A decade after the natural gas powered Dodge Powerbox H... A decade after the natural gas powered Dodge Powerbox Hybrid Concept debuted at the LA Auto Show, Chrysler announced it will introduce natural gas powered vehicles to the market (Chrysler).
As gasoline prices climb this year, Chrysler says it is planning for some of its cars and trucks to run on a different kind of gas by 2017.

The automaker says it will introduce compressed-natural-gas powered vehicles by 2017. The first vehicle is expected to be a Dodge Ram pickup. But passenger cars will come as well. The plan is part of a swell of interest in making better use of the U.S.'s vast reserves of natural gas rather than invest too heavily in much more expensive electric vehicle battery systems.

Italian automaker Fiat, which owns 30 percent of Chrysler and plans to increase the holding to 51 percent, has engines using compressed natural gas in Europe. Chrysler executives have explored bringing that Fiat technology to the U.S. since the Fiat alliance was formed in 2009.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both Chrysler and Fiat, has been a booster of natural gas in Europe and North America, because of its availability, price relative to gasoline and the cost of technology relative to other engines such as hybrids and diesel, as well as battery powered electric vehicles. "It is an incredibly cost efficient approach to reducing dependence on oil to power vehicles and one that should get much more attention from policy makers than it does now," said Marchionne in an interview with AOL Autos earlier this year.

Honda Motor Co. is the only automaker currently selling cars with compressed natural gas engines to retail customers in the U.S. That car, a Civic, has not sold in large numbers, though demand for CNG Civics, new and used, spiked in 2008 when gasoline prices surged to above $4.00 a gallon nationally.

GM and Ford sell CNG vehicles into corporate and government fleets. Buses in many cities and municipalities, as well as around airports and national parks, also run on CNG.

One of the big obstacles to wide-spread adoption of CNG vehicles is lack of infrastructure. Most gas stations do not offer CNG. Honda provides a home fill-up machine that can be installed in a driver's garage, and taps a homeowner's gas supply. But the fill-up-time can be long. Some municipalities, especially those with large universities, such as Ann Arbor, MI, have CNG stations available to the public, as well as to serve their university vehicles.

The number of drivers willing to limit themselves to such a small network of CNG sources, though is small. The range of a Civic GX on a full tank of CNG is about 200 miles depending on driving patterns. Given depressed prices for CNG, it does make for an excellent second car, as well as a hedge against climbing gas prices, for a family used for local driving provided there is a handy fill-up station nearby.

The best hope for an expanding network of CNG filling stations for individuals is an idea afoot in Washington with some members of Congress to offer trucking companies incentives to convert commercial trucks from gasoline to CNG in order to shrink demand for gasoline and diesel fuel. Trucks that travel regular, prescribed distances are thought to be the most effective segment of the auto industry with which to advance the CNG network. A truck that, for example, constantly makes round-trips between two places is an ideal candidate for a CNG conversion.

There are some estimates that if the commercial truck fleet could be largely converted to natural gas over ten years, the decline in demand for gasoline would be enough to get the U.S. off Middle East oil entirely.

So far, though, this idea has not been given the weight of the White House or Congress as something we can expect anytime soon. The U.S. has vast natural gas reserves though, and there does seem to be an appetite among many Congressional members of both parties to explore it as a means of becoming less dependent on foreign, especially Middle East, oil.

Not as clean as we think?

Traditionally, environmentalists have looked kindly on natural gas as a preferred alternative to gasoline. But, lately there has been chatter in academic and policy circles arguing the other side.

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50-percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipes or smokestacks and don't account for the pollution generated when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

And a recent Environmental Protection Agency report said that methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing (known as "fracking,") of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously thought. The natural gas industry and environmental community have been at odds, not surprisingly, about the real impact of fracking. There have been instances documented around the country where the methane gets into the water-table serving residential communities, making drinking water literally flammable.

Given the public's and Congress's diminishing appetites for fighting wars in hostile Middle East oil states, and the difficulty in advancing new nuclear reactor projects after the nuclear disaster in Japan following last month's earthquake, solving the obstacles to making natural gas extraction cleaner and more efficient through investment and innovation could soon become much more politically viable.

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