Driving toward change

Post Falls considers converting some city vehicles to natural gas

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Kyle Rickard, a City of Post Falls employee, replace the gas pump handle after filling one of the fleet vehicle for the city Thursday. Rising gas prices have prompted the City of Post Falls to consider natural gas options for their fleet vehicles.

POST FALLS - The only relief gas is giving people these days is from old habits.

Prices - which averaged $3.23 per gallon in Coeur d'Alene and $3.26 in Post Falls on Thursday - are causing changes in family and business routines.

They have the city of Post Falls exploring converting some of its larger vehicles from diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG) and setting up North Idaho's first CNG station in cooperation with Avista Utilities at its public works site.

"We're in the early stages of looking into the incentives of doing it," City Administrator Eric Keck said. "Outside Idaho, a lot of cities are going to CNG. One of our initiatives is to be sustainable."

Keck said the city is looking into the conversion costs and if buying new natural gas-powered vehicles in the future pencils out.

As of Jan. 30 - a quarter of the way through the fiscal year - Post Falls' street department had used 45 percent of its fuel budget and police 28 percent.

Avista's Dan Kolbet said the price of natural gas is roughly half of regular gas. He calls the CNG market "ripe."

"This is potentially the wave of the future, so we want to make sure we're prepared if and when folks in our service territory want it," Kolbet said.

Kolbet said Avista currently doesn't have any CNG stations - the closest are in Seattle and Montana - but it provides natural gas to a transit agency in Medford, Ore.

"We're trying to gauge the interest and viability for municipalities," he said.

Local gas prices have jumped nearly 30 cents from a month ago.

Dave Carlson, AAA Idaho spokesman, said he wouldn't be surprised if the climb continues a bit more, but the end should be in sight.

"The potential for disruptions on a broader North Africa and Middle East scenario could go anywhere," he said. "That said, there's plenty of evidence to suggest strong inventories in gas and oil in the U.S. do not put us at immediate risk of shortages."

He said that Tom Kloza, from the Oil Price Information Service, the company that provides AAA with gas price data, said this week that if oil and gas markets froze now, we could still expect to see another increase of 10 to 15 cents based on the switchover to more expensive summer-grade fuels.

But Carlson said there are signs of hope for the rise to stop.

"Market speculation continues to push prices higher and faster than expected, but oil has dropped two days in a row, along with lower gasoline futures prices," he said.

Carlson said talk of prices reaching $4 to $5 seems far-fetched.

"Those who suggest (such prices) likely represent a position where such action would be beneficial," he said. "Cooler heads may prevail, and analysts suggest the biggest increases we'll see may already be in place."

Susan Bensen, who filled up in Post Falls on Thursday, said the prices have prompted her to think about how her family can tighten its belt.

She said the family planned on going to the Seattle area for spring break, but the trip will likely be postponed if prices don't drop.

"It's made us think about consolidating errands a lot more and not running around as much," she said. "I just wish spring would get here so we could start bicycling to some places."

Post Falls' Julie Hunt said her family bought a Subaru last year when their teens started driving as a more economic option to larger vehicles.

"When we can, we use it to drive to practice or to tournaments and often use it just to run errands," she said. "We still have lots of places to go, but it doesn't cost quite as much to fill up.

"Unfortunately, life doesn't stop just because gas prices increase. We have a truck and a Suburban, both necessary to haul (kids) and gear around to various activities."

Spirit Lake Police Chief Patrick Lawless said his department is keeping a closer eye on idle time and mileage.

"If there is down time when the officers are not mobile such as sitting stationary monitoring traffic, they will turn the engine off," Lawless said. "If the price reaches as high as some are predicting, I will start to consolidate how many times we make trips to town for department business."

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