Report: Natural Gas to Replace Diesel as Marine Cargo Vessel Fuel

Oct 14, 2014

35 million tons of freight passed through Pittsburgh's waterways in 2012.
Credit Flickr user KordIte

As the natural gas boom continues across Pennsylvania and the rest of the country, producers are looking for new markets for their products.

A recent study commissioned by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an industry trade group, identified opportunities for the use of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to power cargo vessels on the nation’s waterways and railroads.

Amy Farrell, vice president of market development at ANGA, said they are anticipating a seven-fold increase in the use of LNG to power marine vessels on the nation’s inland waterways, on the Great Lakes, and in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It showed that in the next 15 years there can be a significant growth in LNG use actually projecting a billion gallons of LNG per year by 2029,” Farrell said.

More than 35 million tons of coal, gasoline and other commodities moved through the Port of Pittsburgh's locks and dams in 2012. According to the ANGA study, those vessels burned between 1 million and 5 million mmBtu of fuel annually. Each mmBtu is equal to one thousand cubic feet of fuel.

Currently, most cargo vessels rely on diesel fuel, which Farrell said is more expensive than natural gas.

“The conservative estimates … in the report that we just released were about a dollar per gallon difference,” Farrell said. “When you add that up for the amount of gallons that are used in these high horsepower applications, it can really be a significant amount.”

Farrell also said a switch to natural gas would reduce overall emissions. A press release touting the ANGA report pointed to a study released this year by the United States Maritime Administration as evidence. Indeed, researchers did find that natural gas powered vessels have the potential to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, particulate matter and sulfur oxides.

However, the study also found that the total energy used “is higher in the natural gas scenarios, as is the amount of CH4 (methane), N2O (nitrous oxide), and NOx (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) produced.” Additionally, the authors noted that diesel use in inland river scenarios resulted in less overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in some cases but in more GHG emissions in others.

Environmental considerations aside, ANGA and other industry groups are looking forward to a future when many marine vessels will be powered by natural gas. But, Farrell said, there is a lot of work to be done first.

“There are the practical things that have to happen in terms of converting vessels and putting fuel on board and some of the modifications,” Farrell said. “Then there are the policy type changes that have to be made in terms of having regulations in place so that people can actually use LNG and natural gas in operations.”

One of the groups currently working on those issues is the Clean Fuels Clean Rivers consortium, a group looking to build a natural gas marine corridor from Morgantown, W.Va. through Pennsylvania and down the Ohio River to Huntington, W.Va.

“We’ve found when you have local government or economic groups working together to promote an idea like this and kick off a pilot, that’s a great way to increase the speed of adoption,” Farrell said.

The findings of the ANGA study are to be discussed at the 2014 Penn State Natural Gas Utilization Conference in Canonsburg Tuesday and Wednesday. Industry groups will also explore the role of natural gas electricity generation and manufacturing.