TA Chief O’Brien Carries Torch for Natural Gas

Plus more news from the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo

August 2013, - Feature

by Oliver Patton, Former Washington Editor - Also by this author

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If you’re skeptical about the future of natural gas in trucking, meet Thomas O’Brien, president and CEO of TravelCenters of America.

“The math is close enough and we’re moving on,” said O’Brien in an assertive message to hundreds of fuel and transportation experts gathered in June in Washington, D.C., for the 2013 Alternative Clean Transportation Expo.

TA says starting next year it will offer liquefied natural gas fueling stations for trucks like this new Kenworth available for rent from Paclease.
TA says starting next year it will offer liquefied natural gas fueling stations for trucks like this new Kenworth available for rent from Paclease.

Skeptics list several roadblocks to widespread adoption of natural gas, O’Brien said.

They say the equipment costs more than diesel equipment, both up-front and in terms of the risk. If the demand for natural gas goes up and diesel goes down, then gas loses its pricing edge. And, skeptics say, the infrastructure to distribute gas is not yet in place.

This is “pencil pushing,” O’Brien said. “Nobody really cares any more.”
He said TA, a full-service truckstop chain with 165 locations, is committed to providing natural gas at its facilities, because his customers want it.

TA and Shell are planning a nationwide network of liquefied natural gas fueling centers for trucking customers. The first of 100 or so planned gas fueling lanes at TA and Petro Stopping Centers is scheduled to open next year.

TA has selected the first 20 locations, O’Brien said. They will start in California, Texas and Nevada, and the result will be well-connected corridors where natural gas is available.

The installations are more expensive than diesel – six to seven times more expensive, in fact – but that cost will come down as volume goes up.
There’s more to the decision than just the immediate infrastructure cost, though.

The discovery of natural gas resources, and of the fracking technology to tap them, is a game-changer for the United States, O’Brien said.

“Natural gas has the ability to transform the transportation industry, to meaningfully expand the economy and can help ensure energy independence.”

Natural gas could provide the largest single competitive advantage the United States has enjoyed in the past century, he said.

“The dreamers found it. Now it’s up to us to act. We need to work together to use our new advantage wisely. Alternatives to polluting foreign fuel are here today and are here to stay.”

The pace of adoption is accelerating. O’Brien said many large fleets are testing or converting to natural gas, such as UPS (see sidebar on p. 32), and some are predicting that gas could reach 40% of the heavy-duty market.
He said he is confident of TA’s role in adopting the fuel.

“We have taken the time to plan to do it right,” he said. “For those who may come to rely on over-the-road liquid natural gas, TA will hold up its end.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is more ambitious for the next phase of its heavy-duty truck fuel economy standards than it was for the first round.

Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said while it’s too early to spell out details, the agency will look at trailers as well as new engine and transmission technologies.

In remarks to fuel and transportation experts gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo, Grundler said the agency also will look at aerodynamics, alternative fuels and the legacy fleet.

Grundler was discussing the issue in the wake of President Obama’s announcement that EPA will develop new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for post-2018 model year trucks, following on the standards put in place in 2011 that start going into effect next year.

“We are talking to manufacturers and we’re very excited about the technologies they are working on for the future,” Grundler said. “The technologies span the gamut from better engines to better transmissions, to better aerodynamic designs to mass production to fuel-based strategies. All of that will be on the table for consideration as we begin this collaborative process.”

He said the agency intends to build on the “substantial amount of good will” generated by the collaborative effort that led to the 2011 standards.

Still, he said, the agency is setting higher goals for the next round.
“It will be more challenging and more difficult to achieve, but worth while. There are still cost savings that are available to customers that we would like to see.”


  1. 1. GREGORY FOREMAN [ September 10, 2013 @ 08:09PM ]

    Mr. O'Brien is obviously not one for numbers "this is “pencil pushing....nobody really cares any more". This is a very strange position to be taken by the head of a major corporation. What is even stranger is what I call his "Field of Dreams Logic". The market is not there for natural gas fueled trucks, but, if we build them, the fueling stations, they, the natural gas trucks, will come. So far as his projection than eventually 40% of the heavy duty truck market will eventually employ natural gas for fuel, that may be correct. The question is when, thirty, forty years from now or maybe never? Mr. O'Brien has obviously never heard of or is not aware of the existing technology that converts natural gas to a liquid fuel similar to diesel, only 50% cleaner burning than diesel, having a much higher C-tane rating providing greater fuel economy and more efficient operations. Two "GTL" plants are slated for construction and completion in Louisiana alone by the end of 2018, one in Lake Charles, LA, SASOIL, the other in Norco, LA, SHELL OIL. These plants will process the fuel directly from raw natural gas and will be able to produce from 1.5 to 2 million gallons of fuel daily, per plant. There are other GTL plants slated for Texas and the east cost producing equal amounts of fuel. What will happen to the O'Brians of the world when this more efficient, environmentally sound fuel hits the open market? I'll tell you what will happen, they'll blame their failure on everything and everyone but their self. Of course, by that time, the money will have been spent, long gone, never to be recaptured but the Boone Pickens, the O'brians of the world will have filled their pockets with money and will be laughing all of the way to the bank, no one the wiser. Snake Oil for sale, anyone looking for snake oil?
    This entire natural gas project is total insanity.


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