Leveling the road for natural gas vehicles can give drivers a break from summer gas price hikes

Every Memorial Day, as sure as barbeques and baseball games, Americans can count on the familiar tradition of watching gasoline prices rise. The Energy Information Agency summer cost forecast estimates that gasoline prices this summer will average $3.63 per gallon.

While this price is down from last summer’s average of $3.69 per gallon, it still burdens the average driver. AAA predicted that Memorial Day weekend average gasoline prices will top the 2012 $3.64 level and even the 2011 $3.79 price. This follows AAA’s April survey showing that two-thirds of Americans say gasoline prices strain their budgets at $3.64, and half of Americans say gasoline is too high at $3.40.

In Europe, government policies support high gasoline and diesel prices to encourage fuel economy and reduce petroleum demand. Here’s the good news: America has a better option. We have an abundant, accessible resource of clean natural gas that can drive us where we need to go at nearly half the cost of gasoline.

Natural gas is the brightest spot in our economy today, meeting one-fourth of America’s energy needs at a lower cost and with lower greenhouse gas emissions than other leading fuels. We must do more to realize the promises of natural gas by expanding its use in transportation. The market dynamics are there, but we must ensure that natural gas vehicles have an equal regulatory playing field on which to compete.

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Last August, the Obama administration reached a milestone in reducing our dependence on foreign oil and improving our environment when it extended the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks for model years 2017 and beyond. This built on the historic agreement between the administration and automakers establishing the first combined CAFE and greenhouse gas standards, which I was honored to be part of during my time as president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Last summer’s rule for light-duty vehicles took one more step towards progress by incorporating, for the first time, equal production incentives for clean natural gas vehicles among those provided for other alternative fuel vehicles. Unlike tax incentives, these production incentives do not further strain our already maxed out U.S. Treasury.

In 2011, the administration established the first CAFE rule for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. But this rule failed to recognize the benefits of natural gas. Now, we have another opportunity to bring us closer to the promising future natural gas can provide. 

This summer, the administration will determine the next round of CAFE standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The medium and heavy-duty market is an ideal entry point for alternative fuels including natural gas, because fleet vehicles – like delivery trucks, refuse vehicles and transit buses – can quickly recoup through savings on fuel costs the higher initial investment in these vehicles. Furthermore, while heavy-duty vehicles make up just 4percent of the vehicles on the road, they account for more than 20 percent of transportation fuel consumed in the United States. Diversifying the fuels available to this sector is a high impact way to help reduce our reliance on petroleum.

As more fleets make the switch and encourage investment in alternative fueling stations and infrastructure, it will become easier for consumer vehicles to follow suit, providing lasting value for our nation. The American Clean Skies Foundation found that converting just 10 percent of America’s 49 million pickup trucks to run on compressed natural gas, and 10 percent of our 2.6 million combination trucks to run on liquefied natural gas could generate about $88 billion in national benefits resulting from reduced oil imports, lower pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and reduced military spending. And building the necessary fueling stations to support this goal could create more than 1.5 million new clean fuels technology jobs.

By crafting the medium- and heavy-duty CAFE rule to encourage the use of clean, domestic fuels like natural gas, we can help give consumers more choices. Collectively, these choices can enhance our energy security, our economic competitiveness, and encourage the expansion of refueling infrastructure and technologic advances in transportation. 

President Obama must ensure that his next historic fuel economy agreement helps restore economic vitality while driving us towards a cleaner and more secure future. As the Obama administration works to finalize CAFE standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, it must give due weight to the benefits provided by the cheaper, cleaner, domestic option we have in natural gas. Only then can we say goodbye to our least favorite Memorial Day tradition.


McCurdy is the president and CEO of the American Gas Association, and former president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He represented the Fourth Congressional District of Oklahoma for 14 years from 1981-1995.

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