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Energy Week 2012 / ENERGY

Push for Natural Gas Vehicles Opposed By Both Environmentalists, Deficit Hawks

A motorist fills up at a natural gas pumping station in College Park, Ga.(AP Photo/David Goldman)

photo of Amy Harder
March 8, 2012

HOUSTON—President Obama, top energy executives, and state officials are all touting natural-gas-powered cars and trucks in a series of events this week. But some environmentalists and conservative groups are starting to push back as the Senate gears up to vote on legislation on Thursday that would provide tax incentives for purchases and production of natural-gas-fueled trucks.

“The president has proposed we switch trucks to natural gas, and I’m here to tell you today that every truck we switch to natural gas damages the atmosphere,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said at the IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates annual conference here. Krupp said the little data available about how much methane — a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — escapes during the production of shale natural gas compels him to refuse to support a shift toward more natural-gas vehicles.

“We’re against what the president called for in the State of the Union until they [the natural-gas industry] can demonstrate they can get the leak rate down below 1 percent,” Krupp added. The Environmental Defense Fund’s opposition to the proposal is notable; it is one of the only environmental groups willing to work with industry on the concerns surrounding shale natural gas, which has been discovered in vast amounts all over the country in the past few years.

 

Back in Washington, conservative organizations concerned chiefly about reducing the federal deficit are sending letters to senators urging a "no" vote on a bipartisan measure sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would expand tax credits for buyers of natural-gas-powered trucks and installation of fueling stations as well as production tax credits for manufacturers of vehicles that run on natural gas. The Senate could vote on it as soon as Thursday afternoon as part of a series of amendments to the surface-transportation bill. It’s not expected to pass, but the vote could put some politically vulnerable members in tough spots.

“Natural gas prices are at historically low levels. This means that major companies are already investing in building the infrastructure needed to fuel natural gas vehicles,” said a letter to senators signed by five conservative groups, including the Club For Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

Indeed, the private sector and state officials are moving forward despite inaction on Capitol Hill. This week, General Electric and Chesapeake Energy, one of the country’s biggest producers of natural gas, announced a partnership seeking to accelerate it's use as a transportation fuel. Last week, General Motors and Chrysler announced they would start selling pickup trucks that can run on either gasoline or natural gas.

Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich told reporters at the energy conference on Wednesday that he has been talking with Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors about the “possibility of having this kind of industry” in Ohio. He also referenced a partnership brokered among a number of states, including Colorado, Maine, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, late last year to encourage the production of natural-gas-powered vehicles.

The world’s biggest oil and natural gas companies are also on board with the shift — especially for trucks that are currently running on diesel.

Natural gas “holds tremendous promise as a cleaner transport fuel,” Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser said at a speech to hundreds of energy executives at the conference on Wednesday. “As an alternative to diesel, it’s a smart way to reduce emissions of sulfur-oxides and particles.”

Obama touted natural-gas-powered trucks as a cleaner alternative at a truck-manufacturing facility in North Carolina on Wednesday, just the latest in a series of speeches on energy he has made since his State of the Union address in January.

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