Chinese Firm Puts Millions into U.S. Natural Gas Stations
ENN Group Co Ltd, one of China’s largest private companies, is quietly rolling out plans to establish a network of natural gas fueling stations for trucks along U.S. highways.
With plans to build 50 stations this year alone, ENN joins a small but formidable group of players — including Clean Energy Fuels Corp and Royal Dutch Shell Plc — in an aggressive push to develop an infrastructure for heavy-duty trucks fueled by cheap and abundant natural gas. Clean Energy is backed by T. Boone Pickens and Chesapeake Energy Corp.
The move is yet another example of China’s ambition to grab a piece of the U.S. shale gas boom. Just last month, Sinopec Group said it would pay $1 billion for some of Chesapeake’s oil and gas properties in the Mississippi Lime shale.
The natural gas bounty is also expected to help wean the U.S. transport industry off its dependence on diesel fuel made from imported crude oil, and the trucking industry is in a big push to use more of the domestically produced fuel.
The potential savings are huge: shippers can save around $2 a gallon by switching to natural gas from diesel.
Nearly half of the garbage trucks sold in the United States last year run on natural gas. They are able to refuel at dedicated stations at their home bases. To convince the far larger market for long-haul trucking to run on natural gas, truckers need to know they can refuel along their highway routes.
Enter ENN, led by billionaire energy tycoon Wang Yusuo. The company has already built natural gas stations in China, which is farther along in its adoption of natural gas trucks.
A TINY COMPANY IN UTAH
The average liquefied natural gas station costs around $1 million to build, according to industry experts, putting ENN’s investment this year at about $50 million. The company’s U.S. joint venture would not say how much it plans to spend.
Two years ago ENN began looking to put its expertise in natural gas equipment to work in the United States and first approached the top player in U.S. natural gas fueling, Clean Energy, about forming a partnership, according to people familiar with the matter. Clean Energy would not comment.
But when they rebuffed ENN, the Chinese firm reached out to a small Utah company, CH4 Energy Corp, which had opened a single LNG and CNG fueling station in Salt Lake City with the help of federal stimulus funds.
The deal created Transfuels LLC, which operates as Blu LNG. ENN has a majority stake in the joint venture and controls its board of directors, according to sources familiar with the deal.
Merritt Norton, who founded CH4, is Blu’s chief executive, while Jun Yang is chairman and also the vice president of ENN Group.
Blu LNG’s plans are bold and moving quickly.
“We have five stations in operation right now, and within I would say two weeks we will have another three stations,” Norton said in an interview last week.
Eventually, ENN has said it also plans to build LNG plants.
A source close to the situation said the company “is just testing the market. You can call it an experiment.”
As for the secrecy around its plans, the source said, “ENN Group is mindful of potential U.S. reaction to its expansion there because it would bring in more competition.”
Blu had no comment on its ownership structure or the makeup of its board of directors. The company said it was not able to comment on behalf of ENN Group. Efforts to reach ENN Group in China were unsuccessful.
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