Natural gas vehicles would cut oil imports

Published October 14, 2009 5:55 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah is noted for its clear skies, the Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake. Much of Utah is sparsely populated, but in the population centers, air pollution was becoming a serious problem. And the problem resulted from the fuel used to run cars, trucks and buses.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "about half of all air pollution and more than 80 percent of air pollution in cities are produced by cars and trucks in the United States."

We have been in and around legislatures long enough to know that it is rare that a problem gets fixed in one bill. The CLEAR Act, adopted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, provided for tax incentives to people and companies which purchased vehicles powered by any of the following: hybrid-electric, battery-electric, natural gas, or fuel cells. It also contained a federal tax credit for commercial alternative fuel refueling sites.

The CLEAR Act took three tries to get through. It was a good start and it had some of the desired effects. But it did not have the effect of jumpstarting the move to natural gas as a major transportation fuel.

The introduction on July 8 of the NAT GAS Act -- Senate Bill 1408 -- will provide the extra push needed to spur greater use of natural gas and to get more natural gas vehicles on our roads. A companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives has nearly 90 co-sponsors representing both parties.

America is blessed with natural resources. Many of them have been badly used over the decades and centuries and are being depleted. An exception to that is natural gas.

Every study of natural gas reserves indicates we have not just an abundance, but a super-abundance of natural gas in traditional fields and in shale deposits under Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Appalachia.

The most recent study showed that the amount of energy stored in our recoverable natural gas reserves exceeds the amount of energy in all of the oil in Saudi Arabia. That mean we are closer than ever to energy independence, but only if we have the national will to utilize our natural gas reserves.

Natural gas is much cleaner than gasoline and produces virtually no particulate emissions, unlike vehicles burning diesel. And unlike some other non-petroleum fuels, natural gas is a proven technology. In fact, over 10 million vehicles in the world run on natural gas. But only about 130,000 of those are in the U.S.

The first barrier people raise when we discuss natural gas as a transportation fuel is that there are so few refueling stations. That is true for passenger vehicles, but not for trucks and fleet vehicles.

Over-the-road trucks -- 18-wheelers -- generally run the same routes day in and day out. Even cross-country drivers tend to stop in the same places to refuel, eat and rest. Municipal and school buses; fleet vehicles like express delivery trucks and state, county and city vehicles; and refuse and recycling trucks all generally go to the same garage or parking lot each night where they can easily be refueled.

There are about 6.5 million heavy trucks on America's highways. Upgrading just 350,000 of them would reduce our oil imports by nearly 5 percent. In August 2009, we spent approximately $25 billion on oil imports. That's 355 million barrels imported, or approximately 60 percent of our oil. Five percent of that would have kept over $1.2 billion recycling through the U.S. economy instead of the economies of countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria, which are among the seven largest exporters of oil to the U.S. The NAT GAS Act is the next step in a crucial effort to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. We are pleased to have joined in a public-private partnership to support this important concept.

T. Boone Pickens is chairman and CEO of BP Capital, which operates energy-focused commodity and equity funds. He is also the largest shareholder in Clean Energy, which is the biggest provider of vehicular natural gas in North America. Orrin Hatch represents Utah in the U.S. Senate.

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