Southwestern Energy Co. geologists left on a seven-day, 2,700-mile journey Monday from Conway to California as part of an ongoing effort to promote the use of compressed natural gas.

Three CNG-powered vehicles en route to an industry association conference in Long Beach, Calif. The company is documenting the cost savings associated with CNG, highlighting its environmental benefits and demonstrating the growing infrastructure of CNG fueling stations across the country.

"We strongly believe that compressed natural gas is an important part of the future of our industry and energy independence for our country," said Steve Mueller, Southwestern president and chief executive officer.

"CNG also represents good consumer economics. The benefits, including its affordability at a time when gasoline prices have remained high, make it a smart investment."

According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, CNG costs on average one-third less than conventional gasoline at the pump,

The current national average of CNG is approximately $2.13, compared to a $3.90 for gasoline. Additional benefits, Mueller said, include its environmental advantages and domestic availability.

"Natural gas is a clean burning fuel; therefore, CNG vehicles create fewer emissions and pollutants compared to gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles," he said. "And, the abundance of natural gas across the U.S. can help lessen the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources."

Since the beginning of 2012, gasoline prices have risen about 55 cents per gallon nationally, beginning the year at $3.37 per gallon and reaching a high of $3.93 per gallon in early April, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

There are currently more than 110,000 CNG-powered bi-fuel vehicles on U.S. roadways. A growing infrastructure is helping support existing users, but Mueller said there is a need to invest more in infrastructure development to support the growing interest and to generate support for new adapters. SWN estimates that it will refuel at approximately 20 CNG stations on the trip and anticipates utilizing CNG to fuel 95 percent of its travels.

The company said there will be a need to switch to traditional gasoline during a stretch of the trip where the fueling infrastructure does not currently include CNG fueling stations.

"It’s important that our industry fully support CNG use to make it readily available to consumers," said Mueller, whose company added more than 100 CNG vehicles to its fleet in 2011 and has plans to convert an additional 66 this year.

Southwestern invested in its own CNG fueling station in Damascus in 2011, and has provided financial support to two city-owned stations in the state. The current price of CNG at its station is under $1.50 per gas gallon equivalency.

The company gave 21 employees new CNG vehicles and home-refueling appliances in February through an initiative to put more CNG vehicles on the road. Southwestern recently promoted CNG use through an employee incentive program as well.

During the trip, Southwestern officials also will visit with students at key universities where it focuses its geosciences’ recruiting efforts. Campus visits are focused on educating students about the company and CNG, Mueller said. Schools included are the University of Arkansas, University of Houston, Texas A&M, University of Texas and Colorado School of Mines.