The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 24, 2013

Pa. helping businesses convert to natural gas

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has already spent at least $3.65 million to help businesses convert trucks and buses to natural gas fuel. The Act 13 natural gas impact fee law passed in 2012 includes another $20 million to do the same thing.

Now, the state House has approved another $55 million in tax credits to convince businesses and mass transit agencies to switch to natural gas.

While the state has been helping businesses, there is little push to help the general public make the switch to natural gas, despite the fact that the fuel is about half the cost of gasoline.

And a Cambria County lawmaker thinks there has been too little direct attention paid toward establishing stations that sell natural gas.

The federal Alternative Fuel Data Center lists 18 natural gas stations in Pennsylvania. That is half the number of natural gas stations in New York, which still does not allow fracking, the controversial process used to extract natural gas from the ground. California has the most natural gas stations with 162. There are 578 compressed natural gas stations in the country.

Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, tried unsuccessfully to get the state to triple the amount available in tax credits for those who invest in establishing natural gas stations.

A package of bills passed by the state House last week included $5 million in tax credits to encourage gas stations to begin selling compressed natural gas. The legislation provides funding for 10 $500,000 tax credits.

Barbin had proposed boosting the amount available for tax credits by $10 million – enough to encourage another 20 projects.

Barbin’s amendment was voted down along party lines. The House then voted in favor of the legislation that would provide the tax credits for 10 gas stations.

The same package of bills included $55 million in tax credits to reward bus companies and others who set up commercial fleets using natural gas as fuel.

Barbin said that the move makes no sense.

“They are doing the wrong thing first,” Barbin said.

Barbin said the state would have been better off to levy more of a tax on natural gas drilling. That money could have been used to spur the expansion of natural gas fueling stations early on. Instead, the state didn’t act quickly enough and natural gas prices plummeted as Marcellus drilling helped supply far outstripped demand.

“They should not be picking winners and losers,” Barbin said.

In 2011, the state announced that an Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program had provided $3.65 million for natural gas-fueled buses, trucks and natural gas fueling stations. A separate $10 million round of funding through that same grant program will be used later this year to help pay for more alternative fuel vehicles for local municipalities and school districts.

On top of that, Act 13, the gas impact fee law, provides $20 million to help pay for natural gas vehicles in commercial fleets.

The first round of funding from that Act 13 pot, totaling $10 million, will be announced in the next few weeks, said Lynda Rebarchack, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Almost 50 companies have applied for a share of that money, she said. Three companies in Somerset and Cambria counties are among those trying to get some of the Act 13 dollars.

Burgmeier Hauling is seeking funding to help buy 12 natural gas-powered garbage trucks that will operate in Somerset, Cambria and nearby counties.

McAneny Bros., a wholesale food distributor in Cambria County, is seeking help to buy eight trucks and install a natural gas filling station.

W.C. McQuaide, a trucking company in Cambria County, is seeking state money to help buy 80 natural gas trucks and install natural gas pumping stations at its two terminals.

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, said that by helping companies convert their fleets to natural gas, the state helps establish foundational customers for natural gas. That way, gas station operators may determine that there are large business customers that will use natural gas, and then add pumps that provide the fuel.

“As we expand, it will become more affordable for individual motorists, but until the network is together, it would be difficult for an individual because you would need to be cognizant of where you are going and where you can fill up,” Gibbons said.

Commercial trucks that use set routes will have an easier time knowing where the natural gas stations are, he said.

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