Compress Natural Gas (CNG) Vehicles: Are they Safe in an Accident?

The recent release of the 2018 UN Climate Change Report has reinvigorated the urgency to mitigate rising global temperatures in the face of potentially imminent global crisis.  One alternative energy source that has been touted as the ‘green energy’ savior of our collective future has been natural gas.  In an automobile-centered society of the United States, compressed natural gas (CNG) has been put forward as a clean-burning alternative to conventional gasoline.  CNG-fueled vehicles are said to release fewer dangerous emissions into the atmosphere, including hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

However, despite the possible environmental and public-health benefits of switching to CNG vehicles, researchers and regulators are discovering that the switch to natural gas may come at the cost of individual driver safety.  Here is what you need to know about the debate regarding the safety of CNG-powered vehicles in an accident.

What is Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)?

Despite its relatively recent prevalence in national headlines, methane gas (the gas most commonly referred to as ‘natural gas’) is by no means a newly discovered resource and has long been used by consumers in the United States—most notably, methane is used to power in-home heating systems, clothes dryers, and gas-powered stoves.

Its recent notoriety is largely attributable to two factors: (1) advances in technology have allowed producers to extract the gas much more cheaply and quickly in the United States, and (2) due to the increased supply and decreased cost of the resource, industries are orienting research and development toward privileging natural gas over other fuel sources.  Most notably, the automobile industry is increasingly focused on developing vehicles that run on natural gas.

For it to be used as an automobile fuel, natural methane gas must be compressed for storage—usually at around 3,600 psi, or less than 1% of its volume, at standard atmospheric pressure.  Although the gas is naturally odorless, producers add chemicals to the gas to give it a characteristic odor (described as ‘rotten eggs’) before it is put into circulation in order to alert consumers of potential leaks.

Compressed Natural Gas Cars

Compressed natural gas cars have been around longer than electric vehicles, but they are not as well known. Although there are fewer CNG stations than electric charging stations, there are many more natural gas utilities to fill up at home or at work. The cost of a CNG car is comparable to the cost of an electric car. Cost-conscious consumers will find that saving money on fuel makes the initial investment worthwhile.

A major drawback of natural gas vehicles is that they produce greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gas emissions from these vehicles are lower than those from standard gasoline-powered cars, they still release a considerable amount. Worldwide, there are a few hundred chemical processes, such as the production of plastics. These processes produce hydrocarbons which are emitted into the atmosphere and interact with nitrogen dioxide to create ozone and other pollutants.

The Relative Safety (and Danger) of CNG

Industry experts and regulators assert that natural gas-powered vehicles are a safer alternative to conventional fuel-powered vehicles.  Unlike conventional fuels that are liquefied and, when leaking, can collect within or beneath a vehicle and pose a significant fire hazard, natural gas is lighter than air and leaking gas will disperse safely.  However, this benefit decreases when the CNG vehicle is stored in an enclosed space like a garage, where the dispersing gas can accumulate without an opportunity to disperse.

CNG is also less volatile than gasoline because it has a much higher ignition temperature.  While gasoline will burn at 600 degrees Fahrenheit, natural gas burns at about twice this temperature.

However, although CNG may well be safer than gasoline, the switch to CNG still comes with some risks.  The safety of CNG in vehicles is contingent on its proper storage in thick, well-maintained canisters.  At times, these canisters can fail, and in the context of a vehicle accident the resulting leaked gas can ignite and cause devastating explosions.  This is a risk, especially, in older vehicles, and owners of CNG vehicles must ensure regular maintenance or replacement of outdated or defective CNG tanks and canisters.

Protect Yourself—Call a Compressed Natural Gas Lawyer

Reliable statistics on the relative safety of CNG-powered vehicles are difficult to find.  Despite many initiatives in recent decades to promote the switch to CNG, the United States lags behind much of the rest of the world in CNG adoption—especially, nations in the developing world, where adoption has been much more widespread.  Accident statistics from high-adoption countries cannot be extrapolated to the United States due to different regulatory environments.

However, anecdotal reports of CNG explosion incidents suggest that CNG vehicle users must remain vigilant, and courts and California and elsewhere have awarded victims injured in CNG explosion incidents substantial damages for their injuries.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a CNG-related accident, contact the car accident lawyers at The Dominguez Firm.  Our award-winning attorneys have the experience and compassion to get you the compensation you deserve.  Call us today for a free consultation at (800)818-1818.

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