Natural Gas: The Industry that Could Save America?

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Will the natural gas industry save America? Perhaps, but not so fast and hence the question mark added to the title. Some would argue that natural gas vehicles are far more efficient and environmentally friendly than electric and petroleum gas vehicles, but not as sexy as electric and the availability is certainly not as convenient as gasoline.
 
For instance, electric cars are defined as "zero emissions" vehicles, however, that doesn't account for the environmental impact of battery production and replacement, or the generation of the power at its source. Needless to say, with some 100,000 gasoline stations throughout the country they are readily accessible. As of now, according to a recent article, there are in excess of 1,000 natural gas fueling stations, but those are primarily associated with public transportation (e.g., city buses and fleet vehicles) and are not accessible to most of the driving public.
 
The technology for natural gas vehicles has been around for well over 20 years, but the technology has not caught on as of yet. A sustained spread of several dollars a gallon (or its equivalent in natural gas) would certainly incentivize the public and investors to pursue the technology. The unresolved environmental and political controversies involving Marcellus Shale and fracking continue to cloud the discussion involving natural gas, albeit much of the natural gas supply does not involve Marcellus Shale or fracking. Moreover, the existing spread is apparently not sufficient enough to overcome lack of inertia to widely introduce the technology to the traveling public.
 
So what would it take to create that inertia?
Perhaps tax or other financial incentives, including the substantial differences in price between gasoline and natural gas. The article posits that we will have that opportunity in the future and will need to seek approval for and start building thousands of natural gas fueling stations.
 
So what will that take?
The most obvious location for natural gas fueling stations would be to add a natural gas pump as an element of existing gasoline stations, assuming the existing stations had sufficient room to accommodate them. Perhaps one day we will also see standalone natural gas refueling stations.
 
What local approvals would be required?
That depends largely on the local ordinance and the interpretation or application of the ordinances by local officials. Are the existing ordinances for service stations broad enough to accommodate natural gas fueling? If not, a use variance would be required. Many gas stations already accommodate propane fueling tanks. Would an expansion or retrofitting of the gas station necessitate a site plan approval? In many cases, yes. Indeed, given the nature of land use in New Jersey, notably with each of the 566 municipalities having its own zoning ordinances, each with various zoning districts, permitted and prohibited uses, bulk requirements and design standards, as well as the unique zoning history applicable to each site, careful review of the zoning ordinances and zoning history is critical should this technology have the opportunity to take off in New Jersey.
 
Many more questions remain as to deployment of the technology, but much like the industry the conversation is in its infancy.
 
Gary Forshner is a Shareholder in Stark & Stark’s Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use Group in the  Lawrenceville, New Jersey office. For questions, please contact Mr. Forshner.
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