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Natural gas may not be the cure-all Pickens thinks it is

Can you envision a near future in which America fuels its cars and trucks solely with natural gas?

Neither can I, but then you and I are not T. Boone Pickens.

He called me the other day as part of a concerted effort to reach editorial writers to voice support for a natural-gas incentive bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Pickens, you may recall, is a financier with a grand plan for making the United States energy-independent. The recent drop in energy prices hasn't been kind to the 81-year-old from Oklahoma, but it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm or drive, either.

To him, this is a matter of national security, which ought to trump all other concerns, including money. (And the Hatch bill probably would require plenty of that — although the cost of the bill has yet to be officially tallied.)

Pickens happens to be right about national security. Nothing would weaken Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez quicker than to remove our dependence on oil. The way Pickens sees it, converting 6.5 million diesel trucks to natural gas over a period of seven years would cut U.S. imports from OPEC in half.

If we keep going the way we are, he said, we are funding both sides of the war, and that makes little sense.

It's hard to argue with that. But then, it's hard to argue with the idea that Americans should eat less and people shouldn't text and drive. Getting there is another thing.

Hatch's bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, would provide tax credits to truckers for up to 80 percent of the difference between buying a new gas-powered rig and one powered by natural gas. The maximum amount of the credit would be $64,000. It also would provide a $5,000 credit for most purchasers of natural-gas passenger cars and trucks.

It also would provide a $100,000 tax credit for anyone who installs a natural-gas pump at a filling station or truck stop, on the theory that you won't buy an expensive rig if you can't fill it up.

My sources in Washington say the big trucks won't run on just any natural gas. They would use liquid natural gas, which has been treated at very low temperatures (minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit). They also tell me there is an abundant supply of natural gas in this nation, much of it in Utah. And because of new techniques for extracting it, the amount of available gas is growing constantly.

That sounds great, until you talk to the trucking industry. Clayton Boyce, vice president and press secretary of the American Trucking Associations, said he's all for sticking it to our enemies and getting America off oil. He's not opposed to natural-gas-powered vehicles, and the associations have yet to take a formal position on Hatch's bill. He just wants to point out a few of the barriers.

The first is the lack of the aforementioned fueling stations. Then there is the fact that a truck filled with 119 gallons of the stuff would be good for about 775 miles, compared to 1,400 miles or more with the same amount of diesel fuel.

And then there are the other extra costs. Building a liquid-natural-gas fueling pump costs more than $500,000. The companies would have to train in-house mechanics to deal with the engines and the fuel, which can be dangerous. Even the environment is a concern. Liquid-natural-gas tanks release methane through pressure valves as they warm. Also, some early reports say the trucks don't quite have the oomph they need to get over mountains.

Pickens is undeterred, calling it "a victory that Obama can't pass up." He does admit it may take 20 or 30 years to move the nation to a new type of fuel.

"As someone once told me, if you're going to plant a tree, the best time to do so was 20 years ago," he said. "You'd have a great tree now. But the next best time to plant it is today."

Maybe, but if the tree is too expensive, it may never be planted no matter how nice it could become.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News edito?rial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com. Visit his blog at deseretnews.com/blogs.