Propane could answer fuel needs, but enviros skeptical

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Supporters of propane believe it is the answer to the country’s jobs, energy and clean-air problems — but environmentalists are no longer buying into those claims.

The Natural Propane Gas Association says that the industry is a jobs engine, cuts greenhouse gases by 20 percent and reduces reliance on foreign countries for fuel supplies. Environmentalists say that propane isn’t clean enough, and hydraulic fracturing is leading to polluted air and water.

In Colorado, the debate is raging as the state sues the city of Longmont for what it considers drilling regulations that over-reach the city’s authority. Closer to home, the Colorado Springs City Council is considering its own set of drilling regulations, because shale technology advances have led to interest from energy companies for the first time.

Jobs are hanging in the balance — according to the propane association, which met in Colorado Springs last weekend, the propane industry already accounts for 1,100 jobs in the state and adds $1.2 million to the economy. That number can grow as the industry opens new markets for its products, said Rick Roldan, president of the NPGA.

Propane comes from natural gas, and is developed from “wet gas” sources, but is more easily concentrated and held under pressure, making it a sensible alternative for vehicles, Roldan said.

The trick is reaching new markets, because currently there’s an over-supply of propane, even though the nation is exporting about 1 billion gallons a year. In fact, supply has driven down costs so much that some fuel companies are pulling back. But that would be a mistake, Roldan said.

“It’s a great employment generator,” he said. “If you look, the energy sector is the reason that manufacturing led the country out of the Great Recession. There’s no reason to stop drilling now — it’s too important to find alternatives to oil.”

It wasn’t always as difficult to break into the automobile market. In the 1970s, the propane industry took off, fueled by the energy crisis orchestrated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Roldan said that the industry took a dive when oil returned to $30 a barrel, but those days aren’t likely to return.

“Gasoline probably will never reach the lows of the ‘80s and ‘90s again,” he said. “So this is a very viable alternative. There’s more propane than is being used — supply is outstripping demand. So we want to look at vehicles, more than energy generation.”

It’s also cheaper to install a propane pumping station for fleets. It costs about $250,000 to $1 million for a natural gas station — but only $20,000 to $60,000 for a propane station. Cars using propane can travel as far on a gallon as traditional gasoline vehicles, he said. But, Roldan adds, propane is both cheaper and cleaner than traditional fuel sources.

That’s because there’s not much difference in the mileage standards for gas and propane. The typical driver would barely notice the difference.

The Sierra Club once believed that natural gas and propane were viable alternatives to oil, said Becky English, who is a member for the Rocky Mountain Sierra Club and one of its energy experts.

“As recently as 2010 and 2011, the Sierra Club considered natural gas a ‘bridge fuel’ between old, dirty fossil fuels and clean, renewable,” she said. “However, the industry is running amok, taking rapacious license with our groundwater, our air and surface waters. The regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to control abuses to those environmental assets.”

The Sierra Club has launched the “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign — modeled after the very successful “Beyond Coal” campaign that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants — to highlight the environmental dangers of propane

“Like oil, these are fossil fuels whose emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and cause the climate-change dynamics that lead to global warming,” she said. “Therefore, it’s important to move beyond natural gas to other, clean renewable energy technology for fueling vehicles and our electric supply.”

For his part, Roldan says that the environmentalists are criticizing the “good in favor of the perfect,” something that doesn’t exist.

“We definitely believe in an energy strategy that includes every option we currently have,” he said. “But look at the Kyoto protocols. Setting those emissions reductions got a lot of attention. But every one of them could be met by switching to cars with propane tanks. If that’s allowed to happen, we’ll make real progress.”

Environmentalists have gotten a lot of things wrong about propane, he said. And low-budget documentaries about water pollution should have been met with a stronger outcry from the industry.

“Some water always contains natural gas,” he said. “But some of the problems came from wells drilled a century ago and not capped well. Today’s regulations will prevent that, but it drives me crazy that so few people are standing up and saying so.”

And propane has another advantage over both gasoline and electric powered cars, he said. Most of the production is in North America. So it reduces dependence on foreign governments. The lithium ion batteries in electric cars come mostly from China.

“So if you switch to those, we’ve simply moved the problem,” Roldan said. “That’s not a national security solution.”

Still, he acknowledges that his industry has to do a better job talking about what it can do in order to win environmentalists over — and to increase its share of the market.

“We haven’t done a very good job of that in the past,” he said. “We have a great story to tell — and we need to make sure people know it.”