Ferry operator looking at LNG for fuel

Attendees at April’s Propeller Club luncheon in Seattle got an earful on the troubles besetting the nation’s largest ferry system from David Moseley, who heads up Washington State Ferries.

Working as part of the state’s Department of Transportation, Moseley’s job has been increasingly difficult as the state budget shrinks all around him. In fact, he said, financing the WSF ferry fleet and its operations is the agency’s “core challenge,” especially since the state Legislature eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999. The excise tax had provided a dedicated revenue source for state ferries, which has never been replaced. So WSF has to go directly to the state Legislature every year and plead for more money to maintain, upgrade and operate its fleet of 21 ferries that carry 23 million passengers and 10 million vehicles annually.

Moving all those people, cars and trucks takes a lot of fuel, something like 17 million gallons a year. In fiscal year 2000, Moseley said the fuel bill was $15.6 million. This year, the budget is $56.5 million but the actual cost will be even higher.

Because rising fuel costs are not sustainable, Moseley declared that WSF “must immediately move to another fuel source — natural gas. It’s one-third the cost [of diesel]and environmentally superior.”

However, he said the cost of converting to LNG is estimated at about $15 million per vessel. And then there’s the question of supply. There are currently no natural gas liquefaction plants in the Puget Sound area, but that could quickly change with more demand.

Nevertheless, Moseley and WSF are seriously considering the LNG fuel alternative. A year ago, the state ferry system had The Glosten Associates in Seattle prepare an analysis of “LNG Use for Washington State Ferries” that looks at the challenges and the opportunities of LNG.

The promise of liquefied natural gas as a marine fuel is starting to attract more interest. Norway has been running ferries on natural gas for over a decade. As distillate fuel prices continue to climb and emissions, including CO2, continue to be regulated downward, it could be the way to go, at least for WSF.

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About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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