Obama, T. Boone Pickens push natural gas as energy fix

WASHINGTON — The centerpiece of President Barack Obama's new energy policy mirrors the plan trumpeted for more than two years by a onetime GOP juggernaut: Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens wants the U.S. to turn to natural gas, beginning with fleets of 18-wheelers that run on the abundant domestic resource. How long would it take to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? In seven years, said Pickens, "we could cut our dependence on OPEC in half, to 2.5 million barrels a day."

The billionaire told reporters last week that he's spent $80 million of his own money touting the plan. He's supremely confident that a bill being introduced Wednesday in the House of Representatives by two Democrats and two Republicans — which would give natural gas producers, engine makers and truck operators tax incentives — will move quickly as gasoline prices continue to spike and the Middle East ignites.

"In the House, I'm confident you'll have over 300 votes on this," Pickens said. And the timetable to get it passed by the House and Senate and signed into law? "I predict, this year."

Supporters of the bill say that's pretty much on the mark, especially since transportation and energy got a big boost from the president twice this week — on Wednesday, in a speech about energy at Georgetown University, and on Friday, in an appearance at a United Parcel Service facility in Landover, Md., promoting a "Clean Fleet Partnership" between the government and companies with truck fleets.

In his Georgetown speech, Obama singled out domestically produced natural gas and called for the U.S. to reduce dependence on foreign oil by one-third in a decade, saying that when it comes to finding a secure alternative, "the potential for natural gas is enormous."

"Last year, more than 150 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle produced legislation providing incentives to use clean-burning natural gas in our vehicles instead of oil," Obama said. "And that's a big deal. Getting 150 members of Congress to agree on anything is a big deal. And they were even joined by T. Boone Pickens, a businessman who made his fortune on oil, but who is out there making the simple point that we can't simply drill our way out of our energy problems."

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, a former oil industry executive and onetime business partner of former President George W. Bush, will sign on to the legislation.

"Obviously, natural gas is more abundant than we ever knew," Conaway said in an interview. He said the president's push will help jump-start the legislation, as will the public's concern about the cost of gasoline. "High gas prices help drive these kind of policy decisions, as well."

However, the administration's embrace of natural gas has some limits. In the same Georgetown address, Obama spoke about the environmental concerns in extracting natural gas.

"Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves — perhaps a century's worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves — in the shale under our feet," said the president. "But just as is true in terms of us extracting oil from the ground, we've got to make sure that we're extracting natural gas safely, without polluting our water supply."

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — a drilling technique that pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underground shale formations — has come under the scrutiny of federal regulators and environmental groups.

"His own agencies are making it almost impossible to extract the gas," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will have jurisdiction over parts of the bill. "There is a strong move to counter fracking for unconventional shale sources."

The nation's truckers are waiting for details in the bill.

"Natural gas presents a viable opportunity for segments of our industry," said Rich Moskowitz, an American Trucking Association vice president. "Natural gas is significantly cheaper than diesel," he said, but the cost of the truck burning natural gas would also be significantly higher than conventional trucks.

What will be the tipping point? "Depends on the size of the tax credit," Moskowitz said.

The bill being introduced this week sets the maximum value of the vehicle tax credit at $7,500 to $64,000, depending on the weight of the vehicle.


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