Natural gas has been used to fuel motor vehicles since the 1930s, though never in great numbers. Today, the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition estimates that 130,000 NGVs (natural-gas vehicles) are on U.S. roads. Worldwide, the total is 2.5 million. Among currently available new cars, the Honda Civic GX sedan is the lone car to run on natural gas, and thousands are now in service.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) burns cleanly and has a high octane rating, so many claim it is an ideal vehicle fuel. Non-toxic, non-corrosive, and non-carcinogenic, it's the same gas used to heat homes. Most natural gas used in the United States comes from domestic gas and oil wells, and it is distributed by pipeline. Some is synthetic, produced at landfills.

These are among the best attributes of natural gas as a motor fuel:

For low emissions, there's nothing finer
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls the natural-gas Honda Civic the "world's cleanest internal-combustion vehicle," generating 90-percent cleaner emissions than the average gasoline-powered automobile. Natural-gas vehicles can emit 60 to 90 percent fewer smog-producing pollutants and 30 to 40 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. In some big cities, according to, emissions can actually be cleaner than the surrounding air. An average dedicated natural-gas vehicle emits about 70 percent less carbon monoxide and 87 percent less NOx (nitrogen oxides) than a gasoline-engine car.

We hear a lot about hydrogen as a power source, but that won't see significant use for years to come. CNG is here now. Chemically it's mainly methane but does contain small amounts of other substances, though not nearly as many as in gasoline or diesel fuel.

CNG costs less and is produced domestically
Traditionally, says, a natural-gas vehicle costs about 30 percent less to refuel than one running on gasoline. As gasoline prices have escalated, the cost of natural gas also tended to rise, but the difference between the two has grown, so natural gas is markedly cheaper. Nearly 87 percent of the natural gas used is produced domestically. Most of the rest comes from Canada, not from politically unstable countries. A 300,000-mile pipeline network sends gas into 48 states. Because natural gas is used to heat homes, it's readily available in virtually all parts of the country.

Drives like a regular car
Honda's Civic GX sedan, with an engine that runs on CNG, has been on sale since 1998. The GX's internal-combustion engine differs only in detail from Civics that run on gasoline, and the driving experience is nearly identical to that of a similar conventionally powered car. Close to half of Civic GX sedans are now sold to individuals in California and New York, but the model is available to fleets in every state. Growing popularity means the GX is sold out through 2008. For five years in a row, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy named the Civic GX the greenest vehicle on the road.

Tax credits help offset cost
The 2008 Civic GX costs $25,225, which is significantly higher than a similar gasoline Civic. However, buyers can get as much as $7,000 back in federal and state incentives: a $4,000 tax credit from the federal government and a $3,000 rebate from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). As this is written, California owners are still eligible for HOV (high-occupancy-vehicle) stickers, allowing use of special freeway lanes.

Bi-fuel vehicles expand range
Honda is currently the only manufacturer to offer a natural-gas car at dealerships, but many more vehicles use CNG. For years, conversion kits to modify conventional vehicles -- especially trucks -- to run on either natural gas or gasoline have been available.

CNG serves as stepping stone to hydrogen fuel cells
Because CNG is a gas rather than a liquid, it's a pathway toward the day when hydrogen is available for motor vehicles on a broad-market basis. A Honda spokesperson calls CNG "a learning experience" for hydrogen. In fact, right now natural gas is the substance used most commonly to produce hydrogen.

Home refueling possible
At least one company (FuelMaker) markets a personal natural-gas refueling station that allows one's car to be refueled in the privacy of one's own garage. More than 400 home refueling setups have been sold to California Honda owners. Connecting to regular residential natural gas service, the unit can be installed inside a garage or outdoors. Overnight fill-ups take place automatically after the vehicle is attached to the unit. As a bonus, refueling unit buyers get an extra $1,000 tax credit.

CNG safer than gasoline in an accident
Because it's a gas that is lighter than air, in an accident CNG is likely to dissipate very rapidly into the surrounding air. Gasoline, in contrast, spreads dangerously in liquid form, spewzing from a ruptured tank and creating a serious fire risk.


That's half the story. Here's the other:

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