18-wheeler.jpg

A Case of Gas

Yesterday was a tough day on the road.  The drive from Dothan, Alabama, up through Gadsden and on to Albertville, Alabama, took entirely too long, due mainly to traffic in Montgomery that had me debating whether to rip the speedometer out and replace it with a calendar.  And if your fun meter isn’t pegged after spending all day shifting gears like a madman, while dragging 76,000 pounds over hills and through a gazillion small towns with a fresh traffic light every 20 feet, then your meter needs adjusting.  And so will your legs, because after several hours of shifting a heavy clutch, your left leg will be over-developed, causing you to walk in circles for a few minutes until you learn to compensate.  Further adjustments to the fun meter can be made at the grocery warehouse, which took so long to unload 22 pallets of water that I could have drunk the stuff off the trailer quicker.   

Then, having derailed my load schedule, the warehouse guy regretfully informed me that they were rejecting three cases of the water because a couple of the bottles were leaking.  This latest bit of news went over about like a pregnant pole vaulter, because I had to then contact my company, who would contact the original shipper, who would determine where I should take the rejected freight.  Meanwhile, the next load, which absolutely positively no-kidding-really-we-mean-it had to be on time, was in jeopardy.  Finally, after a series of bureaucratic bloopers, my 14 hour clock was almost up, so I had to find a place to park for the night (one of the positive aspects of federal “Hours of Service” rules is that they impose a daily limit to the lunacy). 

My day was much improved upon reading the headline, “Trucking Industry Is Set to Expand Its Use of Natural Gas.”  Finally, I thought, the magic of red beans and rice can be used to get up those hills without all the gear-shifting!   Alas, my hopes were but a fart in a whirlwind, because the New York Times article went on to extoll the virtues of the other natural gas as a means to power 18 wheelers.  I’m still fairly agnostic on the issue, though I have seen the occasional oasis of natural gas fueling stations spring up in a few truck stop parking lots.  I haven’t seen anyone use them yet, so the most obvious result thus far is that they we’ve lost much needed parking spaces to accommodate the things.  (Note:  The good thing about trucking is that you take your hotel with you. The bad thing is that, some nights, you have no choice but to keep driving until you find a place to park your hotel, and parking can be tough to find.)

But back to the gas, where it seems that the trucking industry will do all it can to stay in the good graces of the environmental movement.  The Freightliner Cascadia I drive, for instance, sports a sticker declaring that the vehicle is in compliance with all current California emissions standards.  This includes the use of Diesel Exhaust Fluid, which requires its own little 21 gallon tank and mixes with the engine’s exhaust to neutralize the emission to something on the order of water vapor.  Hence, there is no “smoke stack” on the truck.  The trade-off is yet another expense, in addition to fuel costs, at the pump (and the fact that if you run out of the stuff, the engine will, repeat – will, shut down).  

“Major shippers like Proctor & Gamble, mindful of both fuel costs and green credentials, are turning to companies with natural gas trucks in their fleets,” says the article.   To sweeten the deal further, the federal government is evidently offering a 50-cent-per-gallon tax credit to those companies that use Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), though that tax credit is slated to expire at the end of this year.  Additionally, the NYT discloses, the Obama administration directed stimulus money to a Chinese company, ENN, which worked with another company to open an LNG fueling station in Salt Lake City.  This is the same bunch, of course, that picked Solyndra as a worthy investment, so the fact that they are pushing LNG initiatives is more than a little worrisome.  In fact, given their track record, it probably jeopardizes what might otherwise be a decent idea.  

For it’s part, the company I drive for is taking a serious look at natural gas options as well.  ”Natural gas-powered trucks were introduced into our fleet in 2011 and we are monitoring the performance,” writes Schneider National, which goes on to specify that the technology is currently being used in “shorter haul work configurations,” meaning dedicated accounts, intermodal operations, — those areas restricted to defined routes within the limited LNG fueling infrastructure.  Additionally, according to Schneider, “Today, due to more limited horsepower, natural gas-powered heavy trucks are currently not a solution to be used for all terrains…”  I’ve seen reports that put the reduction in horsepower at approximately 20% for natural gas vs. diesel-powered 18 wheelers.  That’s significant, especially when even with the powerful engines we currently use, I find myself repeating, “I think I can, I think I can,” when pulling 80,000 pounds up the Pocono Mountains at a screaming 20 mph.  

Many years ago, Schneider was one of the first trucking companies to exploit Qualcomm technology, which allowed drivers to communicate with dispatchers via onboard  computers and allowed companies to use satellite technology to track and monitor their trucks and equipment.  Left to their own devices, the companies steadily improved the concept so that today, the computer attached to my dashboard allows for messaging with my dispatcher (including various macros by which I receive freight assignments), electronic logging, GPS navigation, vehicle performance monitoring, and even multi-media presentations and briefings from the company to the driver.  Similarly, left to its own devices, I’m confident that the industry can systematically and effectively integrate new fuel technology into the fleet while coordinating with fuel providers on infrastructure development.  

