- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The path to a national energy policy based largely on natural gas is becoming clearer as economic turmoil and rising oil prices cause lawmakers to take a second look at the clean-burning fuel trapped in underground rock, American Gas Association President and CEO Dave McCurdy said Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging interview, the one-time Democratic congressman from Oklahoma argued that the nation needs an “all-in” approach to break its addiction to foreign oil. He also decried the “fuel wars” that sometimes erupt between those who favor renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and others who believe natural gas, nuclear power and coal have a big role to play in the future.

“If you have a growing economy, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game,” Mr. McCurdy told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “The pie is going to get larger. Consumer demand is going to increase.”

With the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region, which stretches from upstate New York south into Kentucky, Mr. McCurdy said the fuel has the potential to become the “foundation” of American energy. Critics contend hydraulic fracturing - the use of water, sand and chemicals to free gas in the Marcellus Shale - is a threat to water supplies and will pollute nearby waterways.

But what those opponents truly fear, he said, is a free market competition between gas and renewable fuels.

“I think a lot of their concern, or their opposition, is a little less about the risk of the actual production [of natural gas] than it is the potential disadvantage that renewables have from a cost standpoint,” he said.

Now that resources have been identified and methods developed to access them, Mr. McCurdy said the business needs “predictability and certainty.” National energy policy, he said, is divorced from the economic reality that natural gas can compete and win in the marketplace while helping move the U.S. away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Switching the millions of tractor-trailers on the nation’s roads to natural gas, for example, could save as much as 3 million barrels of oil each day and reduce carbon emissions, he said. Despite such promise, gas remains on the back burner in Washington and investment continues to flow to flavor-of-the-week industries that contribute little to long-term energy security.

“We’re losing our capacity to think strategically,” Mr. McCurdy said. “[I]t’s all short term. It’s all instantaneous. As an industry, we’re just asking government to take a little bit longer of an approach like we do and help us make decisions that can endure.”

At the state level, however, that short-term thinking is being replaced by the realization that natural gas offers not only an alternative to foreign oil but also the creation of thousands of jobs.

In states such as Pennsylvania, where Marcellus Shale drilling revitalized dying towns and kept the unemployment rate below the national average, the political dynamic is beginning to change, Mr. McCurdy said. There always will be critics, but he said they’re having an increasingly hard time demonizing the natural gas industry and the economic boom it often brings.

“There’s really only one good news story out there, and that’s natural gas,” he said.

While Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania and other states largely have reached a consensus on the importance of natural gas, other cities and states haven’t followed suit. Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., for example, have outlawed hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie imposed a one-year moratorium on fracking, rejecting a permanent ban that had been overwhelmingly approved by the state Legislature. Environmental groups called the move “an insult,” while the Marcellus Shale Coalition, comprised of gas-drilling companies, said it was a “purely political statement,” because the shale doesn’t stretch into the Garden State.

But Mr. McCurdy said he believes Mr. Christie, a Republican, made a “politically astute” move, calming opponents by taking 12 months to study the issue before coming to a final decision next year.

“We applauded him for what he did,” he said.

Before coming to the AGA in February, Mr. McCurdy spent four years as the president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and he said there’s a direct link between his old position and his new job. While some companies have begun to roll out fuel-efficient electric cars, he said the only way to achieve the Obama administration’s goal of 54.5 mpg vehicles by 2025 is to take advantage of natural gas and make infrastructure investments so drivers have a place to fill up.

“You can’t meet some of the fuel-economy requirements without” natural gas, he said. “It’s a must.”