Pressure Is Building
The slow rollout of CNG vehicle fuel
By Dimitra Lavrakas
Dimitra Lavrakas

hirteen miles south of Utqiaġvik, the Walakpa gas field sits near Walakpa Lagoon, site of the 1935 plane crash that killed world-famous aviator Wiley Post and beloved humorist Will Rogers. To the east of Alaska’s northernmost town lie two more resources, the East Barrow and South Barrow gas fields.

The federal government conveyed the subsurface estate of those fields to the North Slope Borough in 1984, enabling the municipal government to explore and develop a local energy supply.

Cheaper than what is charged for potable water, natural gas heats homes and runs turbines that generate electricity, which the member-owned Barrow Utilities & Electric Cooperative, Inc. (BUECI) sells at a relatively reasonable rate to residents, a rate many equally remote villages might envy.

Just about everything in the city runs on gas from the nearby fields. A network of crisscrossing gas lines heat homes at a far cost lower than oil-burning boilers, and BUECI has turned the gas into something even more useful and environmentally friendly: it operates a station that fuels vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG).

“BUECI has vehicles that run on CNG,” says BUECI General Manager Timothy Russell. The fleet refills at a tap just north of the city proper.

The lone public filling station puts Utqiaġvik’s CNG capacity on par with Anchorage, a city with nearly sixty times the population. Anchorage likewise has only one CNG station, installed by equipment dealer Ditch Witch at its shop near Tudor Road and Minnesota Drive. That is, until recently; the station was damaged and taken offline. BUECI took over the Ditch Witch station and is looking for a new owner.

The setback from one station to none illustrates how far CNG has to go as a vehicle fuel. Even in Utqiaġvik, few vehicles apart from the BUECI fleet use locally produced CNG; drivers buy imported gasoline at the town’s lone service station operated by Eskimos, Inc.

CNG is a fuel still waiting for its time in the spotlight.

Barrow Utilities & Electric Cooperative, Inc. taps nearby natural gas fields to provide heat and power in Utqiaġvik.

Dimitra Lavrakas

sign on a post that says "Danger High Pressure Gas Line"
Early Adoption Stage
To fit inside a vehicle’s fuel tank, CNG is compressed to less than 1 percent of its room-temperature volume. Typical tank pressures of 3,000 to 3,600 pounds per square inch (psi) compare to household natural gas regulated to less than 1 psi. Even inside utility pipes, pressure is typically no more than 60 psi.

According to engine maker Cummins, about 175,000 vehicles in the United States use CNG, mostly for heavy- and medium-duty applications such as freight hauling.

A decade ago, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities reported a “handful” of cars and one school bus operated by the Municipality of Anchorage used CNG. (The report on alternative fuels lumped them with Toyota Priuses, when gas-electric hybrids were relatively rare.) It noted that an engineer in Palmer installed a CNG facility at his home and helped the Alaska Railroad convert three trucks.

However, the report found that, even when natural gas was plentiful across Southcentral, market concerns about retrofits and training limited CNG’s wider use. “Both public fleet managers and private residents are in an early adoption stage and have not reached the critical demand levels needed” to make CNG a common alternative, the report concluded.

That was also the view of industry expert Larry Persily, writing in 2011 (when he was the federal coordinator for marketing North Slope gas) that four roadblocks stand in the way of widespread CNG adoption. The vehicles cost more (although CNG itself is cheaper than the gasoline equivalent); CNG tanks occupy more trunk space; range is limited; and refueling options are sparse. “These barriers mean that converts to compressed natural gas vehicles for now likely will remain operators of diesel or gas-guzzling heavy-duty fleets—such as city or school buses, delivery or garbage trucks—whose vehicles can return to a central yard for refueling each day, or individuals with such deep commitment to curbing greenhouse gas emissions that they will spend the extra money required,” Persily wrote.

In the decade-plus since, little has changed—but some are still striving.

A Norgasco pickup truck burns CNG, and sister company Alaska CNG supplies tube trailers full of fuel to Great Bear Pantheon’s Alkaid No. 2 wellsite, where equipment is powered by gas associated with oil drilling or gas that is trucked in when drilling is idle.

Alaska CNG

pickup truck parked in front of tube trailers
Betting on Deadhorse
Alaska CNG, a sister company of North Slope utility Norgasco, is firmly established as a CNG distributor.

