Natural gas is being taken more seriously as a transportation fuel by U.S. fleet operators and trucking companies, but its scarce availability is standing in the way of widespread adoption by the general public, industry experts said recently.

Despite the clear price advantage enjoyed by the relatively few car and truck drivers that use natural gas, it won’t become a significant source of transportation fuel until there’s a network of publicly available natural gas filling stations comparable to that for gasoline, or until home refueling is a viable option for most consumers, the experts said.

Delegates to Shale Gas Insight, the annual conference of the Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, heard presentations on the industry’s latest efforts to develop a market for the abundantly available fuel for transportation.

John Hanger, former Secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, cited U.S. Department of Energy figures showing only 519 public natural gas filling stations are currently in operation across the U.S., of which there are only 11 in Pennsylvania, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale, the most productive natural gas field in the U.S.

“I think these numbers frankly are pathetic, and they are also dangerous,” he said, arguing that the failure to better exploit the transportation market continues to expose the U.S. to the economic and national security risks of being dependent on imported oil.

“We can’t buy our way out of environmental compliance,” – Hartje, Chrysler

Hanger, moderating a session on transportation and natural gas, contrasted the U.S. market to that in Italy where there are some 900 natural gas filling stations and where August sales of natural gas-fueled cars was close to that in the U.S. for an entire 12-month period.

“Italy is serious about capturing the benefits of compressed natural gas,” Hanger said. “We are not.”

At a time when retail gasoline prices are nearing $4 a gallon and natural gas futures prices are below $3 per million BTUs, the public could be “gassing up” with natural gas at about an energy equivalent of $2 a gallon if the infrastructure was available, he said.

Refueling at Home Could Accelerate Private NGV Uptake

Natural gas advocates say there’s great potential in adapting gas supplies to the approximately 40 percent of individual homes that have it to also refuel private cars. But the cost of the refueling technology, at around $5,000, is prohibitive for most consumers.

Tod Hartje, head of Market Requirements for Fleet Operations at Chrysler, said GE and Whirlpool are working on bringing the cost of home-refueling technology down to $1,000 while 3M and others are improving the safety and capacity of tanks for natural gas vehicles.

Home-refueling stations can be a “game changer,” Hartje said. “That’s where the volume is going to come.”

Hartje said NGV sales in Italy rose more than six-fold to 130,000 between 2001 and 2009. Although they then dropped sharply as subsidies ended, they have since recovered. He predicted the U.S. market will develop in the same way.

“We think the results give us a road map for the United States,” he said in a keynote presentation.

Increasing adoption of NGVs will also help the U.S. meet the much higher fuel-efficiency standards recently set by the federal government, Hartje said.

“We can’t buy our way out of environmental compliance,” he said.

For government vehicle fleets, Detroit will be making a total of 1,800 CNG vehicles in response to a 22-state initiative that seeks to stimulate public demand for NGVs by buying and operating the vehicles.

The initiative, led by leading natural gas producers Oklahoma and Colorado, is a “good first step,” Hartje said.