What I fear, is that the government will distort the process to the extent that success will be defined by the degree to which the industry can overcome red tape and still get anything done.  The same government, for example, which currently provides a 50-cent-per-gallon tax credit for the use of LNG, also imposes a 12.5 percent federal excise tax on the purchase of all new trucks including LNG trucks, which already cost nearly twice as much as a conventional diesel-powered truck.  Such self-defeating initiatives, at cross-purposes with themselves and with logic itself, will likely prove less than useful.   Add to that the general vulnerability of the natural gas shale drilling industry to the whims of the EPA, and the whole enterprise becomes a puzzle with extra pieces.  

T. Boone Pickins, himself a backer of natural gas as an alternative to diesel-powered trucks, predicts that in seven years, a majority of long-haul trucks will be powered by natural gas because 70 percent of the fleet operate in “defined regional areas,” and a natural gas truck can go 600 miles on one fill-up.   As the driver of a truck that gets over 1,100 miles on a single fill-up, I respectfully submit that much work remains to be done and that the federal role should be minimized, unless we want the government do for natural gas trucks what the Education Department has done for scholastic achievement, or what the Energy Department has done for energy independence, or what the Transportation Department has done for road conditions, or what Obamacare is about to do for your access to a doctor. 

  1. Chris Campion

    Sounds a lot like the Light Bulb Scenario: Take a very well-known and relatively cheap product.  Introduce federal legislation to make that well-known and relatively cheap product illegal. 

    Then sit back and watch both costs rise and availability decrease.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

    And there you have it:  A revolution.  The economy has just been damaged, all in the name of doing it to us for our own good.  What’s been lost?  Jobs and prosperity.  What’s been gained?  Power, in a centralized fashion.

    I’m still in the “they’re doing this to us on purpose” camp.  “They” being politicians and the crony capitalists who love them.  I can’t chalk everything a legislature does up to stupidity (most of it can), but some things (like Obamacare) are specifically designed to end a certain slice of life as we know it.

    The worst part is:  We’re allowing them to get away with it.

  2. Benjamin Carter
    wilber forge: Seems the Law of Unintended Consequences is lost on current rule makers.  · 7 hours ago

    There’s a reason for that, though. Current rule makers are exempt from the rules. They never live the consequences.

  3. Old Buckeye

    Thanks for your experiential input, Dave. I, too, have been “agnostic” as you say about the whole LNG thing, not knowing enough about it from either side, but you’ve crystallized a few important points for me because of your insight.

  4. Fred Cole

    If a technology is economically rational, businesses, starting with the big ones first, because of the economics of scale, will adopt it.  Then the smaller ones do it to compete.  Or sometimes the little guys do it first because its cheaper to equip a smaller organization.  Or sometimes it happens simultaneously.  

    And new technology creates new businesses to supply those businesses and then new businesses to act as vendors to those businesses.  And old businesses adapt and adopt.

    This is a natural process that people will follow if they’re free to (if other businesses don’t agitate the government to regulate the new technology out of the real of economic rationality) and it needs no help getting going.  The incentive structure of a free market guarantees that companies are always looking and experimenting.

    People always demand that Uncle Sam stick big his snout into things to get them moving.  As if nobody would have ever adopted the internal combustion engine over the horse to move goods around if not for a government program to subsidize it.  

    All Uncle Sam can do is pervert and retard market forces.

  5. Fred Cole
    Old Buckeye: Thanks for your experiential input, Dave. I, too, have been “agnostic” as you say about the whole LNG thing, not knowing enough about it from either side, but you’ve crystallized a few important points for me because of your insight. · 49 minutes ago

    Yeah me too.  The horsepower thing is what kills it.

    I wonder if the technology will get stalled because of it or if they’ll innovate a solution.

  6. Foxman
    Dave Carter

     Additionally, according to Schneider, “Today, due to more limited horsepower, natural gas-powered heavy trucks are currently not a solution to be used for all terrains…”  I’ve seen reports that put the reduction in horsepower at approximately 20% for natural gas vs. diesel-powered 18 wheelers.  That’s significant, especially when even with the powerful engines we currently use, I find myself repeating, “I think I can, I think I can,” when pulling 80,000 pounds up the Pocono Mountains at a screaming 20 mph.  

    · 10 hours ago

    Most, if not all of the engines used today are converted Diesel engines.  Without getting into the technical details, Engines specifically designed to use NG could produce as much, or more, power within the same package size.  Once the market exists, manufacturers will produce these.

  7. Johnny Dubya

    As Ricochet’s resident natural gas-booster, when I read the article, my first thought was, “I wonder what Dave Carter thinks about this?” Thanks for reading my mind, Dave.

    Who knows? Maybe one day, our dependence on Middle East oil will be so reduced that we won’t feel the need to whisk Saudi nationals out of the country after terrorist attacks.

  8. JamesB

    Nice article from Dave as usual.

    Asking for a free market in energy is a little problematic.  A large portion of oil in the world is produced by governments which are, at best, hostile to the US way of life and culture.  Our government spends a pretty large portion of is military budget keeping those countries from going to war with each other, so that oil remains affordable. 

    So you could argue that if we had a real free market in energy, the US military would leave the gulf, the various countries would go to war with each other, and we would have $10/gal gas.  Then we could just let the market operate normally. 

