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Trains Using Natural Gas Instead Of Diesel

Canadian National Railway (CN) exploring use of cheap and relatively clean natural gas instead of diesel to cut emissions, includes investment in fuel delivery

Posted on November 5, 2012

CN has retrofitted two of its existing diesel-fired locomotives to run mainly on natural gas. The company is testing the locomotives along the 480 km stretch between Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, a key energy processing and pipeline hub, and the oil sands epicenter of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Longer term, CN and three other partners are exploring the development of an all-new natural gas locomotive engine as well as a specialized tank car to carry the fuel. Natural gas giant Encana Corp. (TSX:ECA) is providing the fuelling, which, along with maintenance, will be taking place in Edmonton.

Energy Conversion Inc., the U.S. company that is supplying the conversion kits to CN, said the move will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 70% over a locomotive duty cycle.

"Natural gas has a lower carbon content compared with diesel fuel, so that locomotives using natural gas — if the railway technology employing this form of energy ultimately proves viable — would produce significantly fewer carbon dioxide emissions," said Keith Creel, CN chief operating officer.

Railcars currently carry machinery and construction materials up to the oil sands, and extraction byproducts such as petroleum coke and sulfur south. Natural gas is currently cheap and plentiful in North America, so there are likely cost benefits to the railway as well, though a CN spokesman said it's too early quantify what the impact might be. 

CN said it already uses nearly 15% less fuel than the industry average. For the longer-term project, CN is working with Caterpillar Co. subsidiary Electro-Motive Diesel; green engine-maker Westport Innovations Inc. (TSX:WPT); and Quebec gas distributor Gaz Metro. The group expects to test the new engines in a laboratory in 2013 and field test the prototypes in 2014.

Over the past several years, technological advances have unleashed huge volumes of natural gas from shale formations across North America. A major supply glut has resulted, leading to depressed prices.

Some companies, including Encana, have been pushing for cheap, plentiful natural gas to be used as a transportation fuel. Proponents see industrial trucking and public transit fleets being the first to adopt the technology, rather than everyday consumers.

CanElson Drilling Inc. (TSX:CDI) and SaskEnergy, a Crown corporation of the Saskatchewan government, announced they are teaming up to develop a high-capacity, compressed-gas transfer operation in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Under the agreement, CanElson's CanGas subsidiary will work with SaskEnergy's Bayhurst Energy subsidiary on a plan to transport compressed natural gas by truck to drilling rigs in the field.

CanElson (TSX:CDI) said it will spend $9million of its previously announced $20million investment in CanGas to establish a fleet of 30 CNG delivery trailers and convert all of its 14 drill rigs in Saskatchewan to use both natural gas and diesel.