Let's Get Serious About Energy and Step on the Gas

You've almost certainly felt at least a mild twinge as you've pulled your thirsty automobile up to the gasoline pump of late. For a host of reasons, including concerns about instability in the Middle East and a major Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) West Coast refinery fire, the average retail price for a gallon of gasoline has risen from $3.33 just before Independence Day to a current level near $3.75.

Upward trends of that sort never warm the cockles of drivers' hearts, but when they're combined with a tepid economic recovery and the buildup to a quadrennial national election, they become even more problematic. Under those circumstances, what's an administration to do?

One silly strategy
One consideration floating around Washington, D.C., involves the possibility of tapping the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). However, that proposed elixir carries with it at least two significant difficulties. First, the SPR, which holds some 700 million gallons of crude, was never intended as an instrument for price manipulation, except in the event of a catastrophe that severely crimped crude or product supplies at home or abroad. Second, since we in the U.S. today use nearly 20 million gallons of crude per day, if we turned the SPR spigot wide open today and eliminated other crude sources (such as the 45% of our needs we currently import) we'd empty our cache by late September.

Why, then, are we so reluctant to mount a substantial national effort to propel another, cleaner-burning and domestically plentiful, hydrocarbon -- natural gas -- toward dramatically increased usage as a transportation fuel? After all, we're willing to pour oodles of taxpayers' funds into the sun-dependent likes of the dearly departed Solyndra and frequently struggling First Solar, among others.

A far better use of your shekels
But nary is heard a serious word from our nation's leaders about similarly subsidizing -- and thereby propelling -- the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. While private industry is progressing nicely toward eliminating the impediments to your being able to avail yourself of natural gas in your automobile, a national effort to expedite both the development of more efficient natural gas engines and a sizable network of filling facilities for the fuel would likely catapult the number of natural-gas-fueled cars plying our highways within a matter of years, rather than the decades that clearly will be needed for the receipt of serious economic benefits from the so-called "renewables."

You likely recall that it was no more than a half-dozen years ago that we were convinced that our domestic supplies of natural gas were on the verge of depletion. Since that time, hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- in a bevy of unconventional plays has rendered us awash in the fuel to the extent that Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) , the second-largest U.S. gas producer, along with a number of its peers, has reduced its output in the face of supply-related plummeting prices.

Lest you think, however, that a surfeit of natural gas is a purely U.S. phenomenon, I strongly suggest that you take time to peruse a seven-part, nearly 15-page compilation of information about essentially all aspects of natural gas and its uses in the July 14th-20th issue of The Economist magazine. The first section is titled "An unconventional bonanza." As the article notes in perhaps its most important sentence, "If the obstacles can be overcome, more gas and lower prices will mean a rise of 50% in global demand for gas between 2010 and 2035, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency)."

Minor changes needed
What are the "obstacles?" Obviously, other parts of the planet -- including Europe, China, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and parts of Africa -- are initiating all-out efforts to approximate U.S. success in economically recoverable unconventional gas. Closer to home, however, there are a few issues to be resolved prior to newly plentiful natural gas taking its rightful place among prevalent transportation fuels. These would include:

  • Storage of natural gas requires high pressure, which means larger, stronger, and heavier tanks than are required for gasoline. At present, however, Chesapeake and industrial giant 3M (NYSE: MMM  ) are involved in a joint effort to decrease tanks' weights, while increasing their capacity.
  • Refueling opportunities are nowhere near as plentiful for natural gas as for gasoline. Of about 1,500 U.S. stations available today, you and I are only able to gain access to about half. That compares to nearly 120,000 gasoline fill-up sites nationwide. Beyond that, however, the added expenses necessitated by natural gas storage appear to be excellent targets for federal subsidies otherwise intended for far less promising "green" fuels. Indeed, while its partially owned by energy seer T. Boone Pickens, I see little reason for our Energy Department not to take at least a moderate shine to Clean Energy (Nasdaq: CLNE  ) , a builder of compressed natural gas (CNG) stations.

The Foolish bottom line
There are other issues in need of some improvement prior to the widespread marketing and use of CNG vehicles. Nevertheless, it's important to note that such bastions of scientific and engineering advancement as Pakistan and Iran have mandated the use of natural gas vehicles. As such, the two countries now have 2.7 million and 1.9 million such cars, respectively, bouncing along their roads. If they can accomplish those feats, why can't we do the same many times over? Imagine how much more pleasurable your trips to your local filling station would become under the circumstances.

Of the companies mentioned above, I suggest that you pay close attention to Clean Energy Fuels, which appears to be a vital cog in the seemingly inevitable movement to natural-gas-powered vehicles. If you are looking for further information on the company, you should click here to purchase a special premium report on the company by Jason Moser, a senior analyst for Motley Fool One and a specialist on clean energy. The premium report will give you the bull and bear case on the company and it comes with a year of free updates on CLNE's movements. 

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares of any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron, Clean Energy, and 3M. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in 3M.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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