Sustainable America Blog

Major U.S. Railway May Ditch Diesel

BNSF locomotive

Photo Credit: SP8254 via Compfight cc

In yet another sign that natural gas is gaining steam as a transportation fuel, one of America’s biggest railroads, BNSF Railway Co., is undertaking a pilot program that will test the feasibility of using natural gas to fuel its locomotives.

Currently powered by diesel, the railroad, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, hauls agricultural commodities, crude oil and coal over a network covering 32,500 miles in 28 states and two Canadian provinces. In the U.S., only the Navy uses more diesel, according to company estimates.

BNSF is working with locomotive manufacturers GE and Caterpillar to develop the engine technology. The railroad will need to get federal approval for fuel-tank safety and invest in natural gas fueling depots, special cars to carry the fuel, and training for workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. But the long-term cost savings of natural gas should outweigh the substantial investment it will take to convert the company’s 6,900 locomotives, according to industry experts. The company may also be motivated to make the switch by new federal air-pollution standards that will be enforced two years from now.

“The use of liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel is a potential transformational change for our railroad and for our industry,” said Matthew K. Rose, BNSF chairman and CEO. “While there are daunting technical and regulatory challenges still to be faced, this pilot project is an important first step that will allow BNSF to evaluate the technical and economic viability of the use of liquefied natural gas in through-freight service, potentially reducing fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby providing environmental and energy security benefits to our nation.”

Thanks to new technology that is making natural gas more abundant and cheap compared to gasoline, we’re seeing more and more interest in using it as a transportation fuel, from government fleets of garbage trucks and buses to airlines. Its low cost is ultimately what will sell large fuel users like BNSF on investing in converting to natural gas fuel sources. “When you get natural gas, you know, at $3.50 and you look where oil is,” said Buffett in an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, “you’ve got to look at converting any kind of an engine to natural gas.”

We at Sustainable America support BNSF’s initiative to explore switching from oil-based fuel to natural gas, which helps eliminate the volatility of foreign oil. Natural gas produces 20 to 30 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline or diesel and increased usage will help American get closer to energy independence. We’re hoping this project leads the way for a larger movement to develop technologies that make alternative fuels more realistic for a variety of vehicles and industries.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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