CASPER — Petroleum retailers are suing a western Wyoming school district for selling compressed natural gas as fuel.
The Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association argues that Sublette County School District 1 in Pinedale is improperly competing with private business.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is also named in the suit.
The association cited the department’s decisions to license the district to sell compressed natural gas — a cleaner and cheaper alternative to gasoline — to the public. The district already has a CNG fuel depot and uses the fuel in its buses.
“It’s really quite simple,” said Mark Larson, executive director of the association, which represents the interests of petroleum retailers and wholesalers. “The Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association does not believe our own tax dollars should be used against us to compete against us.”
Vern McAdams, the district’s business and finance manager, disputed the characterization.
“I really question how much competition we’re giving them,” he said.
The school obtained a retail fuel sales license from WYDOT earlier this year. Construction on a single compressed natural gas pump wrapped up in September. The school at first used the pump to fuel only school buses outfitted to burn CNG but opened the site as a retail operation in October.
McAdams said last week that the facility was built with state money that needed to be allocated or committed by a certain date. He added that although the district now pays about half its previous fuel costs, it will also receive less reimbursement funding from the state to offset transportation costs. The district opened retail sales in order to offset operational costs.
“We’re not saving ourselves any money,” McAdams said. “We might save ourselves money only to get less money from state.”
The school district has been touted as a success story by many supporters of the alternative fuel at recent meetings. The industry has yet to take off in the state, though, halted by a chicken-and-egg lack of widespread infrastructure and few natural gas-powered vehicles.
But the state has taken steps to help the industry. The Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee in October put its stamp of support on two CNG bills aimed at stimulating the Wyoming market.
One bill sets forth a plan to incrementally replace gasoline-burning state vehicles with ones fueled by CNG. The other alters a program to allow business owners to use loan funds to install CNG infrastructure with no interest payments for two years. Both bills are expected to be discussed in the next legislative session beginning in January.