The idea of using liquefied natural gas to power vessels coming through the Port of Pittsburgh hasn't advanced much since it popped up on the radar three years ago. But things should start moving quickly from here on, said Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.
The port is launching a study to assess the feasibility of producing LNG in the region, the infrastructure that will be needed to distribute it, and the financial and technical barriers to running boats with the fuel.
LNG is a cheaper and cleaner fuel than diesel for marine vessels and the supply is expected to be rather stable for years. For gas producers, the marine market, however small compared to heavy duty trucks, is yet another market for their product at a time when supply far outstrips demand.
Last year, the Richard King Mellon Foundation granted $75,000 to the effort. In December 2012, the Benedum Foundation pledged $98,750. But it's taken the better part of a year for the port, which had never before been granted foundation funds for a project, to pull everything together.
Mr. McCarville expects most of the study, which will be conducted by Life Cycle Engineering, to be completed within six months.
Among the corporate stakeholders involved are Campbell Transportation Co., a marine vessel operator based in Washington County; Peoples Natural Gas, the North Shore-based utility; and Linde Group, a German engineering firm and maker of LNG technology that has been making a push into the Appalachian region.
In July 2013, after several pilot projects, Linde announced an agreement with Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. to supply LNG fuel and equipment for drilling rigs, and said the partnership "may also be expanded to applications such as hydraulic fracturing, mining and marine operations."
Consol Energy owned the largest fleet in the region and used to be a stakeholder in the Port of Pittsburgh's LNG discussion until it sold its marine division to Murray Energy last year. Murray has no interest in converting the fleet to run on LNG, said Gary Broadbent, a spokesman for the Ohio-based company.
Of the local players, that leaves Campbell Transportation, which has 37 of its own boats along with others that it charters. Last year, Campbell also launched a vessel construction arm and its CEO, Peter Stephaich, said building vessels fueled by liquefied natural gas would "absolutely" be an interest if the economics are right.
Boats could either be built to run on LNG or retrofitted to burn the fuel.
In many areas of the world, large and long-haul marine vessels already run on LNG.
"The inland water industry is a bit of an orphan," said Jan Lauer, who has been ushering the effort along as a consultant. "Nobody pays attention to it. Nobody appreciates the scale of it.
"So we still have the potential to take the lead role nationally in this space."
A study by IHS Cera, commissioned by the American Natural Gas Alliance, estimated this month that between coastal and inland marine vessels in the U.S., the potential market for natural gas is 2.3 billion cubic feet per day. That's about 30 percent of daily production from the Marcellus Shale.
The U.S. Coast Guard is currently developing regulations for inland LNG vessels.
"There's a lot of issues, like crew safety, handling procedures -- a tremendous amount of details that have to be considered," said Mr. Stephaich, at Campbell Transportation.
Then there's the business of getting engine manufacturers to issue conversion kits and figuring out how to squeeze two tanks -- Mr. Stephaich envisions vessels would likely be dual fuel -- onto an already small boat.
"We're probably looking at a couple of years," he said.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.