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Pennsylvania's answer to mounting fuel costs

Domestic natural gas could power trucks and more.

By T. Boone Pickens

and Patrick Meehan

Although slightly lower than the national average, Pennsylvania's unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 8 percent, and U.S. growth has slowed to a crawl. There are many reasons the economic recovery has been so slow, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, European nations' debt problems, and even the floods in the Mississippi basin.

We can't do much about earthquakes and floods, and America certainly can't change the retirement age in Greece or Spain. But it can affect another significant influence on global economic growth, and that's the amount of oil we have to import as our principal transportation fuel, especially from OPEC nations.

Here in Pennsylvania, a significant part of the answer to the high gasoline prices we're enduring is literally under our feet - in the vast amount of natural-gas reserves contained in the Marcellus Shale. This deposit, along with similar shale "plays" in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, has led some experts to estimate that the United States has enough natural gas to last 100 years. In fact, the natural gas in North America contains more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia.

So, given that we have such huge domestic supplies of readily available natural gas, why are we spending half a trillion dollars a year importing oil?

We know we can't replace America's 250 million gasoline-powered cars and light trucks with vehicles fueled by natural gas. First, the necessary fueling infrastructure doesn't exist, and building it is too daunting to contemplate. Second, we are wisely and quickly moving toward post-carbon technology for such vehicles, replacing gasoline with batteries and fuel cells.

However, today's heavy-duty trucks run on only two fuels, one of which is imported diesel. A battery won't push an 18-wheeler, and neither will ethanol. Only natural gas has the energy profile to be a viable substitute for diesel.

That's why Congress should pass the NAT GAS Act (H.R. 1380), which would provide a targeted, time-limited tax credit to companies that replace their diesel-burning trucks with models that run on cleaner, cheaper, domestically produced natural gas.

What about that fueling infrastructure problem? It doesn't exist for long-haul trucks, nor does it for trash and recycling trucks, municipal buses, or express-delivery and utility vehicles.

Eighteen-wheelers tend to travel the same routes on a regular schedule, and their drivers stop at the same places for rest, food, and refueling, so private companies could easily install natural-gas facilities at known truck stops. Trash trucks, buses, and the like, meanwhile, go home to the "barn" every night, so they wouldn't need a natural-gas refueling station on every corner.

After Canada and Mexico, our top two oil suppliers, the next five are Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Angola, and Iraq. Every one of those countries is unfriendly to the United States, unstable, or both.

But it's within our power to change the energy equation. We should look for ways to use our domestic resources - be they solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, or nuclear - to generate electricity. And we should use our enormous domestic supplies of natural gas to fuel heavy vehicles, which consume about half the oil we import for transportation.

Here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the benefits of using natural gas are apparent. Many of the vehicles at West Chester University are fueled by a natural-gas pump on campus; we visited the university last month and got a close look at its natural-gas initiative. Lower Merion School District is another good example: Nearly two-thirds of its buses are powered by compressed natural gas.

Pennsylvania has a proud history as the original home of an oil industry that powered America in the 19th and 20th centuries. That history is about to be repeated in the commonwealth's production of natural gas. This industry will provide jobs and economic growth for Pennsylvanians, as well as a substantial boost to the economy and national security of the United States.