Natural gas bill piques local interest
NEW PORT RICHEY - Legislation proposed by east Pasco County freshman state Sen. Wilton Simpson could revive a project to convert county fleets to compressed natural gas. Since September 2011, County Administrator John Gallagher and others have pushed for conversion to compressed natural gas, primarily in garbage trucks, heavy-duty vehicles and, perhaps, school buses. Bill Bunting, Pasco's Republican state committeeman, has preached potential benefits of natural-gas powered vehicles for years. A summit in December 2011 outlined a central refueling station to serve Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.The idea mostly has sat on a shelf since then. Compressed natural gas is less expensive than gasoline, cuts pollution and dramatically reduces engine wear. But retrofitting vehicles can be quite pricey, and there are few CNG fueling stations. Commissioner Henry Wilson and Bunting, however, have continued to wave the CNG banner. Now their faith could be vindicated. Regular gas prices of $3.53 or more a gallon make CNG more attractive. CNG would cost at least $1.50 less a gallon than other fuels, experts say. Simpson's Natural Gas Motor Fuel Senate Bill 560 got its first reading Tuesday in the Senate Transportation Committee. The bill, if passed, would put natural gas on equal footing at gas station pumps. Wilson discussed the bill with Simpson's staff Monday. The bill is going through changes, Wilson said, "but I am sure it will benefit anyone who is interested in CNG in Florida." "Commissioner Wilson expressed his support of the legislation and his commitment to working at the county level to make this fuel source more prevalent," Rachel Perrin Rogers, Simpson's legislative assistant, wrote in a message Wednesday. "We discussed working together with (Pasco County School Superintendent Kurt) Browning on the issue as the school system has many vehicles that could benefit," Rogers wrote. "Currently, the bill provides that local governments would be permanently exempt from paying fuel tax on CNG," Rogers said. Simpson, R-Trilby, and colleagues are examining other incentives for converting vehicles. In a recent letter to the editor, Bunting praised Simpson for promoting "energy independence" by using natural gas. "The school system in Leon County has had its buses retrofitted to use natural gas several years ago," Bunting wrote. "The buses will now get twice the engine life and reduce the cost of fuel by about 50 percent." Trash haulers, utilities and long-distance haulers in the state also have converted fleets, Bunting said.