By T. Boone PIckens
Posted May 26, 2009
"America is at a crossroads" sounds like tired campaign rhetoric, but when it comes to energy policy, we are in the middle of the intersection.
Since July 8, 2008, when I launched the Pickens Plan to reduce our escalating dependence on foreign oil, I have talked about that dependence as the greatest threat to our economy and our national security. Our consumption is out of whack—25 percent of the world's oil production with only 4.5 percent of the world's population and just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We have to get off foreign oil, and the only way is with domestic fuels.
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Some argue that we should take a free market approach to energy, that government should be hands off. That's ridiculous at many levels, but I always ask, do you think OPEC is a free market? I am not suggesting we "pick winners" among resources. I'm for anything American.
For example, as much as we might be in favor of generating 20 to 30 percent of our electric power from wind and solar, you can't run an 18-wheeler on a battery. We need to look for ways to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. All too often, we fail to understand the magnitude of the problem. Even as recently as April 2009, we imported 375 million barrels of petroleum—over two thirds of all the oil we used. Put aside the economic drain of sending nearly $500 billion overseas last year for oil. You're still left with the continuing environmental burden associated with gasoline and diesel as transportation fuels. The fact is, we have put ourselves in a position of having countries from unstable regions, with governments that may be unfriendly to the United States, in control of our energy future.
In short, our national security is severely at risk. With so much of our oil coming from foreign sources, even a relatively small disruption in supply can have an exaggerated effect on prices. We have the resource to change the equation in our favor—natural gas. It's a window of opportunity that we can't afford to miss. We have enough natural gas reserves in the continental United States to last for more than 100 years. Over the past 10 years, new technology has been developed so that the vast supplies of natural gas are now easily and safely recoverable from the huge shale deposits under Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Appalachia, Arkansas, and elsewhere.
But we are in the classic "chicken and egg" situation: Manufacturers don't want to build natural gas vehicles because they aren't certain there will be a market for them. Consumers (companies and individuals) can't buy such vehicles because the manufacturers won't build them.
Nearly 10 million natural gas-powered vehicles are on the world's streets and highways, but fewer than 150,000 are in the United States. This is an insupportable situation. There is no reason why, with the dangers of relying so heavily on imported oil as clear and present as they are and with the enormous supply of a replacement fuel that is available right now, we are not making better use of our resources.
There is a bill currently in Congress, H.R. 1835, which is known as the NAT GAS Act of 2009. While Capitol Hill is bitterly divided along partisan lines, H.R. 1835 has already generated support from 50 cosponsors, roughly divided between Republicans and Democrats. That alone should generate front-page headlines.
We should immediately begin providing incentives to truckers and fleet owners, to transit companies and school boards, to municipal, county, and state vehicles, for the purpose of kick-starting a natural gas vehicle industry in the United States. The NAT GAS Act will do that.
The United States government purchases about 65,000 civilian vehicles each year. Of those, in 2007, only 129 were powered by natural gas. Committing the federal government to purchase about half of its vehicles with the ability to run on natural gas will jump-start the manufacture of an entirely new class of vehicles. State and local governments will follow suit because these vehicles are much more cost-efficient over their life cycles.
School districts will change from diesel buses to school buses running on natural gas so children won't start and end their day inhaling diesel fumes. Municipal bus systems are already making the switch from diesel to natural gas for all of these reasons. One example is the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, the largest bus fleet in the United States, with 2,500 natural gas buses. In natural gas we have a resource that is abundant, domestic, cleaner, and cheaper than imported gasoline or diesel fuel.
America is at a crossroads, and the only good road to the future is domestic natural gas.