OK state workers worry over natural gas vehicles

By Arthur Kane | Watchdog.org

Some Oklahoma state employees are concerned their new compressed natural gas vehicles will be difficult to fill up, won’t have enough room for needed equipment and might even explode, emails obtained by Watchdog.org show.

But records and interviews show Oklahoma’s program to convert most state vehicles from gasoline to natural gas has been better managed than a similar program in Colorado — Oklahoma’s partner in the effort.

Watchdog.org stories broke how some Colorado agencies are forced to buy CNG vehicles when they can’t find the fuel nearby, how the vehicles don’t fit the needs of some employees, how less than a third of the fuel used in the vehicles is CNG and how the state is spending $30 million to get private businesses to build CNG pumps and buy CNG vehicles. In Oklahoma, about 50 percent of the fuel in CNG vehicles is CNG, state officials said.

GASLESS COUNTRY: Cngnow.com shows most Colorado CNG stations are in urban areas near Interstates, making it difficult to use the alternate fuel vehicles in outlying parts of the state.

“I’ve heard of issues in Colorado,” said John Estus, spokesman for the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which oversees many but not all CNG state vehicles. “There is never a problem finding CNG in Oklahoma, and we have very extensive conversations with agencies before they purchase CNG vehicles.”

Estus said agencies must first prove they can use CNG vehicles, and the more expensive cars and trucks will be cost-effective for taxpayers because of cheaper CNG fuel costs and higher resale value. In contrast, memos show Colorado fleet managers — and even the governor’s chief of staff — pushed quotas on CNG purchases even when departments complained the vehicles were not practical for their uses or locations.

Open records responses for most Oklahoma agencies could find no complaints about CNG, but the Oklahoma Department of Transportation released about 10,000 pages of emails — most discussing logistics, purchasing and public relations promoting the Oklahoma CNG purchases. A few employees also praised or requested CNG vehicles, but some ODOT employees had issues with them — the most serious focusing on the danger of CNG leaks and explosions.

Oklahoma state agencies have 543 CNG vehicles at a cost of more than $16.3 million, state records show. The estimate statewide was they’ve saved about $1 million in fuel costs. Estus said his department is not responsible for overseeing CNG policies for ODOT and a few other state agencies, so he could not comment on whether they have different policies.

Last year, ODOT staff issued a warning to CNG vehicle users, telling them not to park the vehicles indoors because, as gasoline puddles when it leaks, CNG drifts into the room.

“It’s very important that everyone is aware of the dangers of parking a CNG vehicle inside a facility that is not equipped to accommodate them,” the warning said.

ODOT workers joked about the dangers in an email exchange: “It will be the responsibility of the last one here each morning to go out and strike a match to check for leaks. Safety first!” Brendan Blansett, an ODOT employee, wrote last year.

“KABOOM !” wrote Larry Reser, another ODOT employee. Their job titles were not in the emails.

Along with the possible dangers, ODOT employees expressed concerns the vehicles did not fit equipment they need for their jobs.

GAS PROPONENT: Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin joined with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to lead the push for states to convert their fleets to natural gas vehicles

“Unfortunately, the Governor has told us that we will not purchase any vehicles that are not CNG, since she and 21 other governors told the automakers, ‘if (you) will build them, we will buy them!’ So, right now, purchasing anything other than CNG is not permissible,” Reser wrote in April 2013. “Now, I do know that they purchased pickups with ‘long’ beds. I didn’t understand why until I saw the size of the CNG tank, which as you said, takes up almost, if not, half the bed.”

Ronald D. Seim, professional land surveyor, responded with the same concern. “I have seen the new CNG pickups,” he wrote. “The ¾ ton, crew cab and the 4 wheel drive is great but half of the 8′ bed is taken up by CNG tanks. There is not enough room for the survey equipment.”

Casey Shell, chief engineer, said CNG vehicles are as safe or safer than gasoline because CNG has a higher flash point.

He conceded it’s Fallin’s energy policy that’s driving Oklahoma’s conversion of vehicles to CNG, but there are no political motives.

“It’s not at all to benefit CNG companies,” he said in a phone interview. “It make sense as the fuel is locally produced, affordable and friendly to the environment.”

Unlike the memos from Colorado, ODOT records show staff did provide waivers to several employees who thought the vehicles would not work with their job duties.

Shell said there were about a half-dozen request for waivers, and he approved about half that he deemed appropriate.

“Once again, I ask you to consider CNG for this application, but are hereby approving your waiver request,” Shell wrote to a state employee who said the truck would not work for his job.

That is in stark contrast to what happened in Colorado when a Department of Natural Resources staffer asked for an exemption from buying CNG trucks for law enforcement wildlife officers because they couldn’t get ATVs into the pickup. Colorado Fleet Manager Ron Clatterbuck refused to accommodate the request.

“With less space available in the bed, it is more of an inconvenience than it is something that would prevent them from doing their jobs,” he wrote. “The point is not to find ways to ‘get away’ from buying a CNG bi-fuel vehicle, but to find ways to buy more and make them work.”

Many Colorado DNR complaints were about finding places outside the interstate corridors to fuel up. In Oklahoma, CNG stations are scattered around the state, but employees were also concerned whether the lower fuel costs would offset the higher expenses.

“It is ALL politically driven,” wrote Kevin S. Bloss, Oklahoma state maintenance engineer in July 2012. “We’re purchasing 140 3/4 ton CNG pickups this FY. Soon I hope. Fuel is about $2.00 per gallon cheaper, so we should save in fuel costs. The down side is that we’ll end up paying about $10,000 more per truck than we would have with regular fuel 1/2 ton pickups. The math: savings around $300,000 per year in fuel. Original purchase price $1,400,000 more. So it will take 5 years to see a return on investment………maybe.”

CNGnow.com

GAS COUNTRY: Cngnow.com shows CNG stations scattered all across Oklahoma.

Another employee complained about the extra time he spends finding a filling station.

“JUST TO LET YOU KNOW WE LOOSE (sic) 1 HOUR OF WORK TIME EVERY DAY TO GO FILL THIS DAMN TRUCK UP WITH CNG,” Siem wrote in May.

ODOT spokesman Cody Boyd admitted to some growing pains, but the state is working hard to allay any concerns.

“Any major operating change is going to bring issues and complaints,” he wrote in an email statement. “However we feel that those are being addressed and resolved, especially when considering this is a long-term investment for the state. Like any other employee concerns with our fleet, these issues are addressed by supervisors and do not appear to be pervasive.”

Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration spokeswoman Sabrina D’Agosta said Colorado is willing to look at better ways of managing its CNG fleet.

“Our fleet managers would be happy to look” at changing vehicle locations, she said. “We don’t want vehicles out there that can’t do the job, that aren’t capable of doing what they need to do.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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