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By Robert Rapier on Apr 2, 2009 with no responses

Natural Gas Gaining Momentum

I have said a number of times that I would prefer to take the natural gas we use to make ethanol and just use it directly in compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. Natural gas burns very cleanly, and I think that would be a lot more efficient than the convoluted scheme by which we turn natural gas into ethanol. One of the criticisms I sometimes encounter from ethanol advocates is that we would have to build out a new CNG infrastructure to do so. I always point out that the only reason we have built an E85 infrastructure is that taxpayers funded it.

But I learned something of interest today when I was flying back to Texas from Europe. I am currently reading Oil 101by Morgan Downey. This is a really great book by the way, which I will review as soon as I finish it. Downey covers natural gas in some detail, and the book states that there are 1600 retail stations in the U.S. selling CNG. That made me wonder how many stations are selling E85, since some ethanol advocates have claimed to me that we are already too far down the E85 path to start down a CNG path. It turns out that today there are 1900 stations selling E85, but the number only went past 1600 in 2008. So CNG isn’t operating from as big a deficit as some of my ethanol friends would like to believe. CNG just hasn’t benefited from the same kind of legislation that has benefited ethanol.

But the landscape may be starting to change. Of course T. Boone Pickens has been pushing CNG hard as part of his Pickens Plan. Then last month AT&T announced they would invest $565 million to replace 15,000 gasoline-powered fleet vehicles with compressed natural gas and hybrid engines. And yesterday Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and John Sullivan (R-Okla.) introduced new legislation to further incentivize CNG:

House members plan bill to expand NGV use

Known as the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions (NAT GAS) Act, the bill also would create a new tax credit for automakers which produce natural gas and bi-fueled vehicles, the three federal lawmakers said. Currently, all major automakers manufacture NGVs for overseas markets and this provision is critical to encourage them to begin offering NGVs in the United States, they said.

Energy investor T. Boone Pickens applauded the measure. “America’s national and economic security depends on moving off foreign oil as quickly as possible. Natural gas is the cleanest, most abundant, most economic fuel to replace imported diesel fuel. The US has enough natural gas to last more than 118 years; we should turn to it as an immediately replacement for foreign oil in fleets and heavy-duty vehicles,” he said.

I will have to look into the context of that 118 year claim a bit later. But the U.S. is certainly in better shape with respect to our gas reserves than we are with our oil reserves. Further, gas can be produced renewably from the same feedstocks that go into any other biofuel.

Of all the schemes promoting energy independence, a massive expansion of CNG just might have a chance of displacing enough oil to achieve at least independence from the Mideast and Venezuela. Again, it will take many components, but I don’t see any possible way it can be achieved without a healthy contribution from domestic oil and gas production.

Now, since I have been up for 24 hours, I am going to call it a day.