RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There was a brief flurry of interest in natural gas vehicles back in the early 1990s, fueled by high gas prices. Twenty years later, prices at the pump are threatening to hit $5 a gallon, and natural gas prices are dropping. So not surprisingly, businesses and consumers are giving natural gas vehicles a second look.

From member station Lakeshore Public Radio in Merrillville, Indiana, Steve Walsh reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Fair Oaks Dairy Farm does a lot more than just produce milk. They're also in the transportation business.

The farm owns 60 trucks, which deliver milk to a processor halfway across the state. Last September, most of the trucks were converted to natural gas.

Joel Romein is one of the drivers.

JOEL ROMEIN: It's great. I think it's going to change the economy, on how we use natural gas and how we fuel our trucks.

WALSH: How much different is it to fuel it with natural gas than it would be, let's say, just diesel?

ROMEIN: Oh, it's a lot easier and cleaner. I don't get messy hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WALSH: The dairy is in step with larger companies like AT&T and UPS, which have already recently added natural gas to their trucking fleets.

Twenty years ago, federal incentives and high gas prices led fleet managers to retrofit thousands of light trucks and city buses to use compressed natural gas as a fuel. But the boom didn't last long.

Rich Kolodziej is president of NGVAmerica, a trade association that lobbies for the use of natural gas in vehicles. He says there hasn't been this much interest since the early 1990s, when stations popped up around the country.

RICH KOLODZIEJ: There was enthusiasm. Even Amoco started building public stations. And they just put them on the corner, using the if-we-build-it, they-will-come model. Didn't work - and they didn't come.

WALSH: There is a big white container that sits empty on the lot of Gary, Indiana's public bus service. It used to contain 15,000 gallons of liquid natural gas. Maintenance director John Dutton says the fueling station hasn't been used in over a decade. And the city buses that used natural gas were eventually scrapped.

JOHN DUTTON: They would have a bus out here, from what I understand, for hours, just trying to get fuel, and then they finally weren't able to get it operating right, you know.

GREG ROCHE: There's some important differences in the market today versus the '90s.

WALSH: Greg Roche is with Clean Energy Fuel Corp, which wants to build a countrywide network of natural gas fueling stations.

ROCHE: The economics today are far better than they've ever been since natural gas began as an option in the transportation market. And the reason for that is the price of oil is high and is going to stay high. And we have an incredible abundance of natural gas in this country so the price is cheap.

WALSH: Roche said concerns over climate change are also driving demand. Natural gas produces 20 to 30 percent fewer carbon emissions than diesel. New trucks that run on compressed natural gas cost 35 percent more than comparable diesel trucks, says Mark Stoermann, of Fair Oaks Dairy Farms. Government incentives bring the cost down. And Stoermann says eventually the trucks will pay for themselves.

How much is a gallon of regular unleaded selling for right now around here?

MARK STOERMANN: Well, across the road at the BP station I think it says $3.89 and we're selling for $2.59. So a $1.30 less per gallon.

WALSH: And that's the bottom-line difference driving interest in natural gas vehicles – at least for now.

For NPR News in Fair Oaks, Indiana, I'm Steve Walsh.

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