Three brightly colored Suburbans pulled into the Shell gas station in Rifle on Thursday and stopped at the station's compressed natural gas pump.
Clambering out of the vehicles were geologists from Southwestern Energy Co. who had set out on a seven-day, 2,700-mile journey on April 16 from offices in Texas and Arkansas to California as part of an ongoing effort to promote the use of compressed natural gas, or CNG.
On the way to an industry association conference in Long Beach, Calif., the company used the trip as an opportunity to document the cost savings associated with CNG, highlight its environmental benefits and demonstrate the growing infrastructure of CNG fueling stations across the country.
John Jeffers, director of geosciences for the company, said the caravan would drive to Moab, Utah, on the 18.5-gallon tank of CNG it filled in Rifle.
"We didn't have any problems coming over (Vail Pass)," added geophysicist Orlon Sandoval.
According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, CNG costs on average one-third less than conventional gasoline at the pump. Jeffers said the pump price in Rifle was a little higher than the approximate $2 a gallon national average, but still a few dollars cheaper than gasoline at the Shell station and elsewhere.
Jeffers said the company vehicles are also equipped to run on gasoline, and that fuel is automatically used once the CNG supply runs low.
Other benefits of CNG as a fuel include its environmental advantages and domestic availability, said spokeswoman Mary Faucett. Natural gas is a clean burning fuel, so CNG vehicles create fewer emissions and pollutants compared to gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles. And the abundance of natural gas across the U.S. can help lessen the country's dependence on foreign energy sources, added Jeffers.
"We think the long-term outlook for CNG is better, due to an abundance of supplies," he said.
States such as California, Utah and Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., have a good number of fueling stations, Jeffers said.
Nationwide, there are more than 110,000 CNG-powered bi-fuel vehicles on U.S. roadways. Faucett said General Motors plans to roll out bi-fuel powered Silverados by the end of the year. Currently, the cost to convert a gasoline vehicle to include CNG is around $10,000, Jeffers said. But Faucett noted that cost is recovered in about three years, thanks to the lower CNG pump prices.
Southwestern Energy, which develops oil and natural gas in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, estimated its caravan would refuel at approximately 20 CNG stations on the trip and planned to use CNG to fuel 95 percent of its travels. The company added more than 100 CNG vehicles to its fleet in 2011 and has plans to convert another 66 this year.
During the road trip, company officials planned to visit with the public and students at key universities where it focuses its geosciences' recruiting efforts, including the Colorado School of Mines.