Spill should not divert attention from foreign oil

Without minimizing the environmental issues involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, let’s focus on the economics of the situation. This accident has not disrupted the 19 million barrels of oil we used every day in April – 12.3 million of which was imported oil. In the weeks since the accident, crude oil prices have actually dropped about $15 per barrel – which shows there are much broader forces at work in pricing crude than even a spill like this one.

We should not allow this accident to divert our attention away from our continuing dependence on foreign oil – especially oil from OPEC nations.  We are importing nearly two-thirds of our oil requirements, and 70 percent of that is used as gasoline to fuel our 250 million SUVs, cars, and light trucks; and as diesel to power our 8 million heavy trucks.

Since I introduced the Pickens Plan in July 2008, I have said I was for “anything American” when it came to fueling our economy.  Oil is a non-factor in the generation of electricity, so where can we find a substitute for OPEC oil as a transportation fuel?

Right under our feet.

In North America we have some 4,000 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas reserves. That is enough to last 200 years. We have more than twice the energy stored in our natural gas than the Saudis have in what they claim their oil reserves to be.

A battery will not push a heavy truck. The only substitute for diesel as a fuel for 18-wheelers is natural gas. 

Natural gas is the most widely distributed natural resource in the nation.  Natural gas lines run up every street and down every alley in just about every city and town in America. There are a number of classes of vehicles that are prime candidates for be Natural Gas Vehicles (NGV): Refuse and Recycling trucks (which are among the most inefficient vehicles on the road because they spend their entire day either idling or traveling at walking speed), municipal and school buses, express delivery and utility service trucks; and municipal, county and state fleets all go home to “the barn” every night so that refueling infrastructure is not an issue. 

Over-the-road trucks tend to run the same routes on a regular schedule so trucking companies and fuel providers can easily optimize sighting of refueling facilities to handle 18-wheelers.

Environmentally, natural gas produces just a fraction of greenhouse gases of gasoline and virtually none of the particulate emissions so familiar to anyone who has driven behind a truck, or waited at the curb with their child for a school bus burning diesel.

The final piece of the energy issue is national security – which came back onto our national radar screen in the form of an SUV parked in Times Square.

Because so much of the oil we import comes from countries that are unstable or are unfriendly to us (or both), we have effectively been paying for both sides of the war on terror. If we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, especially OPEC oil, and replace that oil with domestic natural gas, we will be released from having to defend supplies from countries we don’t like, and don’t like us.

The energy bill introduced by Senators Kerry and Lieberman contains the basics of the NAT GAS Act – providing tax credits for fleet owners to replace their vehicles burning imported petroleum with vehicles running on domestic natural gas. That will help jump start an NGV industry in the United States that will add new, high-paying, permanent jobs all along the supply chain.

We should not allow the accident in the Gulf of Mexico to take or eyes off the goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. For the first time in 40 years we have a real chance to reverse our oil imports. We will look like fools if we let this opportunity pass.

Pickens is an energy executive and architect of the Pickens Plan