After a unanimous Columbia City Council vote last night, the city is on its way to becoming part of a fledgling network of compressed natural gas fueling stations sprouting up across the country.
The council approved a contract to purchase a 2-acre tract near Vandiver Drive and Highway 63 in northeast Columbia that could serve as the site of a fueling station for CNG vehicles used by the city and by members of the public. The city does not now own any CNG vehicles, but officials have discussed purchasing CNG vehicles as the city makes updates to its fleet, particularly buses and garbage trucks.
"It's definitely an improvement over diesel," City Manager Mike Matthes said during a presentation before the council's vote. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average cost of a gallon of diesel in the Midwest this week is $4.01, compared with $2 per gas gallon-equivalent in Kansas City for CNG, according to CNGPrices.com.
The land for the CNG station was purchased from the Central Concrete Co. for $300,000, part of a $350,000 appropriation for a CNG station that was included in the city's fiscal year 2013 capital improvement budget. The city has been in talks with Clean Energy, a natural gas distributor founded by oil magnate T. Boone Pickens, to work up an agreement in which the distributor would build and monitor the CNG station while the city retains its ownership.
If the station is constructed, it will be the first CNG fueling station point between Kansas City, where natural gas-powered vehicles have been used in the municipal government's fleet since 1997, and St. Louis, where such vehicles have been used at Lambert-St.Louis International Airport since 2000.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, natural gas is a clean-burning fuel, and using it to power vehicles can result in reductions of carbon monoxide and greenhouse gas emissions that are normally associated with emissions from vehicles running on conventional petroleum.
But the process of extracting natural gas from the earth, called hydraulic fracturing, in which pressurized fluid is used to break through rock formations, has heighted concerns from environmental groups and landowners about the potential effects of the practice on groundwater.
It is because of this process that Monta Welch — who is executive director of the Columbia Climate Change Coalition and an organizer for the "People's Visioning" community-based input process on plans for Columbia's future — said residents involved with her visioning process oppose the city's decision to go with CNG. "We believe this is the wrong direction for the community," Welch said.
The EPA is conducting a scientific study into hydraulic fracturing and is collecting research and public comments about the practice through April, the agency's website states.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said that although natural gas does not come without environmental consequences, beginning to integrate alternative fuels into the city's fleet moves it in the right direction with respect to limiting pollution. "It's better to do something, even if it's less than perfect," Trapp said.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe asked city staff whether focusing on CNG for new vehicle purchases would restrict the city's ability to pursue new vehicles that run on other types of clean-energy technologies. Matthes said officials do not plan to convert the city's entire fleet to CNG and that officials would like to see a fleet stocked with vehicles that run on a diverse array of fuels.
First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt said he agreed that the city should keep a "diverse energy strategy" because of the market volatility for some fuel sources.
"We just don't know what the future is going to bring," Schmidt said.