The other day I called a friend but she didn't answer the phone. She returned my call a few days later and I said "Aw man, you shined me!" She said "Shine?? What does that mean?" In Fitzman vernacular "to shine" means to ignore, blow-off, or "diss". Which is exactly what Obama did when he delivered his first major policy speech on energy since becoming our Commander-in-Chief: Obama "shined" natural gas. There was not a mention, not even a mere peep about natural gas powered transportation in the new President's energy policy speech. Nada. A complete and total "shine".
Obama did say it's not going to be business as usual with respect to foreign oil imports. We're going to become energy independent he told us, and there's a new sheriff in town! Now don't get me wrong, anyone who has read my energy policy knows I am a big fan of wind, solar, and all oil alternative energy sources. Like Obama, my plan also supports building out the electric grid and my policy (please read it as your constructive feedback is always welcome) goes so far as to say the government should declare transmission lines a matter of national security such that they can declare eminent domain in order to build them efficiently and quickly. We're gonna need 'em! Obviously I too, like Obama, am in favor of higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. I would go so far as to say Congress has been criminally negligent not to have passed higher CAFE standards years ago, including the Clinton years (see, I can criticize Presidents other than Bush). You see, the US really does fund both sides of the so-called "war on terror".
However, if Obama was really serious about cutting US foreign imports, he would have at least mentioned the quickest, most cost effective, technologically feasible path to doing so: US produced natural gas powered cars and trucks. That is, the US producing both the natural gas, and the vehicles.
For instance, an energy policy that would have sent the message to Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Iraq and Iran that the US was actually going to DO something about all the money that we currently send to them for oil would have been as follows:
- Mandate the US auto companies receiving taxpayer money make the natural gas cars and trucks they sell overseas available here in the US.
- Mandate the US auto companies make available natural gas conversion kits available for their biggest selling cars and trucks on the road today.
- Mandate the US auto companies each make a natural gas refueling appliance for the home garage.
- Begin a program of building out a natural gas refueling infrastructure on the nation's interstate highway system.
- Begin a project to partner with private oil companies to build a trans-Canadian natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower-48.
Now THAT is an energy policy that could potentially reduce US oil imports by 2-4 million barrels a day within 5 years! That is an energy policy that will create meaningful good paying jobs in the construction, automotive, energy, compressor, mechanical, and steel industries. That is an energy policy that would build an energy infrastructure that would pay back dividends for the next 50 years! That is an energy policy that is economically, technically, and environmentally sound. That is an energy policy that keeps American dollars buying US produced natural gas instead of going overseas to unfriendly governments and terrorists who are very glad for the funding. That is an energy policy that *achieves* something in a short time frame that will actually help the funk the US is in today and will protect us from the high oil price economic yo-yo that we are destined to ride unless we take control of the situation!
Don't believe me? Ask the good folks out in Utah. That state "gets it". It has built out natural gas refueling stations. It has many shops that convert gasoline powered cars and trucks to run on natural gas. It encourages natural gas transportation in Utah. Need more proof? Here's a document that lists its refueling stations, and it has plans to construct more, and more interesting reading about Questar Gas's efforts in NGV refueling.
Is it the Mormon ethic of survival planning? I dunno. But, ya gotta give Utah credit when credit is due! Why isn't the rest of the US on track with this common sense effort to reduce our foreign oil import bill? It quite simply amazes me. I was hoping that Obama would show some leadership here! He did not. He "shined" natural gas powered transportation completely in his speech. It's just more of the same. Not sure why T. Boone Pickens was sending out encouraging emails to the Pickens army about his meetings with Obama. I don't see it. Very disappointing speech. Meanwhile, Iran is converting all its cars and trucks to natural gas so it can sell more oil to the US. Wonderful.
Meanwhile American citizens who would like to jump on the NGV band wagon are stuck with only one NGV available in the US today, the Honda Civic GX. However, this car is not sold in my state and probably not in yours either. Even if you could purchase a Honda Civic GX, you'd have a lot of trouble driving across the country on your summer vacation due to lack of convenient and even inconvenient natural gas refueling stations.
Making matters worse for the NGV enthusiast, if you can buy a Honda Civic GX, you're stuck with a single source manufacturer (FuelMaker) for the garage natural gas refueling appliance, which they call the "Phill." The Phill will set you back about $4k to install. Imagine what a little competition by the "big" 3 could do to reduce that price. Please read my earlier Seeking Alpha articles which go into more detail on NGV economics and tradeoffs.
It seems to me before we spend billions of taxpayer money building more roads and bridges and such we had first better damn well understand what is going to power the cars and trucks that will ride over them (duh). Will it be yet more foreign oil or will it be US produced natural gas? Will it be cars and trucks powered by electric batteries made in the US or will we be trading our foreign oil addiction for foreign battery addiction? We better take the big picture view, be realistic about the time horizons for both the alternative energy and vehicle availability, and make prudent decisions now. My back of the envelope calculations tell me that even if we have electric vehicles today, we simply don't have the solar and wind to power them. So what does that mean? More coal will be burned to power our "clean" cars. We're heading toward the falls without a paddle folks.
Why doesn't someone contact the Fitzman and offer him a job in the Obama administration? They apparently need my help. Some of you will say, but hey, Fitzman, we're not stupid - we know you own COP and they are the biggest (2nd biggest?) US producer of natural gas. Well, you may have a point. On the other hand, it might be possible that I am also a patriotic American and I want to see my country and my countrymen prosper. It might be that I'd like to see Americans stop sending their fuel money overseas. It might be that I am tired of funding terrorists and unfriendly countries.
It might be that I am tired of US equity markets that have been negative (and badly so) over the past 10 years.
Why isn't everyone else tired of these things? Are Americans' memories so short term they cannot remember $145/barrel oil a mere 6 months ago? Even as we're stuck in a deep deep recession, aren't people ready for a change in our oil-centric energy policy? We'll be forced to change soon enough for the 1000 lb gorilla that is worldwide oil supply is simply not going to keep pace with worldwide oil demand (present economic slump excluded).
The big question is this: will the US have transportation solutions and infrastructure in place soon enough to protect our economy, our way of life (you could joke that we shouldn't protect that), and our national security from the next (and potentially last) oil super-spike? At the rate we are going, and given Obama's speech, that answer is an astounding "NO". Natural gas powered transportation must be a centerpiece of American energy policy going forward for the next 50 years. We have waited so long to address our foreign oil addiction, I don't see any other alternative.
Meanwhile, assuming the world economy someday gets back to normal (hard to define "normal" when the so-called "capitalistic" US economy has seen its banking, insurance, mortgage, and financial industries nationalized over the past 12 months), I'd have to agree with this week's Barron's magazine that "big oil" is a screaming buy. BP is yielding around 8%! The only worry I have with BP is the rumour swirling of BP taking over CHK. That said, look at BP's takeover of US energy assets - remember Atlantic Richfield? Amoco? BP knows what it is doing. Exxon (NYSE:XOM) is sitting on mountains of cash and you just know it will pick up some choice assets on the cheap as we work our way out of this morass. StatOil (NYSE:STO), ConocoPhilips, Total (NYSE:TOT) - they are all very inexpensive these days and pay good dividends while you wait out the deflationary patch we're going through. And, we will work our way out. That is, the Federal Reserve and US Treasury will be successful in reflating the economy back to life.
I hear the market in "ink" is very bullish these days and also a good investment. And so it is with gold bullion as well. Now that is something I advise everyone to shine (in the traditional sense of the word).
Disclosure: The author owns all the energy stocks in this article (stocks or funds that own the stocks).