Road trip champions compressed natural gas as alternative to gasoline

If someone said you could drive to downtown Birmingham and get fuel for $1.37 a gallon, would you?

“Of course you would,” said Mark McConville, one of two men taking a 2,400-mile road trip along Route 66 to prove the benefits of compressed natural gas (CNG) over gasoline.

McConville and partner Keith Barfield plan to drive 10 days in a 1966 Pontiac GTO from Santa Monica, Calif. to Chicago’s Navy Pier. They’ll leave June 26 and hope to complete their “Drive to Inspire” by July 4.

“What we’re trying to do is have a grassroots awakening that America needs to get off dependence on foreign oil,” Barfield said.

The duo found their interest peaked by CNG when gas prices soared two years ago.

McConville owns Airport Express, a company that shuttles passengers from Birmingham to the Atlanta Airport. When gas reached $4, McConville knew he had to find an alternative.

CNG sold for almost four times less than gasoline at the time, which sparked McConville to scour available research.

McConville cut $30 a trip by switching his company’s vans to CNG. The fuel currently sells for $1.37 a gallon at the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority, Alabama’s only CNG filling station.

Switching to CNG usage isn’t without cost.

Converting required McConville to travel twice to California to pick up vans for his business. Having conversion kits installed on vehicles also adds thousands to vehicle costs and many mechanics remain in the dark about how to work on vehicles running on CNG.

Barfield and McConville remain adamant, however, that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Barfield found himself engrossed by an energy plan proposed by T. Boone Pickens in July 2008. The plan encouraged America to enhance its use of oil-alternatives such as natural gas, wind power and solar energy.

Seventy percent of the oil Americans consume is currently imported.

“We’ve become addicted to gas,” Barfield said. “It’s so easy to continue to fill up anywhere you want. But America is suffering.”

The men said switching to CNG would also create an economic boon through job creation. Filling stations would need to be built, maintained and operated. And factories would pop up or enlarge in order to manufacture the cars, Barfield said.

McConville said plants already manufacture 51 various models of CNG cars, yet only one model – a Honda – is available in the U.S. While there are 8 million cars running on CNG in the world, there are only 120,000 in this country. McConville owns two of them.

He said companies within America currently possess a 200-year supply of natural gas. He said many companies have even considered capping wells from a lack of demand.

“The whole world knows about this, but we don’t,” Barfield said.

Both men understand a multitude of barriers stand in the way. Many people believe natural gas could be dangerous to drill for or even to put to use.

McConville said containers are filled to less than one half of their available capacity. He said they are also protected with carbon-fiber wraps. He also said numerous tests show methane is lighter than air, and because compressed natural gas is methane, it dissipates in a crash because there is no oxygen to cause it to combust. McConville also feels he’s being a better steward of the environment since CNG is one part carbon, while gasoline involves eight parts carbon.

Even though the topic of alternative fuels can get heavy, Barfield and McConville said using a muscle car that once guzzled gas as a means of efficient travel was the perfect contrast. They said they wanted to once again capture America’s imagination of what is possible.

“It’s so representative of the dream we lost in America,” Barfield said. “It’s a way of us reclaiming that fun, but in an energy efficient way.”

Barfield said if Americans paid $8 a gallon like Europeans do they’d be scrambling for alternatives such as CNG.

To discover more about the effort, visit Route66goatgas.com. To see videos from the conversion of McConville’s GTO visit Youtube.com and search for Marks66gto.