D. Dowd Muska


The Gas That Could Replace Gasoline

May 12, 2011

Enraged at “Big Oil” for looting your wallet every time you fill up? Buy a Honda Civic GX, and hit the road powered by natural gas.

The Civic GX -- manufactured in Indiana, protectionists should note -- is available only in California, New York, Utah, and Oklahoma. And finding a station to refuel any natural-gas vehicle (NGV) can be a problem. But gasoline has soared past its inflation-adjusted record, and the future is scary -- global petroleum demand is strong, while production is hamstrung by nationalization and bloodbaths in the Third World and NIMBYism in developed countries.

Switching fuels, once unthinkable, might be the right call.

The mainstream media showers coverage on hybrids, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf, but NGVs are the safest bet if there is to be a Car of the Future. There’s a lot to like about natural gas in transportation. First, unlike most “visionary” technology, it’s not an innovation that exists only in policy studies and PowerPoint presentations. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over 11 million NGVs were in use in 2009. They enjoy the largest market shares -- more than 10 percent -- in Bangladesh, Armenia, Pakistan, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Iran, and Malaysia.

NGVs aren’t so common in the U.S., but there’s more of them than you realize. The IEA found: “Heavy-duty natural gas vehicles are seen in many different applications in the United States, including specialised vehicles in marine ports and airports, school buses, waste collection, transit buses and long-haul trucks.” To save on diesel costs, UPS has over 1,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) delivery trucks, and is moving toward liquefied natural gas for its long-haul rigs.

Since natural gas fuels the great majority of new power plants, and already heats the bulk of the nation’s homes, its pipeline network is extensive. (And growing.) “Fracking” technology is enabling roughnecks to liberate gas in fields from Pennsylvania to Colorado. Simply put, America is now awash in the stuff. It’s nearly impossible to accurately predict energy economics, but massive, home-grown supply bodes well for NGVs. In April, the price for CNG was 44.2 percent less, per gallon equivalent, than for gasoline.

Finally, even eco-paranoiacs should favor NGVs. Emissions -- honest-to-gosh pollution, that is, such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides -- “are generally much lower than those from gasoline-powered vehicles,” reports Natural Gas Vehicles for America. (As for climate-change alarmism, “natural gas contains less carbon than any other fossil fuel, and thus produces lower carbon dioxide … emissions per vehicle mile traveled.”

So NGVs are cheaper and cleaner than our present rides, and it won’t take tens of trillions of dollars to build the infrastructure needed to make the transition. That can mean only one thing: Opportunistic pols are holding press conferences and drafting legislation. (After all, it’s always wise to take credit for a trend that’s already well underway without government “help.”)

The “New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act,” which expands Washington’s energy interventionism, has 180 cosponsors. Americans for Prosperity isn’t a fan: “We need to be cutting inefficient tax breaks that distort economic activity, not adding more to the IRS arsenal. The NAT GAS Act violates this very premise: increasing and expanding subsidies that favor natural gas over other sources of fuel, resulting in preferable treatment for an industry with deep pockets and expensive lobbyists.”

Why the skepticism? Close observers of the federal government’s energy policies understand just how much carnage results from “investments” and “incentives.” The Carter-era Synthetic Fuels Corporation, founded on what the liberal Brookings Institution called an “almost farcical economic basis,” wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. The Clinton/Gore Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) fizzled after the National Research Council concluded that the project’s goal of an affordable, 80-m.p.g. car “appears out of reach.” George W. Bush junked PNGV, but rather than replace it with nothing, shoveled subsidies at something even more ludicrous: hydrogen-powered vehicles. Two years ago, the Obama administration eschewed fuel-cell vehicles in favor of its more reality-based (we are told) Vehicle Technologies Program.

It never ends. Publicity-seeking pols, pie-in-the-sky bureaucrats, and welfare-grabbing corporations warp the energy market with a plethora of programs, subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions. Tax revenue is wasted, costs shifted, and windfalls received by the politically juiced.

NGVs aren’t desperate for Washington to ride to their rescue. They have both price and environmental advantages. They’ve already drawn interest from fleet operators, and could soon be bought by millions of individuals. NGVs need less government meddling, not more.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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