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Company predicts compressed natural gas growth, opens South Side station in Pittsburgh

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jennifer Pomerantz, CEO and Chairman of the Board of American Natural Inc., speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at the newly converted CNG fueling station outside of Station Square.

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By Timothy Puko
Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
 

Jennifer Pomerantz spent the past year convincing companies to run car and truck fleets on compressed natural gas.

Now she needs to convince the average consumer.

Her company is opening a newly branded American Natural fuel station in the South Side on Thursday, offering compressed natural gas, or CNG, and food along with gasoline and diesel. With more fleets converting to CNG, the American Natural store near Station Square is a high-profile spot to lure average drivers.

Its sign on East Carson Street likely will show CNG prices lower than $2 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, about half the price of gasoline. Because natural gas costs much less than oil, the company hopes this is the time to convince drivers to seek out rare CNG cars and fill stations.

“This center is about an opportunity, an opportunity to choose,” Pomerantz, the CEO of Cleopatra Resources, said when introducing the station to reporters on Tuesday. “Our view as a company is, the tipping point is actually here.”

It could be a daunting challenge, though.

More than 90 percent of the country's motor fuel comes from oil. Auto­makers won't mass-produce CNG-fueled cars unless customers know they have a place to fill them, but stations won't add CNG pipelines and pumps unless there are enough CNG cars on the road to justify the cost.

Only two dealerships in Western Pennsylvania sell CNG-fueled cars to the public. The region has about 40 stations offering CNG, said Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, a nonprofit that promotes alternative fuels.

“There's no consumer demand,” said David Amati, director of business development at the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association. “People might look at (American Natural) and say, ‘Wow, where can I get a car that runs on natural gas?' … It might create a little bit of interest and a little bit of buzz, but what can you do with it?

“You might want to buy one of those vehicles, but you can't buy them.”

State officials, who are trying to promote shale gas drilling, have tried to help with $9.6 million in grants. Some of that money will go toward building fueling stations, including a $372,300 grant and a $248,200 loan for the American Natural store.

Still, American Natural is hedging its bets. Only two of its eight pumps offer CNG; the rest, gasoline. Parent company Cleopatra owns 13 gasoline stations in the area.

“It's about fuel choice,” said Rob Mullin, a Hampton native who moved back to Pittsburgh from New York to be the company's executive vice president. “I'm a big believer in markets. I believe the price competitiveness of CNG is going to elicit an appropriate response.”

That could take more than 20 years, Amati said. It relies on automakers, fueling stations, mechanics, pipeline companies and even emergency responders updating simultaneously, Price said.

“We have to grow all of this together,” Price said. “We've gotta have the chicken and the egg.”

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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