Howard Keeling walks to the front of a school bus, pulls a hose from a nearby canopy to a valve below the vehicle's yellow hood, then tops its tank with compressed natural gas.
It's not much different than filling up with gasoline, but it's worth more than $18,000 a year to Keeling's school district, when multiplied for a 65-bus fleet.
Garland, the Dallas suburb where Keeling is vehicle maintenance supervisor for the school district, is a model for efforts across Texas to convert public transportation to cleaner, cheaper natural gas fuel.
If some industry and public officials have their way, it might be a model for the country.
Natural gas is used in at least five states in experimental programs or to power government vehicles. In Canada, thousands of trucks, buses and personal cars are powered by CNG.
Fill Up at Home
About 50 service stations in British Columbia have natural gas pumps. Eventually, motorists should be able to fill up at home with compressors that tap into home gas lines.
"I think this is the wave of the future," said Mike Bailey, executive vice president of the American Gas Assn. in Washington. "Any clean-air bill to come out of here will have to have a natural gas and alternative fuel use stipulation in it."
Garland began using CNG in school buses six years ago, spending $240,000 to convert the engines and set up fueling pumps.
At the time, gasoline cost $1.10 to $1.20 a gallon and was rising, but the equivalent in CNG cost 60 cents to 70 cents, said John Douglas, school district transportation director.
In the first year, the district saved $18,000 in fuel costs alone and slashed bus maintenance expenses because natural gas burns more cleanly than gasoline.
The Garland buses now run on CNG 90% of the time. Gasoline is used for trips that extend beyond the 100-mile capacity of the buses' CNG tanks.
Other school districts in Texas with 50 buses or more soon may be making the same conversions, which would be required under a bill passed by the Texas Legislature this session. The measure is awaiting Gov. Bill Clements' signature.
A second bill would require use of an alternative fuel in 21 Texas counties where the air does not meet purity standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The bill also levies a surcharge against utility and industrial boilers in those counties for using fuel oil between April 15 and Oct. 15, the period most prone to formation of health-threatening, ground-level ozone.
"This legislation gives Texas the strongest alternative-fuels program in the United States and makes our Clean Air Act second only to California's," Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro said when the school bus measure passed in the House.
The measures reflect an attempt by Texas--identified in three recent national studies as the No. 1 air polluter among states--to attack its problems.
But it's also an attempt to mold national energy policy to the economic benefit of Texas and its gas industry.
Mauro, who as land commissioner oversees production from 14,000 oil and gas wells in the state, has been shuttling between Washington and Austin for more than a year with the message, "If we're going to clean up the air, we're going to have to go to alternative fuels."
Proposals to use alternative transportation fuels aren't new to Washington. But they have re-emerged as a hot issue, partly because tougher EPA emission standards take effect in 1991, concern is rising over global warming from car exhaust, and President Bush is proposing changes in the Clean Air Act.
Methanol, ethanol and natural gas all burn more cleanly than gasoline and coal. Natural gas is cleanest.
The Texas legislation does not specify which alternative fuel should be used, but with one-third of the nation's natural gas supply buried under Texas, it is probable that CNG will be the most popular choice.
Turning Economy Around
If so, gas industry officials and politicians say, CNG could turn around a state economy soured by depressed oil prices.
"Natural gas is a logical cornerstone of a realistic national energy policy and the obvious key to economic revitalization in Texas and other producing states," Mauro wrote in a Land Office publication.
But the revitalization hinges on demand for natural gas.
"There's no market out there," said Mauro's press secretary, Andy Mangan. "There's a lot of gas wells that are already drilled just sitting there because there's no market or the prices are so low it's not worth it (to drill for gas)."
However, a recent report released by Texas Railroad Commissioner John Sharp said the percentage of U.S. drilling rigs used for gas is at an all-time high of 46%, versus 33% a year ago.