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.