After more than three years of ad purchases, television appearances, and meetings with politicians on both sides of the aisle, T. Boone Pickens may finally get the government support he says is needed to build natural gas into a major transportation fuel in the United States—potentially displacing millions of barrels of oil per day in domestic consumption. In a speech Wednesday, President Barack Obama endorsed long-stalled legislation intended to provide federal funding for compressed natural gas vehicles and infrastructure, in pursuit of the administration’s newly-stated goal of reducing foreign oil imports by one-third over the next ten years.
Introduced in 2008, the original NAT GAS Act mandated that 10 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States be powered by natural gas by 2018, and that every gas station in country have at least one CNG pump by the same year. To accomplish this, the bill extended or increased a host of federal credits for CNG vehicles and fuel pumps, and provided tax breaks to manufacturers, filling stations, and retrofitters.
Though the specifics of the new legislation aren’t yet known, the bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives on April 6th by two Democrats and two Republicans.
This time around, the incentives could be targeted more heavily toward private and government transportation fleets, including everything from service cars to garbage trucks, to 18-wheelers. The commercial trucking industry currently uses about 8 million heavy trucks, burning roughly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. At a price of about $40,000 per vehicle, converting the entire sector over the CNG wouldn’t be cheap—about $320 billion according to one estimate—but could save businesses and the federal government a good deal of money over the long run.
The only consumer compressed natural gas vehicle available in the United States is the the Honda Civic CNG. Compared to its ICE equivalent, the Civic CNG saves the average driver nearly 45 percent on fuel costs—and that number just gets higher as oil prices rise. Unlike oil, natural gas is abundant in the United States, which is commonly said to posses enough of the resource to meet its total energy needs for at least a century.
Clean Burning, Dirty Drilling
Natural gas isn’t without its critics though, and a drilling technique that is vital to reaching the majority of American gas reserves has come under heavy fire from environmentalists. “Fracking,” which is currently employed to release about 90 percent of annual American production from subterranean shale deposits, is a toxic, messy—and by most accounts—lightly-regulated process that some groups contend threatens nearby lakes, rivers and groundwater.
Exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act by language included in the 2005 energy bill, fracking creates enormous quantities of hazardous waste fluids, creating the potential for major contamination in the event of an accident. The EPA says that it is studying the issue, and is expected to release a report sometime in 2014.
Supporters contend that the estimated 25 percent carbon emissions savings and possibility for safer drilling down the road more than outweigh the concerns surrounding natural gas extraction. Even if the fuel doesn’t find its way into vehicles, there is little question that it will come to make up an increasing part of the energy mix in the United States. Since it’s cleaner than coal and cheaper than renewables, gas is considered a prime option helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In the meantime, the stage appears to be set for the rise of CNG in the United States—and the $80 million T. Boone Pickens has reportedly spent promoting his CNG-powered Pickens Plan, might just be about to pay off.