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The New York Times and Natural Gas- Is it the Moment?

The venerable Gray Lady, the NY Times, has in the recent past treated the possible use of natural gas and its derivatives (methanol and ethanol) as transportation fuels warily. Their primary focus has seemed to be on the environmental problems and economic opportunities related to fracking and the increased production of natural gas. Rarely did the Times cover or note in its editorials the increasing acceptance of natural gas, methanol and ethanol as a fuel to power vehicles. The importance of alternative fuels as part of national energy and environmental policies has not been granted significant visibility in the Times. The Times is still my favorite read over a cup of coffee.

But, surprise! Borrowing and taking liberty to amend the lyrics from the musical Jekyll and Hyde,   “this may almost be the moment…when The New York Times begins to send many of its doubts and demons concerning alternative transportation fuels on their way… this could be the beginning. The momentum and the moment may be coming together soon in rhyme.”

Paul Stenquist, a respected, frequent writer for the Times automobile section, wrote an Oct. 29 article titled, Natural Gas Waits for its Moment. The content of the piece was, in reality, not as ambiguous or speculative. Read it!  According to Stenquist, natural gas has arrived and this is its moment, or at least its soon-to-be moment. Sure there are problems to overcome, but to Stenquist, they seem relatively puny given where he thinks we are, and where he suggests we can be soon.

Stenquist opens his upbeat piece by indicating that “cars and trucks powered by natural gas make up a significant portion of the vehicle fleet in many parts of the world (Iran, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and Germany).”  After noting the almost 2,000 natural gas stations in Argentina, he asks, “Is America next?”

Based on Department of Energy (DOE) information, Steinquist indicates that natural gas is about $1.50 cheaper than gasoline and diesel fuels for the same mileage, and that because natural gas burns clean, it requires less oil changes, and vehicle exhaust systems last longer.

Sure, the author notes that the initial cost of natural gas vehicles are significantly higher now than gasoline vehicles. But based on an apparent positive interview with a fleet manager from Ford, he indicates that increased sales or leasing volume could bring the vehicle price comparable to today’s conventional vehicles. The key issue Stenquist does not address, is when this will happen, and how long will it take?  But still he and his Ford colleague seem optimistic– perhaps a bit too optimistic, unless Detroit pulls a Steve Jobs; that is, just as Jobs did with the  iPhone, convince the public through marketing and technological innovation that cheaper cleaner natural gas vehicles are a “must” for consumers.

But wait, there’s more!  Stenquist, quoting from the Energy Department’s website, suggests that the environmental benefits of natural gas as a fuel appear to be immediate and important. Succinctly, natural gas vehicles have a much smaller carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel.

What remains, then, for the nation to benefit in a major way from use of natural gas as an alternative fuel?  Well for one, reducing carbon leakage during natural gas production and distribution. Progress is being made. Stopping or cutting back leakage has become a priority for both involved companies, and federal as well as state regulatory authorities.

Second, both car companies and the government acknowledge that using compressed natural gas in a conventional engine would result in degrading engine performance. However, retrofitting engines to use natural gas would increase the octane advantage of natural gas and lessen the density advantage of gasoline-reducing performance issues. Fully designed natural gas cars are still relatively rare and are, at this moment, significantly more costly than conventional cars. But with increased demand, as noted earlier, the costs would likely come down and make household purchase decisions easier. Interestingly, Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado(D) and Governor Fallin of Oklahoma(R) have put together a 22 state coalition. The group has committed to purchasing new natural gas cars to replace old cars in their respective fleets. Detroit has committed in turn to work on developing a less expensive natural gas car, given the market pool or demand created by the states. This effort deserves watching and will, if successful, hopefully, provide a path to cheaper natural gas vehicles for consumers.

Stenquist, correctly, points to the lack of natural gas fuel stations as a key obstacle to increased popularity of natural gas. But he is optimistic that technology now in place (or soon to be in place) will be able to link available natural gas pipelines to in home fuel machines. I, also, would hope that these fuel stations would be placed in parking garages and that they would be much cheaper than currently existing home refueling equipment.

I suspect that the natural gas movement will require more than a few moments; that is, it may take a bit longer to gain traction than implicit in Stenquist’s piece. But it’s nice to see a journalist link natural gas to transportation fuel in such an aggressive way as Stenquist. Now if the Times could only follow in the content of its editorial and op-ed pages.

It is hard to be critical of Stenquist’s piece since it’s almost a first for the NY Times. However, I am puzzled by the absence of any discussion of natural gas based ethanol and methanol as alternative fuels in his article. Both, likely, would be cheaper per gallon and per miles traveled than gasoline. Both would record more environmental benefits than gasoline, and both, if they are accepted in the market, would reduce dependency on imported oil. Perhaps most significantly, both, assuming appropriate government approvals, could be used almost immediately to fuel existing vehicles with relatively simple and cheap engine conversion kits. Think of it!  If we could add the trifecta: natural gas, ethanol and methanol –to fuel stations throughout America, it would provide needed competition to gasoline. Consumers would benefit by having access to lower cost fuel. The nation would benefit from improved environmental and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) conditions. America’s security and economy would be enhanced significantly. It would be a major win for the public interest and for America and Americans.