    Of course, since we don’t do that, the government then tries to find ways to substitute energy sources for those derived from oil  That then has all the problems of government influence you mention.  Its not an easy problem.

    Lastly, when you discuss natural gas, you don’t differentiate compressed natural gas from liquid natural gas.  The power decrease – 20% – you mention is true for compressed natural gas, but not liquid natural gas.  That is why long distance trucking will use liquid natural gas.

  9. Foxman
    JamesB: Lastly, when you discuss natural gas, you don’t differentiate compressed natural gas from liquid natural gas.  The power decrease – 20% – you mention is true for compressed natural gas, but not liquid natural gas.  That is why long distance trucking will use liquid natural gas. · 4 minutes ago

    How so?

  10. BrentB67

    Great article and all very true.

  11. Peter Robinson
    C

    Dave does it again, combining down home, hilarious prose with analysis so astute it would have done Milton Friedman proud.  Dave Carter, Ricochet’s answer to a question that has puzzled the sages:  What would you get if you crossed Mark Twain with a Nobel Prize winner in economics?

  12. D.C. McAllister
    C

    All I know is I’m paying early 8 bucks for some center-cut bacon and that’s a whole lot more than I was paying four years ago. I don’t know if the problem is ethanol eating up the corn, high oil prices from the Middle East, or not enough gas going through the lines, but something is amiss. It comes down to this: what’s going reduce costs for the consumer?  No one seems concerned about this. Food prices are shooting through the roof, and I don’t hear a peep about it on the news. I can guarantee you one thing: if the government does to trucking what it has done to education, my bacon is going to be 12 bucks a pack before you know it, and it’ll probably taste like rubber. —A side note–it must be nice taking the hotel with you. I can just taste the freedom. No checking in. No weird noises through the walls. No bedbugs. No toilets that drip all night. Just peace and quiet under the stars. (Don’t ruin the image for me, Dave, just let me have my fantasy. :)

  13. kiwikit

    Unlike Carter, Clinton, and BO, Bush is not an egomaniac and to him it’s all about the country not him.  I only wish he were still in office.

  14. Foxman
    kiwikit: Unlike Carter, Clinton, and BO, Bush is not an egomaniac and to him it’s all about the country not him.  I only wish he were still in office. · 7 minutes ago

    Are you in the right thread?

  15. Dave Carter
    C
    Denise McAllister: All I know is I’m paying early 8 bucks for some center-cut bacon and that’s a whole lot more than I was paying four years ago. I don’t know if the problem is ethanol eating up the corn, high oil prices from the Middle East, or not enough gas going through the lines, but something is amiss. It comes down to this: what’s going reduce costs for the consumer?  No one seems concerned about this. …

    Denise, one gentleman in the NYT article mentioned that, at the savings predicted from natural gas use, it would take 7-8 years for a company to realize enough savings to cover the up-front cost of the trucks.  To me, that seems like a further boost in prices for consumers.  Additionally, if the technology takes off like gang-busters, what are the odds that demand for natural gas drives its cost up as well, negating some of those savings.  Better to let the private sector work this out, methinks.  

  16. Dave Carter
    C
    Denise McAllister: … —A side note–it must be nice taking the hotel with you. I can just taste the freedom. No checking in. No weird noises through the walls. No bedbugs. No toilets that drip all night. Just peace and quiet under the stars. (Don’t ruin the image for me, Dave, just let me have my fantasy. :) · 22 minutes ago

    Make that, “no toilets.”   Oops,…sorry.  I’m supposed to leave the image alone.  

  17. Dave Carter
    C
    Peter Robinson: …  What would you get if you crossed Mark Twain with a Nobel Prize winner in economics? · 25 minutes ago

    I’m not sure, but he’d have to have gotten a hell of a lot better grades in Algebra than I got.  

  18. Dave Carter
    C
    Peter Robinson: Dave does it again, combining down home, hilarious prose with analysis so astute it would have done Milton Friedman proud.  Dave Carter, Ricochet’s answer to a question that has puzzled the sages:  What would you get if you crossed Mark Twain with a Nobel Prize winner in economics? · 26 minutes ago

    By the way, Peter, making Milton Friedman proud would have been life’s crowning achievement.  I could retire happy.  Thank you kindly.  

  19. D.C. McAllister
    C
    Dave Carter

    Peter Robinson: Dave does it again, combining down home, hilarious prose with analysis so astute it would have done Milton Friedman proud.  Dave Carter, Ricochet’s answer to a question that has puzzled the sages:  What would you get if you crossed Mark Twain with a Nobel Prize winner in economics? · 26 minutes ago

    By the way, Peter, making Milton Friedman proud would have been life’s crowning achievement.  I could retire happy.  Thank you kindly.   · 0 minutes ago

    One of my favorite quotes of Milton Friedman is “if you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.” Sounds like something you’d say, Dave.

  20. DocJay

    I like the idea of gas but the market should sort it out. On a side note, my 23 yr old stepson is doing his first haul as I type, going up and down the west coast and who knows where afterword. I gave him a case of MREs.

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