With all this natural gas, who needs oil?
It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy.
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How far the US will pivot toward a natural gas economy will depend not just on economic forces and environmental factors. It will also hinge on Washington.Skip to next paragraph
Ardent supporters of the fuel, like Pickens, believe that natural gas could help the US achieve oil independence from the Middle East within 10 years. He estimates that 15 percent of every barrel of oil America consumes is used by 18-wheelers moving goods around the country. Switching those vehicles alone to natural gas, he says, could go a long way to reducing Mideast imports.
Yet Pickens and others consider natural gas just one part of the solution. They see it as a "bridge fuel." The idea is to use domestic natural gas supplies to keep the nation running until wind, solar, and other sustainable energy sources become more economical. To spur the transition, supporters are pushing the Natural Gas Act, which would provide tax incentives to energy producers as well as buyers of NGVs.
Yet many environmental groups oppose a wholesale shift to the fuel, both because of the inherent risks with fracking under ground and what it could mean for the air overhead. While methane, the primary component of natural gas, burns between 20 and 55 percent cleaner than oil and coal, when released unburned into the atmosphere as a result of leaks, its volatility makes it a potentially bigger contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide, a leading cause of climate change.
"Very small leaks at the point of production, along the pipeline system, or at the local distribution system, can undo all of the greenhouse-gas benefit that you think you're getting when you switch to natural gas," says Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Others worry that a tilt too far toward natural gas could undermine the development of solar and wind power, leaving the nation again dependent on a fossil fuel that will eventually run out.
"If we want a future in which our energy is safe and secure and sustainable, we shouldn't be investing in fuel sources that are dirty and dangerous," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
There is a middle ground in this debate. EDF, for one, is working with gas companies like Southwestern Energy to develop better research and technology to avoid fracking problems and methane leakage. It's also pushing the development of wind and solar alternatives.
Many agree that the nation's energy future is best made up of a menu of options. "We would all prefer to have wind and solar, but we can't build wind and solar at scale competitively, unless we want to subsidize them heavily," says Charles Ebinger, the director of the energy security initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Natural gas can be developed and utilized in huge quantities and can be used in just about every sector of the economy."
Back in his garage in Massachusetts, Mann wants to do his part to solve the nation's energy woes, by encouraging the fuel's use under hoods. He's going ahead with his design for a natural gas home-fueling station. He also wants to get federal certification so he can begin manufacturing conversion kits. He has an inventor friend in Utah who is shipping 25 kits a day and did a million dollars in sales last year.
"It just makes so much sense," says a plaid-shirted Mann. "The stuff is already out there. We might as well use it."
• Alexandra Marks, a former Monitor staff writer who covered energy issues, lives in New York.