June 30, 2010
Geoffrey C. Orsak
With gas at less than $3 a gallon, it is hard to get fired up about a new national energy plan. We are all still worn out from the overly politicized process that brought about only modest change in the health care system. But waiting until global demand exceeds supply will undoubtedly lead us to scramble for solutions that are, in all likelihood, not going to be well-conceived.
We need a practical strategy right now to dramatically reduce our need for foreign oil, one that doesn't just provide "feel good" solutions that appeal to our instincts to protect the earth. We send almost one billion dollars per day overseas to buy oil — that is every single day! If it is not obvious, one billion dollars invested each day in education, the environment and economic development would have an immediate and profound impact on our quality of life and our ability to compete long term.
Time is not on our side here. The U.S. consumes about 20 million of the 80-plus million barrels of oil produced across the globe each day, yet we only produce about nine million barrels of oil per day. We just can't sustain this level of oil consumption and still have a thriving economy.
Frankly, I am not in the mood to wait 10 years in anticipation that we reinvent our energy supply around green or renewable sources. Yes, I know this will happen sometime in the future, I just don't want the U.S. to transfer trillions of dollars to other nations before battery technology is mature enough for prime time.
We need to implement strategies right now to utilize the energy that is available to us from domestic sources. I recently had the unique opportunity to listen to T. Boone Pickens at a small gathering. Pickens made his name in the 1980s as a corporate raider. He has made and lost several fortunes over his lifetime, but that's really no disgrace here in Texas.
As part of the so-called Pickens Plan (you have no doubt seen the commercials), Pickens wants Congress to pass a series of tax credits and other incentives for things like purchasing or manufacturing natural gas vehicles — particularly for city buses, heavy-lift trucks and long-haul vehicles. You see, unlike oil, the U.S. is sitting on vast amounts of natural gas that is now available through clever new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies. Boone and Congress may have accomplished some of this by the time you read this column. (Disclaimer: Boone is in the natural gas business and he plans to make money. But I've used this column before to make the simple point that great ideas frequently come from people who earn a profit by them.)
Natural-gas-powered vehicles are a stable and ready-to-go technology. China is buying as many natural-gas-powered buses as it can get its hands on. So should we. The rapid expansion of this
industry will create jobs right here in America and will recycle our energy dollars back into our own economy.
In a new workable national energy bill, we don't need to hit homeruns; we can win this game by hitting singles. Natural gas may not be the ultimate sexy green energy source we are all hoping for, but it is greener than diesel, time tested, and most importantly, ours.
Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at