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FARMINGTON – In a move to utilize cleaner burning, locally sourced fuels, San Juan County on Thursday unveiled its first compressed natural gas-powered vehicle.

“We sit on an abundance of the resource,” County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said. “It sends a message that we support the industry in this area."

The county converted one of its Ford F-150 trucks to run on both gasoline and compressed natural gas, or CNG. Carpenter said the modifications cost about $9,500 and were funded through a grant from the Praxair industrial gas company. The county is pursuing additional grants and expects to have two more CNG-powered vehicles operational by August, Carpenter said.

Composed of methane stored at high pressure, CNG releases up to 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions when burned than traditional gasoline, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rick Nelson, parts and service director at Ziems Ford Corners, which converted the county's vehicle, said cars process CNG just like regular gas. Nelson said modifications simply involve installing a fuel system designed for vapors rather than liquids.

Finding a place to fill up, however, can prove more difficult.

Currently, the Bubble City Truck Stop, 3125 Bloomfield Highway, is the only gas station in the area that sells CNG. Owner James Tabet said the county's interested was a key element in his decision to sell the fuel. But aside from the fleet vehicles, Tabet said he has few other customers.

Similar situations pervade across the state. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, only 15 natural gas fueling stations exist in New Mexico.

"It’s kind of the chicken-and-egg scenario,” Tabet said.

Tabet said consumers don’t buy the fuel unless they own compatible vehicles, but they won't buy CNG-powered vehicles until the fuel becomes readily available.

“So we just had to jump in and do it,” he said.

Tabet said the county’s interest in CNG will hopefully promote the benefits of the fuel. Although CNG-powered vehicles are slightly less efficient, they can make up for it in fuel savings.

CNG currently costs $1.49 for an amount equivalent to a gallon of gasoline, and Tabet said prices will likely stay flat for the remainder of 2016. Because most CNG comes from wells within San Juan County, he said prices are less volatile than gasoline.

Carpenter said the county has looked into powering its fleet with alternative fuels for several years now, and strives to set an example for other organizations. He said New Mexico has fallen behind other states like Oklahoma and Texas, which have embraced CNG and saved millions of dollars in gasoline costs each year.

“Eventually, I’d like to see all the vehicles in our fleet converted,” he said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606. 

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