STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A bipartisan group of governors is trying an innovative step independent of the federal government, they're asking car companies to build more vehicles that run on compressed natural gas.
Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports on why these states think natural gas is a natural.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Only a few kinds of vehicles run on compressed natural gas in this country. And only one is a passenger car - the CNG Honda Civic. Filling up the gas tank is a cinch for me. My town's unusual. It has two natural gas pumps and one is just five blocks from my house. What's not to love?
Here's Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: It's half the pollutants that come out of traditional gasoline, it's way less expensive, probably $2 per gallon equivalent less expensive right now than burning regular gasoline. And it creates all the jobs here, we don't send billions of dollars to foreign dictatorships.
SAMILTON: Hickenlooper and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin are hoping to create demand for natural gas cars - using the combined purchasing power of state government fleets. Natural gas is abundant now, thanks to controversial advances in gas drilling known as fracking. So, if natural gas is so great, why are states making this plea on their own? The federal government spent billions in stimulus dollars to boost electric cars.
But Kathryn Clay with the Drive Natural Gas Initiative says little money went to natural gas.
KATHRYN CLAY: The simple answer is that we peaked a little bit too late.
SAMILTON: Clay says when the money was being divvied up, the industry was still figuring out how much gas was newly accessible because of fracking. Now, we know it's a lot. Enough, some estimate say, for a century. Clay says that means...
CLAY: Our entire energy landscape has changed.
SAMILTON: Companies with big fleets of gasoline-hungry trucks have already asked Detroit to build versions running on cheaper natural gas. Chrysler's Michael Cairns is showing me his company's result.
MICHAEL CAIRNS: It's a 2,500 RAM heavy duty, and it's fitted with our 5.7 liter Hemi V8 engine.
SAMILTON: The truck has a backup gasoline tank in case drivers can't find a natural gas pump. And two natural gas tanks taking up some of the space in the truck bed.
CAIRNS: So that's the one difficulty of a CNG is you need to package fairly large tanks to be able to have a reasonable range.
SAMILTON: And those tanks are expensive. This RAM costs 10 grand more than a gasoline version, and the CNG Civic costs four grand more. But Cairns says cost will go down if there's enough demand.
CAIRNS: Has to be engineered properly, but we know how to do this.
SAMILTON: Both Honda and Chrysler could have an edge if they decide to bid, they're not saying if they will - Honda because of the CNG Civic and Chrysler because its partner Fiat builds CNG passenger cars in Europe. But car companies are loathe to start new car programs unless they know the demand is there.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin says it will be. She says states will encourage their cities, universities and private companies to buy these cars, too.
GOVERNOR MARY FALLIN: We're serious about this. We hope to have those proposals and make some awards by October. So this is a real deal.
SAMILTON: Early efforts to market CNG cars to U.S. consumers flopped. So natural gas producers have got to hope the states are successful. One of North America's largest natural gas producers, Encana, announced a huge loss last week - because supply is far outstripping demand.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.
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