Let's think big on energy

January 11, 2009|By Donald Cornwell

President-elect Barack Obama has stated that his economic stimulus package will include a major initiative to build an alternative energy infrastructure. Mr. Obama's resolve, even in the face of declining energy prices, is laudable. The question is, will his program be bold and comprehensive enough to truly break the grip of our dependence on foreign oil?

The Pickens Plan, introduced last summer, is the only proposal on the table that goes far enough to have a realistic chance of reducing our dependence on foreign oil by 50 percent over the next 10 years. Like other energy initiatives, the plan proposed by Texas billionaire and petroleum geologist T. Boone Pickens proposes the massive development of wind and solar energy along with a new power grid to deliver these resources to where they're needed. However, the key difference of the Pickens Plan is its inclusion of natural gas.

The reality is that almost all non-fossil energy sources generate electricity (including nuclear). However, the problem of foreign energy dependence is almost entirely a liquid-fuel transportation problem. While there is great promise in plug-in hybrid electrics and other variants of the "electric car" to take advantage of this renewable electricity, there is no "electric" tractor-trailer on the horizon.

It is a fact, however, that heavy trucks and fleet vehicles consume 38 percent of all oil used for transport in the United States. It is also a fact that more than 8 million heavy vehicles around the world operate daily using compressed natural gas, including more than 120,000 in this country. Compressed natural gas is 30 percent cleaner than diesel or gasoline, and existing fleet vehicles could be converted for a few thousand dollars each.

Most important, natural gas is abundant in the U.S. as a result of new recovery techniques in shale formations. The presence of this resource on our territory means that the markets and pricing of compressed natural gas are local and not at the mercy of geopolitical events. The recent restriction of Russian gas to Ukraine (and, as a consequence, to Western Europe) demonstrates this independence; it has not affected natural gas prices in the U.S.

The Pickens Plan brings an added benefit in that its goal of American energy independence has resonated with more than 1.4 million voters, many of them not traditionally associated with "green" issues. A review of congressional district statistics on the Pickens Plan Web site reveals that its strongest support is in traditionally "red" states - areas whose Republican representatives and senators will likely form the "loyal opposition" to Mr. Obama's plans for "green"-only energy independence.

A comprehensive plan that includes compressed natural gas to face the realities of providing heavy transport represents a compromise that can greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil while keeping the American oil and gas industry in the game until future battery technologies have the power to move an 18-wheeler.

President-elect Obama and the Democratic Congress would be wise to join forces with Mr. Pickens' "New Energy Army" to rally support across the aisle and overcome the powerful lobby of the status quo to move toward American independence from foreign oil.

Donald Cornwell, a Howard County resident and vice president of an aerospace company, is the 7th Congressional District leader for PickensPlan.com. His e-mail is dcornwell20901@yahoo.com.

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