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EPA OK with cheaper alternative fuel vehicle conversions?

Published: Saturday, Oct. 2 2010 11:16 p.m. MDT

Fran Georgiades, left, learns about installing a compressed natural gas system in her car from Andres Benitez.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

SANDY — A company called CNG Solutions says a new state law will allow it to bypass federal regulatory red tape and convert vehicles to run on natural gas for around $4,500 to $5,000 — that's about half the traditional cost.

But the Utah Division of Air Quality says the new state law does not push aside EPA requirements that currently make such conversions much more expensive, even though both the state and the company acknowledge the EPA is discussing rule changes.

Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell was on hand for a ribbon-cutting at CNG Solutions' Sandy headquarters Tuesday morning, speaking about the well-known environmental benefits involved in converting vehicles to run on compressed natural gas. Natural gas is an economical motor fuel, costing the equivalent of $1.53 per gallon. Tailpipe emissions are significantly lower compared to cars that run on gasoline, and the fuel comes out of the ground in Utah, freeing users from dependence on foreign oil. Compressed natural gas, or CNG, has been popular for years with fleet vehicles that spend enough time on the road for the fuel savings to overtake the conversion costs.

CNG Solutions President Eddie Catalina believes HB70, passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year, gives companies like his license to convert just about any car so it can run on gasoline or compressed natural gas. That means conversion kit manufacturers can sell more kits at lower prices, which benefits consumers.

EPA-certified kits are approved for use on specific engines, limiting the number of cars that are eligible for EPA-certified conversions, Catalina said, where the hardware he is importing from Argentina can be used on most four-, six- or eight-cylinder engines.

But EPA-certified conversions also qualify for federal and state tax credits that can offset higher conversion costs. Utah's HB70 acknowledges a credit of up to $2,500 if the conversion meets "federal clean-fuel vehicle standards in the federal Clean Air Act."

EPA representatives in Denver were interested in the way the new Utah law is being interpreted.

"If the EPA enforcement officers were ever to do a crackdown on (CNG) certifications in Utah, if they went into CNG Solutions and said 'How many vehicles have you converted? How many of them are EPA certified?' If the answer was 'none,' the EPA could end up fining CNG Solutions quite a bit of money," said Mat Carlile, environmental planning consultant with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Catalina said he anticipates the EPA rule change could take effect as soon as this month.

Carlile believes the timing and certainty of a federal regulatory change are unknown. "The EPA hasn't come in and done anything on it. That's the biggest issue I see right now."

A statement on the EPA's website reads: "EPA is proposing to amend the current alternative fuel conversion regulations. The proposed changes would clarify and streamline the compliance process for manufacturers of alternative fuel conversion systems, while maintaining strong environmental safeguards. In addition, new compliance options would become available to many converters under the proposed approach."

CNG understands from the state's fleet manager, and other Utah officials, that it has the go-ahead to convert engines as long as they meet the standards of HB70.

e-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

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