What do Grover Norquist and Edmund Burke have to do with Natural Gas?

I don’t like the idea of advance pledges by candidates concerning how they would vote, if they were elected by us. I believe it is contrary to representative democratic government and denies the fact that economic, security, social and environmental conditions change, often rapidly, and must be responded to with studied intelligence and common sense, not constant polling or focus groups.

I guess I am, at least, part Burkian.  Although it departs from present reality, as the great philosopher and British MP, Edmund Burke indicated, our elected leaders , should use their “…unbiased opinion…mature judgment…enlightened conscience…(our) representative(s) owe …not (their) industry only, but (their) judgment; and (they) betray, instead of serving (us), if they sacrifice ( judgment) to (our often fleeting ) opinion(s).” Voters can, at least in theory if not always in practice, dismiss their representatives at the next election. I am not sure Burke won again after he made his plea for more thinking and less pandering.

I am suffering emotionally (not too significantly) by being tempted by  a Kaplan analogue to Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge, required of  candidates for office.  While the tax pledge, I believe, is responsible for at least some of the dysfunction in Washington, there is a certain romantic, almost utopian appeal to it with respect to frustrated advocates for more and better fuel choices at the pump than just gasoline. As Emerson wisely indicated, perhaps, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The new Kaplan analogue to the Norquist pledge would acknowledge that the natural gas train has left the station. Indeed, it has! One has only to look at the number of wells/rigs now in place compared to just a few short years ago and the relatively rapid escalation in gas production.

The natural gas sector has become, and likely will remain, an economic and political powerhouse. In this context, advocates of a “renewable transportation fuel only” approach, risk, implicitly, supporting a short and intermediate term future dependent on oil and gasoline. As a result, their success would likely result in increased environmental degradation, more greenhouse gas (GHG), higher costs for consumers, increased security problems and restricted economic growth. Clearly, the enemy of a short term good would become a distant perfect.

The Kaplan pledge would commit candidates to help secure reasonable and effective federal and state regulations to protect and enhance the environment and significantly reduce GHG production during production, distribution and sales of natural gas-from wellhead to automobile.

The pledge would commit candidates, once elected, to help foster a collaborative public, nonprofit and private sector effort to wean the country off dirty oil and gasoline. It would require them to develop and support initiatives that open up the now almost closed transportation fuel market to safe, environmentally sound, cheaper alternative transition fuels. Finally, it would commit candidates, should they take office, to support the development of renewable fuels and vehicles that would reflect competitive costs and mileage capacity that match the budget and occupation as well as life-style needs of low, moderate and middle income Americans.

I feel sinful in departing from the philosophy of Edmund Burke. I need to contemplate my fall from philosophical grace. I apologize!  I hope I am treated with grace and redemption. My excuse in proposing a Congressional pledge was only a temporary errant fantasy. It “ain’t” going to happen. It is a flight from reality.

But, was it all bad? Perhaps, the Kaplan pledge points the way to an alternative that is not antithetical to Edmund Burke. What if, instead of trying the impossible with elected officials, many  of whom try to fit their views to the, often of the moment, views of their constituents, advocates of a free fuel market and alternative transitional transportation fuels worked to form  a coalition of nonpartisan or bipartisan groups: business, labor, environment, government, academic and community . Each group would join because they are consistent in heart and mind with the Kaplan fuel freedom pledge. Each would accept the intent explicit in the pledge; that is the nation’s need for a comprehensive fuels strategy that would bridge the gap between renewable and natural gas advocates, between environmentalists and the natural gas industry, between liberals and conservatives.

Free market business and conservative adherents would put muscle behind their ideology in seeking a more open fuel market. Liberals would put meaning behind their desire to aid the needy who suffer from the high cost of gasoline and limited job opportunities because budget constraints limit driving. Environmentalists would match their concern for the environment with support for natural gas, ethanol and methanol as transitional fuels — fuels that would reduce GHG and other gasoline generated pollutants. The nation would be better able to secure the stimulus now required to improve economic growth because of the reduced dependency on foreign imports. Every one of us would benefit from success in assuring research and development of renewable fuels. The coalition would inform and increase Congressional understanding of the need for an integrated coherent national fuel strategy. The payoff to elected leaders:  The Coalition would promise to help voters comprehend the nation’s need for alternative fuels and a comprehensive fuel freedom strategy. It would meet with measured success. Sign me up! The best of all possible worlds! Oh Happy Day!  I can dream can’t I?