Heidi Rice

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April 3, 2011
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Rifle gas station has CNG vehicle owners pumped

It looks like a regular pump you'd see at any gas station. It sits right next to the regular unleaded and diesel fuel pumps.But this pump delivers something special.The new pump at the Shell station at Highway 6 and Railroad Avenue in Rifle serves up compressed natural gas (CNG). And it's the wave of the fuel future.The pump officially opened Saturday morning, and is the only one of its kind in Garfield County. It puts an end to the "missing miles" of CNG fueling stations along Interstate 70 on the Western Slope between Denver and Utah.Saturday also marked the opening of a CNG fueling station in Grand Junction at the city's municipal services campus, 2553 Riverside Parkway. Gov. John Hickenlooper attended the Grand Junction event prior to speaking at the Club 20 spring meeting at the Two Rivers Convention Center. To connect the two events, a Garfield County motorcade of CNG vehicles fueled up in Rifle and then drove west to attend the Grand Junction events.About 40 people turned out to celebrate the Rifle opening, including government officials, gas industry representatives and local residents."It wasn't too long ago that you couldn't go from Denver to Salt Lake City using compressed natural gas," Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson told the crowd. "The launching of these two stations represent regional and national implications and the opportunity for (CNG) cross-country applications. It just makes common sense. It's cheaper and it burns cleaner with local fuels."Making a transition to CNG fuel for vehicles carries a triple benefit. The fuel burns cleaner than gasoline, it boosts demand for natural gas produced in the West, and it helps reduce America's oil imports and increases the country's energy security.But it's a costly transition. Fueling stations cost from $350,000 to $1 million to build and equip, while vehicle conversions cost $10,000 or more.So the use of CNG fuel on the Western Slope has long been stymied as a "chicken-and-egg" scenario. No one wanted to invest in CNG cars or trucks because there were no filling stations, but there were no filling stations because no one was driving CNG vehicles.Kirk Swallow, owner of Swallow Oil and an investor in Rocky Mountain Alternative Fueling, has now changed that. Last year, Swallow won a $675,000 grant from the Governor's Energy Office to develop the Rifle station. He and his partners in Rocky Mountain Alternative Fueling covered the difference for the Rifle station, which cost about $900,000."Without the Governor's Energy Office grant, this project would not have been successful," Swallow said Saturday. "I just grabbed the bull by the horns. There were a lot of obstacles, but we're very excited and I'd like to thank everyone who helped out."As part of the grant application, Swallow obtained commitments from local fleet operators to begin making vehicle conversions to CNG.EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), Williams Production RMT and Bill Barrett Corp. all pledged to convert five to 10 vehicles a year to natural gas. Garfield County committed to converting a dozen vehicles. The city of Rifle and Colorado Mountain College are also running bi-fuel vehicles, which can run on CNG until that tank is empty, and the switch on the fly to burn gasoline.So far, there is only one CNG-burning vehicle, the Honda Civic GX, available for purchase direct from an auto manufacturer, according to Garfield Clean Energy. To convert a vehicle to CNG costs between $10,000 to $20,000, although there are tax credits and rebates that can offset some of the cost.Cost of CNG fuel is currently $3.35 per gallon as compared to $3.75 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline."We hope down the road we can see costs that are lower," Swallow said.Miles per gallon are the same as regular gas-fueled vehicles.The opening of the CNG filling station in Rifle is another feather in the city's already green cap, as Rifle builds a reputation as a front runner in the state for use of clean energy."As far as the chicken-and-the-egg [analogy], we no longer have to worry about that," said Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert. "They are now both in place at this time. This is in keeping with the vision Rifle has and we're proud to have this [station] in the city limits of Rifle."State Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Grand County, said he believes CNG will be the wave of the future in Colorado."This is one of the things we are going to continue to grow in the state of Colorado," he said. "It will help the economy grow and brings jobs to the state."So far, CNG has provided jobs to the employees at Western Slope Trailer Sales in Rifle, which is the only company in the area currently doing CNG vehicle conversions."There will be jobs ranging from constructing stations to the person pumping the gas," said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. "This will create jobs here and around the U.S. And not having to import fuel because we have it right here, we can cut $1 billion in trade deficit."Don Chaplin, a rancher in Peach Valley in New Castle, attended the meeting as a concerned citizen and had high praise for the CNG venture."Pioneering spirit," Chaplin said. "The pioneering spirit was so much a part of the West. It takes courage to be the first in time and to accept the challenge of today and tomorrow. This is truly a moment for the future."

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The Post Independent Updated Apr 3, 2011 01:15AM Published Apr 3, 2011 01:13AM Copyright 2011 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.