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A new source of power

As the issue of reducing natural gas flaring at oil well sites in western North Dakota has become a hot topic of late, one major hauler of Bakken crude is looking at the possibility of using natural gas for fuel.

Railroad giant BNSF -- which has a large presence in North Dakota -- announced this week that it will "begin testing a small number of locomotives using liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative fuel" in an experimental pilot program later this year.

A major logistical presence in the Bakken play, BNSF locomotives run on diesel fuel -- the company is one of the larger U.S. consumers of diesel -- but there's a chance that could change and it could cause a shift in how Americans use oil.

"The use of liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel is a potential transformational change for our railroad and for our industry," BNSF CEO Matthew Rose said in a statement. "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 (LNG) in through-freight service."

Mass flaring of natural gas has been occurring in the Bakken for several years, largely because companies have had no infrastructure in place to transport it, although pipelines are being constructed. Satellite pictures from space in recent years have shown that sparsely populated northwest North Dakota is illuminated almost as much as major U.S. cities, such as Chicago, partly from natural gas flaring.

Flaring popped up as an issue during the 2013 North Dakota leislative session.

"We don't know enough about using natural gas to fuel locomotives yet," said Bob Moffitt of the Clean Cities Coalition, a program run through the U.S. Department of Energy with the goal of building partnerships to reduce petroleum use in transportation. "But we do know that in road vehicles, natural gas produces significantly less greenhouse gases, particulates and overall pollution. The reduction really is significant."

BNSF -- the largest railroad company in the U.S. -- has been working with its two principal locomotive manufacturers, General Electric and Electro-Motive Diesel, an arm of Caterpillar, to develop the natural gas engine technology that will be used for its new pilot program, according to the company's release. If all goes as planned, the pilot project could begin this fall with possible retrofitting of trains to follow.

"We are certainly seeing throughout the upper Midwest more fleets that are looking at compressed natural gas and there are some retailers that are adding natural gas to their list of prducts," Moffitt said. "Kwik Trip in Wisconsin has started adding natural gas to several of its stations and that's branching out into other states. There is a lot of interest in the area of using natural gas as a transportation fuel."

Besides being better for the environment, natural gas is also much cheaper now on the open market than diesel, which has a national average of $4.13 per gallon.

BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said larger locomotives can hold up to 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The idea, however, is not new -- the former Burlington Northern railroad used natural gas locomotives in the 1980s and 1990s. In its release, BNSF noted that "improved economics make the use of natural gas in long-haul service more operationally feasible today." The company also said "significant regulatory challenges" need to be addressed.

"The changed market for natural gas in the U.S. is a critical part of our decision to explore it as a locomotive fuel," Rose said. "We will be working with the equipment manufacturers, the various regulatory agencies and government officials to address the necessary actions to accomplish this."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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