The Northern Tier Regional Planning & Development Commission (NTRPDC) held it's annual report meeting at the Wysox Fire Hall on May 11. The mission of the NTRPDC, according to its 2011 annual report, is to, "help businesses expand their markets, generate employment, improve the local economy and plan for the future development of the Northern Tier region.

The meeting was kicked off by a brief review of the efforts that the commission put forth in light of the record flooding that occurred in September, noting that the commission created a Disaster Recovery Fund that aided 20 local businesses that sustained heavy damage from the flooding. The commission also secured a $1.5 million National Emergency Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for use in hiring flood clean-up crews.

However, the major topic of the meeting regarded the future development of natural gas vehicles (NGVs) not only in the northern tier of Pennsylvania but also across the United States.

"CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and natural gas-powered vehicles are good interest topics for the present time," NTRPDC Executive Director Kevin Abrams said. "We feel that now is the time for an update on them due to the costs of gasoline."

To provide the update for CNG and NGVs was Corporate Development Manager for Chesapeake Energy Mike Narcavage and State Representative Tina Pickett.

"We're proud to talk about and CNG and NGVs," Narcavage said. "As a company we believe there's a future in that and as a country we should also believe that there's a future in that.

"If we can heat our homes and cook our food with gas, why can't we run our cars on it?" he continued. "We have some challenges, but we have some positives."

Among those positives is Chesapeake's partnership with General Electric (GE) for what Narcavage calls "CNG in a Box".

"Basically, it's a unit that's fabricated and ready to go and ready for distribution," he said. "It can be ordered and loaded on a truck to its destination."

"CNG in a Box" is a unit that can be used at existing fueling stations to fuel vehicles that run on natural gas.

"What our partnership with GE allowed was a guarantee for our company to purchase 250 of the 'CNG in a Box' units that is based upon the partnerships that we plan on having across the country with re-fuelers to build that infrastructure for refueling NGVs," Narcavage said.

Narcavage also noted of other steps that Chesapeake has taken to promote natural gas as a vehicular fuel, including the company's joint venture with 3M, which Narcavage described as a company that builds natural gas fuel tanks for vehicles.

"Right now, a premium for a light duty vehicle's CNG system might range from $6,000 to $8,000," he said, "and 40 percent of that premium goes into the cost of the tank.

"These tanks are very strong; they are space-shuttle technology," Narcavage noted. "You can drop them off the Empire State Building or you could fire a gun at them. That's how sturdy they are. There's more safety with these fuel tanks than what's on board your car now.

"What we asked 3M to look at was adjusting their technology to make the tanks a little bit lighter to hold more fuel because right you can only fit about eight gas gallon equivalent in them."

Narcavage then added that 3M was successful in this adjustment.

"This will lighten the weight of the tank as well as expand the space of the tank so you can fit more gas on board."

Narcavage also mentioned a memorandum signed by 11 governors across the country to convert their fleet vehicles to natural gas, which would save a substantial amount of money since CNG costs roughly half as much as gasoline.

"Another thing you're going to see by the end of this year is a Dodge Ram 2500 Bi-fuel pickup truck that can be purchased at local Dodge dealers as long as there is a refueling station within 20 miles of that dealership," he said. "The same is being done for the Ford F-series trucks."

Narcavage also touched on some of the partnerships that Chesapeake currently has and is working on with companies like the Dandy Mini-Marts and other similar companies.

"Based on our partnerships, there are over 8,800 potential locations that can be converted into CNG refueling stations," he said.

Narcavage then discussed the possibility of slow fills for peoples' homes across the country.

"About 50 percent of the houses across the country has natural gas going to them," he said. "So, if there's no refueling station near you and you want to have CNG for your vehicle, you can put one in your home if you're already receiving natural gas.

"We're currently working with Whirlpool on bringing down the cost of the fuel station, which would be at your house. You can put it in your garage and hook your car up at night with a slow fill and you'll be ready to go in the morning.

"Right now, the cost for that is about $5,000." Narcavage continued. "We're hoping that the work we're doing will Whirlpool will bring that cost down to around $1,500."

Pickett talked about the always-changing gas industry in Bradford County and what she hears as the being new large priority from the local population.

"Wherever I go now, people are asking about market development," she said. "They want to know how we are going to use the product, how the companies are going to use it, how is it going to benefit them on that personal basis and how we are going to protect this resource in this country by using it."

Pickett answered these questions with the opportunity that natural gas presents for manufacturing and the option that is on many people's minds when it comes to natural gas: vehicles.

"It's a real 'chicken-or-egg scenario," she said. "How can a company make a significant investment for a refueling station when its not sure if there will be customers tomorrow? How do we make that transition happen? That's where the government is looking to step into the phase a little bit.

"We have seven bills in the House right now that are oriented to NGV development," she noted. "For example, one would give tax credits to private fleet vehicles, one that would create a grant program for small and medium-sized mass transit agencies, one that would create a revolving loan program for large mass transit agencies and one that would require 25 percent of all new bus purchases made by large mass transit agencies to be natural gas-run by the year 2016, 50 percent by 2021 and 100 percent by 2027. We have another bill that would create a natural has corridor, which would be a tax credit for the construction of natural gas fueling stations along major travel corridors."

Pickett went on to say how big a factor energy should be for the upcoming election.

"We have a big election coming up for this country in November," she said. "I think that one of the things that should be on the table during that election is the national energy policy.

"We like to think we're on the cutting edge in this country," Pickett continued. "We like to think we're always ahead of the world, but we're not ahead on natural gas vehicles. We have about 112,000 NGVs in this country right now, while Brazil has 1.7 million, Argentina has 1.5 million, Europe has one million, Pakistan has 2.9 million and India has 1.1 million.

"We spend a billion dollars a day on foreign oil," she added. "It's time to move. It's time to do something about this."

Pickett then addressed the emission benefits of natural gas, noting that if one could replace one diesel garbage truck by converting it to CNG, the emission benefits would equal 325 cars being taken off the road for that year.

When Pickett concluded, questions were taken from the audience, one of which was directed at Narcavage asking if using CNG affected a vehicle's miles-per-gallon rating.

"You're going to see basically the same thing as whatever your vehicle is now," he replied. "The only thing you'll really see is, since it's a cleaner burning fuel, you're not going to see that gook all over your engine and you could go at least a year without changing the oil if you wanted. That's regarding a passenger vehicle, however, not a heavy duty vehicle."

The meeting ended with Abrams, as a token of the NTRPDC's appreciation, presenting Pickett and Narcavage with a framed photo of the cover of the NTRPDC's annual report, which was taken at Riverside Park in Tunkhannock by the Executive Director of the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau Jean Ruhf.

Johnny Williams can be reached at (570) 265-1639; email: jwilliams@northeastdriller.com.