Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The president says the fuel has a role in our energy future, but try finding that message in his administration’s policies. By Cherry Fisher May

In the wake of Egypt’s 18-day revolution, we watch and wait as popular protests continue to erupt across that oil-rich region of the world. The potential for destabilization of the U.S. energy supply leaves our country vulnerable and represents a threat to our national security and economic viability. The need for domestic energy independence has never been more palpable or pressing, and we in Louisiana understand that natural gas should play a major role in getting us there.

It appeared, at least for a while, that the president understands this too. In his State of the Union message in late January, President Obama urged bipartisan support for developing clean, domestic energy sources to fuel America’s future. After taking a swipe at the oil industry, the president included natural gas along with wind, solar, nuclear and clean coal technology as investment-worthy alternatives. “We will need them all,” he said in the speech. But the administration is sending mixed messages. At the annual economic development luncheon held during the recent Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras commemoration, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made no distinction between oil and natural gas, deriding the pair. “You won’t like what I have to say,” he said, as he outlined plans for a tax on the industry that would discourage development based on atmospheric concerns.

Consider Geithner’s comments, the quick trigger on the offshore drilling moratorium after the BP oil spill, and how slowly permits are being issued now that it has been lifted. The president says natural gas is clean enough to make the cut, but obviously the administration doesn’t universally feel the love. It is frustrating for us in Louisiana; our region’s huge reserves clearly offer a clean, abundant, affordable and immediate alternative path to domestic energy security with all the benefits it would provide for our country.
Given Louisiana’s size, reserves, and infrastructure, we could build a model at the state level to bolster the case. Already, half of the state’s electrical power production is fueled by natural gas. Louisiana cities are slowly adopting the clean-burning fuel in compressed form, called CNG, for municipal fleets and recruiting private companies to join them: first Shreveport-Bossier, followed recently by Baton Rouge and joined this year by Lafayette and New Orleans. Once considering propane, Lake Charles has now opted for a CNG-based plan, which is important. If municipalities across the state embrace the same alternative fuel, more stations and drivers are certain to follow.

Stone Energy CEO Dave Welch estimates that two dozen CNG filling stations on major freeways throughout Louisiana could support intrastate travel. At $1 million each, it’s the classic chicken-or-egg situation: The stations must be in place to make it viable for drivers yet there must be a critical mass of CNG-burning vehicles to justify the investment. Private-sector tax credits are available for conversion, and more manufacturers are offering CNG fueled vehicles. With price-per-gallon equivalents running about half the current price for gasoline, the option becomes increasingly attractive.

Funded primarily through grants, Lafayette’s first station will come online this fall, and two more are slated for 2012. Mike Hollier is charged with developing the strategic plan for Lafayette Consolidated Government. “If we don’t go this route, it’s like living in a forest and not using wood,” the planning manager says. Great advice for a country blessed with an ample supply of natural gas yet dangerously dependent on foreign oil.

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