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Bills could accelerate adoption of natural gas vehicles in county

Jan 16, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Wyoming Legislature is considering three bills to stimulate use of natural gas vehicles, all of which could affect Fremont County. The commercial natural gas fueling station in Riverton is one of the few in the state.

The Wyoming Senate on Monday gave initial approval to legislation providing $1 million in low-interest loans to businesses building natural gas fueling stations. Payments due and interest on the loans would be deferred for two years.

The House of Representatives has yet to take up the bill.

The bill directs the Wyoming Business Council to look at two aspects of a project's location when it considers granting a loan: whether it would be near a fleet of private or government vehicles that could convert to natural gas, and if it would be close to an existing natural gas fueling station.

Projects in Fremont County would not have been eligible for such loans under a previous draft of the bill, which required them to be near an interstate highway.

State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said he suggested amending the bill at a joint minerals interim committee meeting.

A second bill, which passed its first reading in the Senate on Tuesday, would require state government entities, including school districts, to make half of their new vehicles capable of running on natural gas.

School districts without access to a natural gas fueling station, however, would be exempt. The Senate Minerals Committee amended the bill to allow agencies to opt out of buying natural gas vehicles if it determines using such vehicles is "economically impractical."

Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said even if school districts are not required to purchase natural gas buses, "I think the incentive will be in place that would cause a school district to seriously consider that change."

A third bill introduced into the Wyoming House of Representatives would reimburse school districts that build natural gas fueling stations and buy natural gas-powered buses.

Local impact

Several organizations in Fremont County have vehicles that run on natural gas, and infrastructure exists to support them.

Fremont County operates three vehicles and has ordered a fourth which can run on compressed natural gas. Most vehicles that can run on natural gas also can use gasoline.

Fremont County Weed and Pest expects to receive two natural gas vehicles in March, and Wind River Transit Authority has ordered a passenger van that will run on the alternative fuel.

Encana grants paid for the compressed natural gas systems in all of those vehicles.

Half of Encana's own fleet, about 25 vehicles, runs on natural gas as well, said field operations manager John Schmidt.

Fremont County transportation department administrative assistant Pennie Buffington said the Fremont County Commission has made a commitment to purchase alternative fuel vehicles.

Each natural gas vehicle saves the county $100 to $150 a month in fuel costs, she said.

Buffington also has attended meetings with lawmakers regarding the two bills and secured grants for natural gas vehicles for the county.

She thinks the second bill would apply to Fremont County School District 25 because there is a natural gas fueling station in Riverton.

Because the Riverton station is the only place in the county to fill up a natural gas vehicle, she thinks School District 1 in Lander could be exempt from the requirement.

"Here in Lander we don't have a footprint to support it," Buffington said.

She believes that if both bills pass, they could spell a big change for Fremont County.

So far, adoption of natural gas as a vehicle fuel has faced a "chicken and the egg" problem, Buffington said. She thinks the challenge loan program could solve one side of the issue.

"This would allow the number of (compressed natural gas) vehicles to catch up with the station," Buffington said.

She sees a potential for a Lander station, pointing to the second bill which could impel School District 1 to buy natural gas vehicles if a filling station were nearby.

Buffington also said the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, which have offices in Lander and other parts of the county, could be customers for natural gas stations.

Several regulations require federal agencies to use alternative fuel vehicles, reduce gasoline consumption, and decrease emissions. Agencies can qualify for a waiver from the alternative fuel vehicle requirement if such a fuel is not available.

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