Don’t let health care overshadow much-needed energy legislation

T. Boone Pickens Contributor
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Without getting into a partisan argument regarding the meaning of the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, we do know that the health care legislation will have to be reviewed, reset, reworked or retired.

It is time that the House and Senate move to other areas of great public importance, if only because this is an even-numbered year—and that means Election Day is approaching. No matter what else happens, on Nov. 2, 2010, there will be an election, and Members of the U.S. House and Senate, governors and state legislators will be waiting to see how the voting public has judged them.

I have a suggestion for the Congress to get some forward momentum: Take a giant step by passing and sending to the president, H.R. 1835 – the NAT GAS Act.

Since summer 2008, I have been spending a considerable amount of my time and money helping voters understand the dangers of our continuing dependence on foreign oil. When oil prices exploded to $147 per barrel, importing oil was on the lips of every candidate for every public office from city council to president of the United States.

Then the recession dried up demand and oil prices dropped back to the $35-per-barrel range, gasoline at the pump went below $3 per gallon and, once again, foreign oil dropped off the national agenda.

The global economy is beginning to stir, especially among the fast-developing economies in China, India and Russia, and with that, stirring the demand for oil will begin to expand as well. For the past several months, oil has traded within a $75-$80 range. Gasoline is creeping back toward $3 per gallon and it is likely that oil prices will be on the rise as we approach Election Day this fall.

In 2009, we imported over 4 billion barrels of oil at a cost of approximately a third of a trillion dollars. All of that money left the U.S. economy. Much of it will never return. Some of it, too much of it, went—and continues to go—to countries in regions which are unstable, which are unfriendly to the U.S., or both.

There is an option; an option which is good for America’s economy, environment and national security. That option is domestic natural gas.

Not too long ago, natural gas was considered to be a limited resource with a short life span. We had a finite amount and it was needed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries; for heating and cooking; and to generate about 20 percent of our electricity.

But, recent advancements in drilling techniques have allowed us to recover the vast natural gas resources which are contained in the huge shale deposits under Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Appalachia.

Studies released during 2009 have indicated we have over 100 years of natural gas reserves in the continental United States. That puts the U.S. at or near the top of natural gas reserves in the world and the energy contained in our natural gas reserves it more than all the energy contained in Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

All we need to do now, is to use it.

About 70 percent of the oil we import is used as a transportation fuel. We have 250 million cars and light trucks using gasoline and about 8.5 million heavy-duty trucks—18-wheelers and such—which use diesel.

Around the world there are some 10 million vehicles powered by natural gas (NGVs) but only about 130,000 are on the road here in the U.S. Batteries will not move 18-wheelers, and hydrogen technology is not yet a workable solution to oil-powered cars and trucks.

The NAT GAS Act is not a government hand-out. It provides a tax credit, meaning companies which replace their oil-fueled vehicles with natural gas vehicles get to keep a little more of their earnings which would otherwise go to the government in taxes.

If, over the next seven years, we moved our entire fleet of 8.5 million over-the-road trucks from imported diesel to domestic natural gas, we could reduce our dependence on oil from OPEC by 50 percent. That would mark the first time since Richard Nixon called for a reduction in oil imports that any administration made good on that pledge.

H.R. 1835 – the NAT GAS Act has 128 bipartisan co-sponsors. Its companion bill in the Senate, S. 1408, was introduced by Sens. Menendez, Hatch and Reid demonstrating the bipartisan power of this idea.

Some day we will have batteries and hydrogen fuel cells available to power our national fleet without using carbon-based fuels. But that day is decades off. Natural gas is available now, is a proven transportation fuel, is cheaper than gasoline or diesel, is cleaner burning than oil-based fuels, and is ours.

The Congress should act on the NAT GAS Act now. E.D. is creeping up on everyone.

T. Boone Pickens is founder and chairman of BP Capital Management, as well as the developer of the Pickens Plan.