Typically, when you envision the United States, innovation and trend-setting probably fit into the overall picture. However, when it comes to the most recent rumblings in the transportation sector, we are far, far behind many still-developing nations. Many of these said nations are ones we have been at odds with politically and militarily, some right up to the present. So what gives? Is the United States on its way to catching up, or are we simply too far behind?
Because of the combination of the American entrepreneurial spirit and years and years of built-up research and development, natural gas production has skyrocketed domestically over the past few years. The explosion of production has been so great that we aren't even sure what to do with it all. Companies are required to foot so much of an upfront cost that they continue pumping gas out of the ground even when it's uneconomical. They simply flare it -- i.e., burn it off into the atmosphere.
Thankfully, enterprising folks such as T. Boone Pickens are around to start companies such as Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ:CLNE) to help capitalize on this "problem." For several years now, he and his management team have been preaching the importance of using natural gas as an efficient and environmentally friendly fuel source. The problem remained that our infrastructure was severely lacking and there simply weren't sufficient automobile choices that could run on natural gas.
Rather than tackle both problems, Clean Energy Fuels decided to address the infrastructure dilemma in hopes that established auto and engine manufacturers would hold up their obvious end of the bargain. Support from fleet vehicles is quickly gathering steam, with, among myriad others, Waste Management (NYSE:WM) running its refuse fleet on natural gas and UPS (NYSE:UPS) hoping to add 700 new natural gas trucks to its existing triple-digit natural gas fleet. Long-haul truckers will probably begin to boost their use of natural gas now that multiple engine choices are emerging from the partnership between Cummins and Westport Innovations (NASDAQ:WPRT). Unfortunately, though, consumers don't have many options available to them.
Even with all of this momentum, America still lags some very unlikely countries when it comes to natural gas usage as a transportation fuel. If you want to feel embarrassed, simply take a look at the top 10 countries ranked by number of natural gas vehicles adopted. At the end of 2011, the United States fell seven places short of even making that list. Who finished in the top three? Iran, Pakistan, and Argentina. The U.S. didn't even account for 1% of total NGVs globally, according to NGV Global.
So what is our best bet? In my mind, we need to start establishing a larger selection of bi-fuel vehicles. Much like the current hybrid lineups that have been sweeping the nation, bi-fuel vehicles have the option of switching up their fuel source. However, in their case, the options are gasoline or diesel and natural gas rather than electricity and gasoline. This optionality appeals to consumers because it doesn't pigeonhole them into searching for a fueling station as the infrastructure continues to expand.
To date, there haven't been many iterations for consumers to choose from. One angle companies have been taking is to address the pickup-truck market. General Motors (NYSE:GM) has a few options for Americans to choose from, and barring a complete flop, I would imagine other options won't be far behind from them or the competition.
If we are truly serious about lessening our dependence on foreign oil and refined products, this is the next logical step. With a projected 85 years of supply under our feet -- probably much larger as technology continues to advance -- it seems that we should be in the pole position in the natural gas vehicle race. Let's not allow countries that we publicly state are well behind us in terms of civil and political development to upstage us in an area as important as energy and environmental security.