Liberal Chamber of Commerce Director Rozelle Webb, Chamber ambassador Jana Jantzen and Seward County Commissioner Jim Rice are among the many watching as Hutch’s President David Hutchinson performs the first fill Tuesday morning at the newly installed CNG pump at Hutch’s location at 1580 N. Kansas in Liberal. L&T photos/Robert Pierce
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Tuesday morning was the first of what representatives from three companies hope will be many more developments in the area.
Hutch’s C Store north Liberal location welcomed the first public access compressed natural gas fueling station in Southwest Kansas. To commemorate the occasion, Hutch’s, along with Black Hills Energy and Sparq Natural Gas, completed a “first fill” celebration at 1580 N. Kansas.
Prior to Hutch President David Hutchinson making the ceremonial fill, he and representatives from Black Hills, Sparq, the City of Liberal, the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities and even a Kansas Representative spoke about the importance of having a local CNG pump.
Sparq CEO Norman Herrera said, of particular importance, CNG provides a more affordable fueling alternative for motorists.
“Today, $3.49 for unleaded,” he said as he glanced at the Hutch’s sign. “Today, natural gas is $1.99. It’s a Kansas fuel for Kansas fleets, and we’re excited about all the environmental benefits, the energy security benefits and the cost savings that compressed natural gas brings. As we develop a regional network of stations, we’re excited to partner with many of you here to tell the story and fuel your vehicles.”
Liberal Mayor Joe Denoyer then welcomed the crowd gathered near the CNG pump and thanked Hutch’s, Black Hills and Sparq for partnering in the endeavor.
“It’s exciting to have Liberal, once again, pave the way of the future for not only Southwest Kansas, but also for the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles,” he said.
Denoyer said the CNG station will help not only with the energy needs of corporations, businesses, family farms and individuals, but for those who travel along the two major highways which intersect in Liberal.
“With the addition of this CNG station, we hope to see our trade area expand and see even more people making Liberal their destination of choice,” he said.
Oil and gas has been the life blood of Southwest Kansas for many years, and Denoyer said the implementation of the Hutch’s CNG station adds another dimension to development and job creation in the area.
“Black Hills Energy and the Hutchinson family, for many years, have been viable contributing members to our community,” he said. “Now, with the addition of the Sparq family, it just affirms that good, no, great things can happen when we come together, work together, utilize and capitalize on the strengths and resources available in our area. With this attitude of cooperation, it can only make the place we call home a better place to live, work and raise a family, and it can happen right here in Liberal, Kansas.”
Denoyer said he believes Tuesday’s celebration is only the beginning of a bigger process.
“I would like to say a huge thank you for your commitment to Liberal, Kansas, and may this just be the start of many more exciting things to come,” he said.
Denoyer then introduced Steve Alford, the representative Kansas’s 124th House District. Alford said he wants to see a time when CNG becomes just as common as traditional motor fuels.
“We need to be having opportunities where the soccer moms and the housewives can pull up to a pump and fill their car up just as readily as filling up with the other type of fuels,” he said. “With the process you’ve put together today, they’ll be able to do that. Our major auto companies are adding options to automobiles. I think that Liberal, here in Kansas, is going to be kind of a starting point. In time, they’re going to have several stations where people can be very convenient in keeping their cars filled.”
Hutchinson said his company has been involved in CNG for more than 10 years, and Tuesday was something he and other Hutch’s officials had felt was coming.
“With the technology that has come along, it has made it so much more practical to convert vehicles, to buy vehicles from the factory,” he said.
Hutchinson said the interest companies and individuals have shown in CNG is just skyrocketing.
“It’s really a great thing for this country,” he said. “It’s especially a great thing for this part of the country. It’s just going to be a really nice addition to what we have.”
Next, Black Hills’s Gabe Schlickau spoke, and he agreed with the previous presenters, saying Tuesday was certainly an exciting day for everyone.
“How fitting it is that the first public fueling station in western Kansas sits here in Liberal at the Crossroads of Commerce, where Highway 54 and Highway 83 intersect,” he said.
Schlickau said a first fill like Tuesday’s does not happen without help and support from the public, and he praised the efforts of those on hand from Seward County Community College for their support of the CNG industry.
“They’ve been extremely supportive of the development of the industry,” he said. “They have the program on campus for natural gas compression, and it sounds like a lot of exciting things in the works for maintenance on vehicles, maintenance on fueling stations and the potential even for placement of a fueling station for students to work with on campus. That positions Liberal and Seward County incredibly well as a competitive advantage as this industry grows.”
Another factor in Tuesday’s excitement was Black Hills itself as a utility.
“We have not had a new product to sell in our industry for a long time, and that’s what compressed natural gas represents to us,” Schlickau said. “In the vehicle fuel markets, we see potential for enormous growth, which is extremely exciting for us. It provides tremendous growth opportunities. It increases the efficiency of our utility system. It allows us to utilize our capacity in a better way and our communities for an additional burner tip that’s not traditional.”
Schlickau concluded by saying CNG is a fast growing industry, and many on hand Tuesday felt the industry is poised to grow exponentially in the coming years.
The morning’s final speaker, Kelly Gilbert of the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities, agreed with Schlickau’s assessment of CNG.
“Compressed natural gas projects account for the highest growth activity in alternative fuels in the three state area,” she said of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. “We have literally hundreds of CNG powered vehicles being deployed within utilities like Black Hills, municipal government, transit agencies, school districts, police, taxi and numerous private companies. This public station is the fifth such public station in Kansas, along with seven private stations.”
Gilbert said Liberal’s new station now gives the USDECC access to all of the CNG stations in Oklahoma and Kansas.
“We have an important connector on 83 to I-70, where there are other natural gas stations. This effectively creates that travel corridor for heavy truck traffic that is going to really cause a great leap in the advancement of natural gas travel across the whole country,” she said. “This is a linchpin location, and we’re very excited to be here today to support this station opening.”