Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said Tuesday that his Energy Office has applied for a $10 million grant to increase the use of natural gas as a fuel for industry, transportation and public vehicles. It is one small step in an effort that should be strongly supported.
The application was in partnership with Clean Energy, a supplier of natural gas for transportation, and the Southern and Northern Colorado Clean Cities Coalition. If approved, the money would come from the U.S. Department of Energy and would help launch a $27.6 million project to put into service 68 heavy duty vehicles, such as trash trucks and buses, powered by natural gas. It also would help build five new natural-gas fueling stations statewide.
This is an effort in its early stages. But it is precisely the kind of program needed. Natural gas may not be the ultimate energy source, but it could fuel the next step toward that future. And it could do so relatively clean and to great political and economic advantage.
Natural gas - which includes the coal-bed methane produced locally - is a non-renewable fuel that requires extensive infrastructure to produce, transport and use. Burning it produces carbon dioxide, the principal culprit in climate change.
It is nonetheless the most attractive alternative to oil and coal. Wind and solar power are in their infancy as mass-market energy sources. Hydrogen for cars still is in the wishful thinking phase.
Those all have great potential, but are not there yet. And in the meantime, we still need to get around, ship things and make electricity. For that, natural gas is the cleanest, least-damaging alternative.
The California Energy Commission says natural gas puts out 23 percent less emissions than diesel and 30 percent less than gasoline. Anything is cleaner than burning coal, so many electric power plants already are gas-fired.
Switching to natural gas to power transportation would necessitate no technological leaps. It would require the development of a distribution system akin to gas stations. But if that infrastructure could be created for gasoline, why not for natural gas?
It also would require automakers to build methane-powered cars, but that already is being done elsewhere. While there are only 142,000 vehicles that run on natural gas in the United States, there are 10 million worldwide.
There is no reason that ratio could not change. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday would boost the tax credit for buying a natural-gas-powered vehicle from $5,000 to $12,500, expand grants for creating more natural-gas filling stations and fund research into better engines.
Beyond its environmental importance, using natural gas as a motor fuel could have positive economic and political and implications. Natural gas is cheap, plentiful - and here.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Exxon Mobil estimates its new Horn River basin field in British Columbia to contain 47 trillion cubic feet of gas. With new technology, North American gas reserves have increased by 29 percent in the last 10 years. As the Journal said, "We won't be hearing about 'peak gas' anytime soon."
Cleaner air, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, less money shipped overseas to unfriendly regimes: What is there not to like? Switching transportation to natural gas will take time, effort and - at first - money.
But the potential rewards are too good not to try.