Marietta's mayor has begun inquiry into converting all of the city's gasoline powered vehicles to compressed natural gas (CNG) as a cost cutting measure.
The projected natural gas boom through the fracking industry could drastically lower the cost to fuel the fleet of vehicles used in the city of Marietta, said Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews.
A gallon of regular, unleaded gasoline in Marietta was $3.39 on Monday, and for a gallon of natural gas it was $2.25 per gallon at the nearest CNG refueling station in Zanesville. In Newark, natural gas was $1.80 per gallon.
Operating as a municipality with its own refueling station, the cost for natural gas drops even lower, according to figures Matthews has seen.
"They're running about 50 cents a gallon when they do it," Matthews said. "You're talking probably saving three bucks a gallon. That would be a nice savings."
With the potential release of reserves of natural gas through as fracking becomes common in the region, the cost per gallon is expected to drop considerably lower, energy officials said.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process by which fractures are created in a rock layer by the use of pressurized fluid, thereby releasing natural gas.
The use of natural gas to power vehicles is not a new concept.
In 1992, the Energy Policy Act was passed and mandated that some fleets purchase natural gas vehicles.
The concept never took off, as a barrel of oil averaged less than $19 from 1992 through 1998, dropping demand for cheaper alternative fuels.
West Virginia established some natural gas refueling stations in that time period, although the vehicles never gained widespread use. Last week Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed an executive order creating a Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force, designated to determine how much money could be saved by converting state vehicles to natural gas.
"We want to do a cost benefit analysis about the conversion of our current vehicles, but we also want to look at purchasing new equipment," said Hallie Mason, director of public policy for Tomblin's office.
Matthews said he is in the same inquiry phase, as he's uncertain exactly what would be required to convert the city's fleet of 98 vehicles.
He is currently awaiting cost estimates for the installation of a CNG refueling station in the city and the conversion kits.
Installation of a service station is one of the factors Matthews said will ultimately determine if the city looks further into the conversion.
Once he has those estimates, which Matthews said could be anywhere from a week to two weeks, the information will be taken to Marietta city council to consider.
According to online retailers, a conversion kit can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 per vehicle.
Costs for construction of a service station were not immediately available on Monday.
The projected fracking boom is one of the reasons West Virginia is one of 13 states, along with Ohio, to sign a letter in April appealing to automakers to help the states convert their fleets.
"Both Ohio and West Virginia are blessed by having significant reserves of natural gas," Mason said. "We believe that utilization of natural gas vehicles by our state would support the expansion of an alternative fuel market."
The Marietta Police Department averages 12,000 miles per month through its vehicles, according to Chief Brett McKitrick. Most police cruisers only get about 12 miles per gallon, due to the amount of time they are idling, he said.
Fuel costs for police vehicles then total roughly $3,400 a month, so every difference at the pump can make a huge impact on the city budget.
"The difference ... is considerable when you're burning 1,000 gallons a month," McKitrick said.
The challenge for police with the conversion is the location of refueling stations.
With the closest CNG station located just south of Zanesville, the infrastructure is not in place for long trips, McKitrick said.
"You wouldn't go anywhere that you couldn't get back," he said.
Even though there are not as many fueling stations for CNG vehicles, they do perform comparably to gasoline powered vehicles. Acceleration is typically slower, but the natural gas cars average roughly the same miles per gallon as a standard fuel vehicle.
The city of Somerset, Ky., recently began converting some of its vehicles to natural gas and expect to see savings up to 80 percent on the cost of fuel.
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said he drove a Honda Civic to Lexington, Ky., and back, a trip of roughly 152 miles, on just $5.
"Every vehicle we buy from now on will use natural gas," Girdler said.
Those types of results could greatly alter the city's budget, and depending on the results he gets from his studies Matthews said he could bring legislation to council to consider, with the possibility of including the conversion in the budget for next year.
"I'm going into this with my eyes wide open," Matthews said. "Hopefully, I can find out all the information."
The Associated Press contributed.