development of market-based solutions to environmental issues with a focus on climate and energy economics.

This article was republished with permission from the Environmental Defense Fund.

Jonathan Camuzeaux
Jonathan Camuzeaux is a senior economic analyst in the Office of Economic Policy and Analysis at the Environmental Defense Fund. He provides economic analysis to support the development of market-based solutions to environmental issues with a focus on climate and energy economics.
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4 thoughts on “Natural Gas-Fueled Buses and Trucks: Will the Climate Really Benefit?

  1. We need electric vehicles huge trucks and local transportation equipment vehicles to truly have a positive impact. They can recharge all night and work all day. No Noise Pollution as well…

  2. While your article makes a lot of sense, I want to bring up 2 other arguments, one for conversion of buses and trucks to natural gas and one against. Another argument against is that of overall percentage. The 20 or 25% reduction in GHG emissions (excluding methane leakage) for a community switching its buses to natural gas makes little difference. Unless thousands of communities do so.

    However, an important argument for all buses switching to natural gas as soon as possible is public health. Natural gas emits much lower particulates, particularly PM-2.5 which penetrates deep into the lungs and transports toxics attached to it. And people are more prone to exposure from this source as they wait for public and school buses. So more natural gas-fired buses means better public health, and that is important.

  3. A couple of points here.
    It is totally impractical to run trucks on electricity and the age argument of “how is the electricity generated ” remains and will remain valid . The application of a methane catalyst for exhaust gas emissions resolves the methane leakage problem and with modern gas vehicle technology there is very little methane slip especially in the compressed gas version.
    However, and of great importance is the issue of air quality. Gas vehicles produce substantially less Nox and Sox /than petrol or diesel equivalents which have an immediate a direct impact on human health as do the P M 10 – 2.5 and black carbon . Regardless of the belief or disbelief in the global warming effect of CO2 the facts and figures exists for the direct costs of bad air on society and its runs to $Trillions .Further ,the impact on society for premature death and illness is not calculable but a major consideration.
    As the shift to City dwelling increases, unabated and by design , then the situation will become worse and whilst gas is not the total answer its a better option inits use than wet hydrocarbon equivalents .
    The answer is for now the use of bio methane as a vehicle fuel for use in the urban environment where societies waste converts todays carbon to fuel .This is both environmentally and a commercially sound proposition and we believe represents the future as there is sufficient waste arising to power 20% of the global commercial vehicle fleet without drilling another well and re oxidising sequestrated carbon

  4. It is myopic to only look at CO2 production. Diesel/gasoline fumes contain carcinogens and damaging particulates that are absent when natural gas burns. It is like arguing that coal should be used instead of natural gas to generate electricity based solely on CO2 production. Very short-sighted. And for those who suggest electric motors for trucks, they would be too heavy with today’s technology. So, for now, electric powered big rigs is not feasible.

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