Two years ago I spoke with T. Boone Pickens, the Oklahoma-born financier who has invested a good deal of his fortune trying to wean the nation off oil in the name of national security.
Oil prices had just finished a good impression of an amusement park ride, which wasn't doing a lot for his goal of converting millions of U.S. trucking fleets to natural gas. Business people tend to do things that make economic sense. When you're on an amusement park ride, it doesn't make a lot of sense — economic or otherwise — to hop off.
And so Pickens' agenda has had to crawl at an agonizingly slow pace. That doesn't mean there hasn't been progress.
Last week, the Flying J Travel Center in Salt Lake City opened what is being billed as the nation's second largest liquefied and compressed natural gas station. Heavy trucks can't operate efficiently on the kind of natural gas that lights your home fireplace. They require a liquid form of the gas that has been treated at a temperature of 260 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. But unless you can find filling stations along your route, you aren't too likely to invest the $90,000 or so more it costs to buy a truck outfitted with the engine and the special fuel tank needed to run on the stuff.
The Salt Lake station will be an incentive for some companies to begin converting their fleets.
But no matter how quiet things get in your neighborhood tonight, you're not likely to hear the sound of Hugo Chavez or any of several Middle Eastern monarchs, despots and other assorted evil oil magnates shaking in their boots. At this rate, their great-grandkids may have to worry about the demand for oil disappearing, but that's just as likely to be from the oil drying up as it is from Americans switching to natural gas.
The industry says there now are more than 100 such stations nationwide. The number of regular gas stations is elusive. The nearest I could find was a 1998 figure of 187,097, as published in The Journal Of Petroleum Marketing.
My guess is it's higher today.
Rich Moskowitz, vice president of the American Trucking Associations, said he's seeing "more companies interested in (natural gas), but not in terms of replacing their fleets, but in augmenting them." For a big change to happen, the market will need several liquefied natural gas stations competing with each other to keep prices down.
But here's the rub — that sort of change isn't likely to happen without some sort of incentives or credits. In other words, it would require an expenditure of taxes. Read that aloud and my guess is your neighborhood will get quieter, especially if someone is expecting a tea party invitation soon.
The new station in Salt Lake City was paid for in part by federal stimulus money. Meanwhile, the state Division of Air Quality has announced several grants and loans that will be used to help local carriers either buy or convert their vehicles to natural gas.
Companies with medium-sized trucks and local routes may begin a gradual switch to natural gas. If you operate long-haul trucks that drive irregular routes, however, you still can't be sure you'll find a place to fill up.
Even then, Moskowitz notes, the stainless steel tanks needed for liquefied natural gas add significantly to a truck's weight, which may reduce the load they can carry.
Two years ago, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch sponsored a bill that would have provided tax incentives to help companies switch their fleets and gas stations provide the fuel. It failed. Today, such a thing is even less likely to pass.
Pickens complained about how stupid it is for Americans to be funding both sides of the war on terrorism, given the types of bad guys who profit from oil. He's still right. Solving that problem quickly, however, may be impossible.
Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at email@example.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com