DALLAS - Oklahoma Gov. David Walters has. proposed selling up to $50 million of bonds to pay for the conversion of government vehicles to use low-cost compressed natural gas produced in the state.
Under the plan, the bonds would be secured by general fund savings expected from using natural gas, which generally costs half of what Oklahoma now pays for conventional fuels to power its 10.000-vehicle fleet.
Wall Street rating analysts said this would likely be the first time bonds financed such a project.
Last week, the governor asked Oklahoma Secretary of Administration Paula Hearn and bond adviser Jim Joseph to study the proposal and recommend how debt might be used.
"The governor has asked them to put some numbers together," said Bill Crain, spokesman for Gov. Walters. "We don't know yet what the savings might be, but we want to look at it."
The state was approached last week by Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens about converting much of its fleet of trucks and cars to the use of natural gas. Mr. Crain said Mr. Pickens' Mesa L.P., an oil and gas concern, has made similar pitches to states, including Arizona.
"I don't think there has ever been a [conversion] on this scale before," Mr. Crain said.
Oklahoma officials have said that as many as 1,500 vehicles might be candidates for the conversion, which costs about $2,400 for a car and $3,200 for a bus or truck.
Mr. Joseph said the governor has suggested that between $25 million and $50 million of bonds might be needed to pay the up-front costs of conversion, as well as to build natural gas fueling centers.
While the Mesa proposal included financing, the governor wants to see if the state could save even more money by paying for its own conversion.
Mr. Joseph said lease revenue bonds could be used to finance the projects, with the maturities of the debt designed to match the four- to five-year useful life of the vehicles. Such bonds could be sold by the Oklahoma Development Finance Authority or the state's General Services Administration, which operates the fleet.
Because the bonds would not involve direct state backing, no voter approval would be needed. Instead, the lease revenue bonds would be paid for by legislative appropriations expected to be made from the savings generated by the conversion.
"The question we are looking at is whether the differential between the cost of gasoline and natural gas is enough to pay,for the bonds, " Mr. Joseph said.
While other states have made conversions of their fleets to cost-saving fuels such as corn-based ethanol and natural gas, analysts and others said most involve small projects generally financed with cash.
"I'm not familiar with anything like this that's been securitized," said George Leung, vice president and manager at Moody's Investors Service.
He said the proposal to use lease-type financings would not be new to Oklahoma, though. The state had $49.46 million of A-rated lease purchase debt outstanding as of Dec. 31, 1991, Moody's said.
That was nearly half the $92 million of double-A-rated general obligation debt the state had at year's end. However, that could increase if voters in November approve a $350 million bond issue that has been tagged largely for higher education projects. Taxpayers have not approved a bond plan since the late 1960s.
Oklahoma officials said the conversion to using natural gas for all or part of the state's fleet could have a dual benefit. Not only would the operational cost to the state budget decline, but the state could lead the way in helping to create governmental interest in the new fuel source.
As state and local governments work to meet the mandates of the federal Clear Air Act, Oklahoma officials say others may consider compressed natural gas because of its reputation as one of the cleanest burning fuels available.
"We have an abundance of natural gas here," said Mr. Crain. "We are looking at creating some new markets for natural gas. "