Visiting Las Vegas today, President Obama officially opened the country's first natural gas trucking corridor, a stretch linking California's Long Beach with Utah's Salt Lake City, along which properly equipped medium- and heavy-duty trucks can tank up on compressed natural gas. CNG-fueled buses will be familiar to passengers in cities from Delhi to New York. But using CNG as the main fuel for trucks is a relatively new idea, first given a high-profile pitch several years ago by famed oilman T. Boone Pickens in his "Pickens plan."
Pickens's idea was to replace the electricity we generate from natural gas with wind and use the freed-up gas as a fuel in transportation. An even better idea, however, if one is at all concerned about clean air and climate change, is to keep using natural gas to generate electricity and in fact use even more, displacing coal, while as the same time using compressed natural gas as a transportation fuel as well. Because of the revolution in unconventional gas, that scenario is now feasible, and President Obama appears to be embracing it.
When Obama was a presidential candidate Pickens had the opportunity to meet with him personally and pitch his plan. Recounting the experience to a group of reporters, Pickens told how Candidate Obama said he hoped to have something like a million hybrid and electric cars on the road within ten years; Pickens told him that if you parked a million cars outside it would look like a lot of cars, but that in fact there are 250 million cars on the road and 9 million new ones sold every year.
(As a member of that group of reporters, I seized the opportunity to pitch my version of the Pickens Plan back to Pickens. His immediate reaction was to designate me the “Al Gore” in the group because of my evident concern about global warming. Nevertheless, I advised readers that if they had to take a stake in one of just two climate policies, Gore’s or the Pickens plan, they’d do better to go for the T Boone.)
After some delay, Obama is doing just that: "The president’s plan includes," according to a White House fact sheet, "proposing new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that run on natural gas or other alternative fuels; launching a competitive grant program to support communities to overcome the barriers to natural gas vehicle deployment; developing transportation corridors that allow trucks fueled by liquefied natural gas to transport goods; and supporting programs to convert municipal buses and trucks to run on natural gas and to find new ways to convert and store natural gas."
That’s not all President Obama is doing to to flesh out general pledges he made in Tuesday's State of the Union address, and to satisfy voters he’s addressing both the country’s energy dependencies and the risks associated with long-term climate change. In Las Vegas today, he also announced the final lease sale of offshore acreage in the central Gulf of Mexico, scheduled for late June, with conditions meant to make sure that oil companies develop the leases they acquire, as The Wall Street Journal reported. That lease, says the White House fact sheet, will make 38 million additional acres available and could lead to 1 billion more barrels of oil produced and 4 trillion cubic feet more of natural gas. The president, says the White House, has "directed the Department of Interior to finalize a national offshore energy plan that makes 75 percent of our potential offshore resources available for development by opening new areas for drilling in the Gulf and Alaska."
Also today, the president visited an air base in Colorado and took the occasion to remind people of his pledge to have the U.S. Navy purchase a gigawatt of clean electricity produced from domestically available resources like the sun and wind. Plainly, Obama is pulling out all the stops to counter Republican charges that in torpedoing a proposed pipeline linking Canadian oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico, he undermines U.S. energy independence and kills U.S. jobs. The trick for him is to appease Republicans and independents without simultaneously raising hackles among those concerned about climate.
Would the president actually say the c-word in his State of the Union? He did mention climate change but stumbled a bit over the words and confined himself to saying that prospects for getting a comprehensive carbon-reduction bill through Congress were nil. At the same time he insisted on the importance of clean air, which environmentalists appreciate means air that not only contains less pollutant but also less greenhouse gas. Just as important was what he did not say. Though he trumpeted domestic energy resources, he did not mention coal or even the promise of "clean coal." Nor for that matter did he mention nuclear energy, which he has supported in the past. What he boosted was "clean energy"--basically wind and solar--and natural gas.
In addition to incentives to boost introduction of compressed natural gas in transportation, the administration also plans an aggressive research program: "The Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) will announce a new research competition in the coming months that will engage our country’s brightest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to find ways to harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas to lessen our dependence of foreign oil for vehicles," says the White House. "The breakthrough technologies they will develop, whether they are for new ways to fuel our cars with natural gas or a method to turn that gas into liquid fuel, promise to break our dependence on foreign oil for our cars and trucks, allow us to breathe cleaner air, and ultimately save consumers at the pump."