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11:44 am
Tue July 17, 2012

Detroit asked to build a car that runs on natural gas

Governors of 13 states that produce natural gas are asking Detroit car companies to make them a passenger car that runs on the fuel.

Advances in a drilling technique called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are making natural gas more plentiful.

The drilling technique has plenty of environmental critics, but Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says it's safe when done properly, and he says natural gas is a better fuel than gasoline.

"It burns cleaner," Hickenlooper said during a break between back-to-back visits to Chrysler, General Motors and Ford facilities on Tuesday.  "It's less expensive, and it creates jobs right here in the United States."

Detroit automakers make commercial trucks that run on compressed natural gas, but not passenger cars.

There's very little consumer demand for CNG-fueled passenger cars, despite the significantly lower price of the fuel, because of the lack of fueling stations.  In Michigan, for example, there's only a handful of CNG stations, and most are not available to the public.

The consortium of states hopes to jumpstart consumer demand, by agreeing to buy thousands of compressed natural gas cars. 

Mary Fallin is Governor of Oklahoma.  She says Oklahoma alone needs to add 500 passenger cars to the state government's fleet - and those could be CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles - if one were available.

Fallin says, counting the fleet replacement needs of 13 states - plus many of the universities and cities in those states - and it adds up to a lot of cars, enough to make it worth a car company's while to develop a CNG passenger car.

"We come here to Detroit to say we're serious about this," Fallin said.  "We're going to let a request for proposal on July 24, [and] we hope to have those proposals and makes some awards on those initiatives and contracts by October. So this is a real deal." 

Hickenlooper says Detroit was a natural first stop for the effort. 

"Well, we're not gonna play favorites," he said.  "But we're American governors, so we'll start out at Ford and General Motors and Chrysler, but we'll certainly talk to Honda and Toyota."

Honda already builds a small number of Civics that run on natural gas.  But the car is too small for most fleets, which strongly prefer midsize sedans that more comfortably seat four people.

The visiting governors test-drove a heavy-duty Chrysler RAM truck, designed for fleet and commercial users. 

None of the car companies disclosed whether they plan to bid on the RFP.

In addition to Oklahoma and Colorado, states in the consortium include Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Utah, Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Two other states may join the consortium this week, Governor Hickenlooper says.