By Nichola Groom
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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.
A NATIONAL NETWORK
Today there are 28 public LNG refueling stations in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
LNG is denser than compressed natural gas, which fuels many buses and garbage trucks. That means trucks require fewer fuel storage tanks to go the same distance. Also, LNG stations are cheaper to build than CNG stations because they do not tap into gas lines. Much like diesel, the liquid fuel is trucked in.
The number of stations Blu will open this year is about equal to the 50 to 60 stations Clean Energy is planning. Clean Energy already has 70 LNG stations, though most will only start operating when there are a sufficient number of trucks that need them. Shell has said it plans to build about 100 LNG fueling stations in the United States, but has not given a timeline.
Blu's eventual plan is to build about 500 LNG stations in the United States, according to another person familiar with their strategy. When asked about that figure, a Blu spokesman said the company was committed to building a network of fueling stations, but that the exact number would depend on a number of factors.
Most of Clean Energy's filling stations are located at truck stops run by Pilot Flying J. Shell said it is in the final stages of negotiations to work with another major U.S. truck stop operator, TravelCenters of America LLC.
Blu has no such deal with a national truck stop owner, but is working with some regional players, Norton said, adding that he did not view other players in natural gas as competition.
All of the company's current stations are in Utah, but it is expanding throughout the country. Blu has between 50 and 100 employees, Norton said, mostly at its headquarters in Salt Lake, but also in the Midwest, Southeast and Northwest.
Blu LNG isn't ENN's first foray into the U.S. market. The company in recent years has announced partnerships with power company Duke Energy Corp to develop green energy projects, though none have yet been built.
It has also been developing a $5 billion solar farm and manufacturing plant in Nevada for years, though the project still does not have a buyer for its power.
The company hopes to have better luck in natural gas. Last month ENN inked a global deal with natural gas engine maker Westport Innovations to collaborate on efforts to speed the proliferation of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
But Westport is not helping ENN with its U.S. LNG stations.
"They don't need us," said Husayn Anwar, president of Westport's China business. "They know what they are doing and they have the money for it."
(Additional reporting by Charlie Zhu in Hong Kong; Editing by Patricia Kranz and Mary Milliken)