March 2, 2009
Dear Mr. President:
Is it not time to give natural gas its due?
Did you not say in the midst of your campaign that natural gas would be and needed to be an integral part of America’s fuel mix? Have you not indicated your support for the much-needed Alaskan natural gas pipeline, perhaps even including the federal government as an actual participant? Aren’t you determined to reduce carbon emissions?
While I understood the need for your $787 billion economic stimulus plan, I was dismayed to find nothing in the way of funding for natural gas research or infrastructure work. I have not had time to peruse the entire document, but there is plenty of money for items relating to electric vehicles. I understand the necessity of this as well, because alternative fuel sources do require heavy commitments of investment that is unavailable from the private sector.
At the same time, you are trying to restructure the auto industry into a business that is less dependent on gasoline. But do you realize that electric cars will need to be plugged into the electrical grid every night? Do you understand the electrical grid is primarily fired up by coal and natural gas, the latter being the preferred fuel by far? Wind and solar power sound wonderful, and when the wind does blow and the sun does shine, they can provide useful alternatives. But we can no more control weather conditions than we can store wind, sunshine, or electricity. We can store natural gas. We can also provide almost unlimited quantities, given the proper economic stimulus.
I don’t have to remind you that natural gas heats and cools the homes of tens of millions of American families. Ask your social secretary, Desiree Rogers, about the importance of natural gas. Perhaps her former company, Peoples Gas, heats your Chicago home. Could Chicago even exist if it were not for the multitude of gas pipelines underneath the city? Natural gas is also a critical feedstock for the chemicals industry. When natural gas supplies don’t keep up with demand, chemicals companies often close down and/or move operations overseas. Mr. President, you’ve already expressed how you feel about keeping jobs in America.
A few days ago, I was further dismayed to read your proposed budget calls for substantial tax increases on the petroleum industry. You also want to restrict new drilling opportunities which will only reduce needed supplies and jobs.
There is no denying the petroleum industry has enjoyed a number of highly profitable years. But it is also true that this is a cyclical business. Depressed prices and higher capital costs will quickly bleed those profits. A healthy economy runs on energy. When the turnaround comes, we, along with the rest of the world, will need as much energy as we can get, in all forms.
Do you know, sir, that independents of all sizes still drill for most of the natural gas and oil that is found onshore? They don’t receive indiscriminate tax breaks. Those hard-fought incentives have led to a rebirth of the domestic industry and created so many new jobs in the U.S. that companies are hard-pressed to fill. This is a high-risk business that requires huge investments in hopes becoming profitable years from now. In today’s business climate, where will those private investments come from? Can we afford to punish well-managed companies that are also some of the biggest taxpayers and civic contributors?
How important is the natural gas industry? Without it, we cannot expect to see cleaner skies in our lifetime. Without it, what will we use as a transition until alternative fuels finally become viable? Who wants a coal plant in their backyard? How long does it take to build a nuclear power plant?
Mr. President, there is no doubt that alternative fuels are in the best interest of the nation and the world. But throwing money at a problem guarantees nothing. If that were so, we would have cured cancer years ago. We’ve been down this road before, as in “the fuel cell is just five years away.”
My suggestion, Mr. President, is to overlook politics and wipe the slate clean of old misconceptions about the petroleum business, which to a large extent is now a natural gas industry. As someone who professes to represent all of America, it is your duty to understand the needs and opportunities provided by petroleum companies by allowing them to be a key part of the solution. You’ll find a willing partner. Just ask Ms. Rogers.
(Note: This article won the second-place award for magazine columns in the 2010 Lone Star Awards sponsored by the Houston Press Club.)