HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's economic development team wants drivers to start filling up their cars with natural gas – and they're willing to hand out taxpayer money to kickstart the trend.

The Commonwealth Financing Authority awarded more than $2 million in grant money plus a $169,000 loan for five natural gas fueling stations at its Tuesday meeting.

The goal is that incentivizing fueling stations will, in the long term, continue to grow the state's Marcellus Shale-related job markets, said Steve Kratz, spokesman for the Department of Community and Economic Development.

"The expanded use of natural gas vehicles in the state not only helps from a developing markets perspective, but it's also better for the environment," Kratz said.

Natural gas is widely considered cleaner and cheaper to burn than petroleum, but a dearth of fueling stations means drivers won't necessarily get very far.

About 112,000 vehicles in the United States run on natural gas. The general public has access to 605 compressed natural gas fueling stations, according to federal data, along with 35 liquid natural gas fueling stations concentrated in the west.

State support for fueling stations, Kratz said, is part of a "long-term strategy" to create jobs beyond natural gas extraction.

Last year, the authority's seven-member board decided natural gas awards could be included as part of its Alternative and Clean Energy Program. In May, more than $1.8 million in grant money went towards five fueling stations, some of which were for companies converting their fleets to natural gas. The Department of Environmental Protection is providing a three-year disbursement of $20 million toward grants for natural gas vehicle fleets. 

Going forward, the Commonwealth Financing Authority will contribute up to half the cost for CNG or LNG fuel station projects using a combination of grants and loans. Newly approved guidelines will allow up to a 25 percent grant incentive for private stations, and a 40 percent grant incentive for publicly accessible ones.

All the recent Commonwealth Financing Authority fuel station awards went towards publicly accessible CNG stations. Sunoco will receive more than $500,000 for installing a CNG refueling station at the Pennsylvania Turnpike King of Prussia Service Plaza, and another in nearby Upper Merion Township.

Clean Energy Inc., will add another station to an existing CNG fuel stop in Upper Merion Township with around $196,000 in state grant money. Clean Energy is receiving another grant for around $436,000 to add a CNG fueling station to a gas station in Hamilton Township in Adams CountyThe other two projects are in Franklin County and Philadelphia.

Kratz said CFA chooses which projects to award using a scoring system that measures economic activity and project viability, among other considerations.

The Corbett administration isn't the only government cheerleader for natural gas infrastructure. Just a couple weeks before the grant announcement, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was in Erie promoting his Clean Vehicle Corridors Act, aimed at lining interstates with natural gas fueling stations.

This map from the Alternative Fuels Data Center shows CNG fueling stations (click to enlarge).

"This legislation can help Pennsylvania take the next step in the development of alternative fuels," Casey said in a release. "Putting in place more infrastructure and making it easier for businesses to transport their goods using alternative energy will help these businesses grow and create jobs."

Christina Simeone, director of PennFuture's Energy Center, said of the fossil fuels available, natural gas is among the most clean burning. Though it still emits pollution, chemical levels are lower than that of a fuel like diesel, Simeone said.

"When you take a diesel school bus, for example, and you substitute that with a natural gas school bus, there are some really beneficial reductions in pollution," Simeone said.

Vehicles can be converted to run off of natural gas, while others are manufactured that way. A CNG-fueled Honda Civic has been on the market since 2008. It sells for about $26,000, about $8,000 more than a typical Civic.

Ford announced in July it will begin offering an F-150 that runs on CNG. Though the CNG version of the truck adds as much as $9,500 to the purchase price, Ford estimates consumers would see a payback on the purchase in two to three years thanks to fuel savings.

CNG fuel costs about $2.11 per gallon of equivalent gasoline, according to Ford, while gas prices hover at a national average of around $3.50 a gallon.

Dan Whitten, senior director of communications for America's Natural Gas Alliance, said the organization doesn't take a position on public funding for natural gas infrastructure. But he did say the trend of natural gas fueled vehicles is on the rise, starting with private and municipal fleets.

Switching hundreds of trucks from petroleum to natural gas could add up to millions in savings, Whitten said. Some companies have private fuel stations for their fleets. Fracking companies, Whitten said, often fuel their drilling rigs with natural gas.

"This is becoming more and more a part of how we're moving things around, and moving people around," Whitten said.

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com