The glowing red numerals read "$1.50" on the low-slung city sign, an easy to overlook marker on the western edge of the bridge linking West 23rd Street and Riverside Drive.
It's an invitation to pull into city property and gas up. But while the price looks right at a time when unleaded gasoline hovers around $3.60 per gallon, only a small fraction of drivers can take advantage of the deal.
The price is for compressed natural gas, the sign pointing to a public natural gas filling station opened by the city this month. The station is a $1 million commitment to a technology that has had its ups and downs but also has the backing of government leaders in the region.
Tulsa built the station with the help of a $300,000 grant from the Department of Energy, according to Brent Jones, director of the city's equipment management department.
An estimated 120,000 vehicles in the United States run on natural gas -- just a tiny fraction of all vehicles. But among them is the pickup driven by a rancher who gave his name as J. Shipley.
"It's just cheaper," said Shipley after pulling into the public station and hooking up the heavy nozzle to the tank of his late model pickup. Shipley said he paid about $9,400 extra in November to have the pickup equipped to run on compressed natural gas. Based on the back-and-forth routine trips he makes between Tulsa and ranch operations in tiny Welty -- about midway between Bristow and Okemah -- Shipley said the gas savings will allow him to break even on the deal in just a couple of months.
But it's more than just savings that has led the city to pay for infrastructure to encourage more people to use compressed natural gas vehicles.
"The industry itself -- not only production, but also equipment and infrastructure -- much of that is produced in and around northeast Oklahoma," said Brett Fidler, the city's director of sustainability. "We feel like it's a good opportunity for the city to lead by example."
In part, that involves city-owned vehicles. Jones said the city currently has "about 21" vehicles that run on natural gas. Some are sedans, while others include large refuse trucks.
By the end of June, Jones said he expects the number to increase to more than 40.
That's still a small number compared to the roughly 2,400 vehicles ready to roll for the city.
"I'd love for us to be at 10 percent of the fleet. We're not there yet," Jones said.
The new public city-owned station is one of a few public fueling stations in the Tulsa area. While most are operated by companies like oil and gas company Apache Corp. or Oklahoma Natural Gas, the city of Owasso in August also opened a public natural gas fueling station.
The Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority, which operates the public bus system, also makes use of some natural gas vehicles.
The efforts might seem like an especially Oklahoma endeavor. Native Oklahoman and famed Oklahoma State University booster Boone Pickens posited in his 2008 Pickens Plan the need to boost wind energy production as well as the use of compressed natural gas vehicles.
But other states have also begun to actively push for automakers to provide more vehicles running on compressed natural gas, commonly referred to as CNG. In July, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper joined Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in a visit to Detroit automakers to tout a growing interest in CNG vehicles they said involved several states.
"By meeting in person with automakers in Detroit, we can discuss in-depth the level of interest from the 13 states that have signed on to this initiative and jump start the process," Fallin said in a statement back in July. "The development of CNG vehicles continues to be hampered by a 'chicken and egg' scenario. Consumers won't buy CNG vehicles while there is limited fueling infrastructure and high vehicle price points, and manufacturers won't wade into the market if there is not sufficient consumer demand."
Only a very few dealerships in Tulsa offer CNG vehicles, though many vehicles can be converted to run on CNG.
Fallin was expected to be in Tulsa as the keynote speaker for a CNG summit Sept. 19 that took place after press time, an event highlighting CNG options to an audience of business owners and fleet managers.
Yet despite the recent attention, Fidler noted that the city first tried natural gas technology many years earlier.
"We had done this back in the '80s. Tulsa Public Schools had done it at the same time," Fidler said.
Those efforts fizzled when "the price of diesel fell, tax credits no longer applied, [and] engines became hard to come by" noted Tulsa Public Schools in 2010 news statement. But the statement was released to announce a comeback in CNG use by the district, with plans to have all buses converted to run on natural gas.
While it's the elevated cost of gasoline and diesel that makes CNG vehicles very attractive, Fidler said, he also spoke of environmental benefits.
According to the Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center, CNG vehicles also "can produce lower levels of some emissions." While proponents of CNG vehicles and some scientists offer more effusive praise, others have said there needs to be more study. For example, a study published this year by Environmental Defense Fund researchers noted that such rosy accounts may not factor in methane leakage during the production, processing and delivery of natural gas. Such leakage is considered a contributor to climate change.
Fidler said the city also has several electric hybrid vehicles, and will consider electric vehicles in the future. But he said maintenance is cheaper and easier with CNG vehicles.
The city sees a reason to advocate for CNG vehicles "mainly because of the potential job productions, the potential economic impact," Fidler said.
At the fueling island, which allows for quick fueling in about the same time as any gasoline station, another sign touts the jobs associated with the station, mentioning Tulsa-based companies like Tulsa Gas Technologies.
Fidler said the city simply wants to make CNG vehicles a little more attractive for those considering a change.
"The city has made a commitment to it with our own fleet. What we're trying to do is offer it as a fueling option to our own citizens," Fidler said.
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