In 2022, Alaska CNG began delivering gas from Prudhoe Bay to a development wellsite along the Dalton Highway. Replacing diesel with CNG for power generation and well support operations provided a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

Alaska CNG uses high-pressure tube trailers towed by eighteen wheelers, the trucks themselves powered by CNG. Both Alaska CNG and Norgasco also use CNG to fuel their smaller vehicles.

“Moving CNG by tube trailers costs more than by pipeline but is still much cheaper than diesel. The tube trailers make sense until the demand is sufficient and permanent so it can justify a pipeline supply,” says Alaska CNG Chairman and CEO Ray Latchem. “Smaller vehicles are better.”

Latchem has been on the Slope since the ‘70s, so he knows what he’s talking about. He developed Norgasco in the ‘80s as Alaska’s third gas distribution company (after Enstar and BUECI). In the ‘90s, he developed Fairbanks Natural Gas, now part of borough-owned Interior Gas Utility. As part of that supply chain, Latchem built Alaska’s first small-scale plant for liquifying natural gas at Point McKenzie. After selling Fairbanks Natural Gas, he developed another small-scale plant in Arizona to serve customers in Arizona, California, and Mexico.

When Alaska CNG received its CNG-powered Kenworth T800 in 2022, the company aimed to be a model for other haulers by demonstrating how North Slope gas, mainly a byproduct of oil production, could be put to in-state use. Fortunately, a customer, Great Bear Pantheon, has a road-accessible drill site named Alkaid No. 2.

“Alkaid is 16 miles south of Prudhoe Bay,” Latchem says. “The oil they produced from well testing contains ‘associated gas’ that would normally be flared. Great Bear installed gas-fired turbine generators and used some of their produced gas as fuel when they were testing the well, and when they weren’t testing the well, they used CNG from Deadhorse.”

It was a good deal, he says. The price of natural gas has been consistently equivalent to $2.50 per gallon of gasoline for decades, while gasoline and diesel prices have fluctuated wildly. Further cost savings come from CNG’s naturally low nitrogen oxide emissions. New regulations for diesel engines require cutting those emissions by 90 percent, and the scrubbers to achieve that are expensive, but CNG engines don’t need them.

With those advantages, Latchem expects to grow Alaska CNG’s customer base beyond Great Bear Pantheon. “We hope to repeat it at the DOT’s [Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities] Sag River maintenance facility and camp about 100 miles south of Deadhorse, and also the Toolik Field Station 30 miles beyond Sag River Station.”

A pilot program CNG station was installed in 2019 at Conam Construction Company in Prudhoe Bay.

Alaska CNG

truck parked in front of a CNG station
“Moving CNG by tube trailers costs more than by pipeline but is still much cheaper than diesel. The tube trailers make sense until the demand is sufficient and permanent so it can justify a pipeline supply.”
Ray Latchem
Chairman and CEO, Alaska CNG
On the Bus
In addition to the technological switch, converting to CNG is a mental hurdle. Alaska CNG has heard from customers wary of trying a relatively new fuel. Truckers are accustomed to handling liquid fuels, but CNG takes getting used to. Obstacles to adoption include not just the startup costs of procuring new rolling stock but the lack of infrastructure along the road. Those factors could sufficiently explain why CNG is relegated to a niche fuel for fleets with central maintenance yards.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is completing a new transit facility for its bus fleet this spring, and CNG is part of the design. The borough received almost $2.5 million in 2022 from the Federal Transit Administration for CNG buses and vans through a low-and-no-emission grant program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

Air quality is the major draw for CNG in Fairbanks, given the city’s notorious particulate pollution. Borough Mayor Bryce Ward called the federal grant “a massive step in the right direction” for the conversion to environmentally friendly fuel alternatives. Additionally, using natural gas for transportation increases overall demand for the resource in the Fairbanks area, as Interior Gas Utility switches from trucking liquified natural gas from Point MacKenzie to sourcing gas from the North Slope instead.

“I am pleased that everything is coming together in great timing with the buildout of the borough’s new transit facility,” said Ward upon receiving the grant. Construction hit some snags with securing parts for the CNG refueling station, but the garage is on target for completion.

Ward says Fairbanks will start running the new buses this summer. And when they complete their routes, each day they’ll be refueled with compressed natural gas.