- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

With a single solitary electron orbiting a lonely proton, the hydrogen atom, in all its glory, represents the simplest form of integrated matter in our universe.

For that, it has earned two distinct honors: (1) the coveted top spot on Mendeleev’s table of elements, and (2) near-universal recognition from scientists and my colleagues in Washington alike as the simplest and most attainable alternative future energy source. Some see it as the antidote to rising oil and gas prices at home, others cite its development as the key to lessening our energy dependence on unfriendly areas abroad. The president, for his part, sees it as the fuel that will power a fleet of affordable, hydrogen-burning cars by 2020.

As a stable, inexhaustible, and near-emissions-free resource, it’s no wonder hydrogen has become a central figure in the energy debate. But in that conversation, filled with all the fantastical things soon to be accomplished by harnessing its nearly limitless power, I’ve noticed not much has been said about how, exactly, we plan to harness the element itself.

You may be surprised to know the answer, at least in the near-term, is natural gas.

To understand why this is so, you first have to understand a unique property of hydrogen: It hates to be alone. In fact, hydrogen is one of the few elements on Earth that doesn’t exist naturally without a companion. To get it, we can’t just reach out and grab it — we need to produce it from hydrogen-containing materials. And that itself takes energy.

One such hydrogen-containing material is natural gas, made up almost entirely of hydrogen atoms snug tightly with carbon. Another is water. The prospect of isolating hydrogen in water and cultivating it into a fuel-grade product has excited many of us — and rightly so. But for now, it takes much more energy to start the reaction than the end process yields.

Chemists tell me someday that won’t be the case — someday, I’m told, technology and solar energy will allow us to get much more out of the process. But someday is not today. In the meantime, we will need the hydrogen present in natural gas to build the bridge to the alternative energy future in which we all want to live.

Luckily, we have the technology to start building that bridge today. What we don’t have is a stable, affordable natural gas supply that could, given a sensible national energy strategy, serve as our foundation. And for that, there is plenty of blame to go around.

First stop: Congress, circa 1981. In what was meant to be a temporary freeze on offshore activities while experts evaluated the safety conditions of ocean energy exploration, Congress passed a rider amendment on an appropriations bill forbidding the Interior Department from spending a dime on offshore leasing activities — a round-about, underhanded, but ultimately effective means of cutting off access to natural gas in federal waters far from shore. That ban not only persists but has been permanently woven into the fabric of the Interior appropriations bill. I tried to take a needle and thread to the provision in committee and, with the help of my colleagues, was able to modify the 25-year-old ban to exempt the safe production of natural gas. But the prohibition later was reinstated on the House floor in what turned out to be a very close vote.

Lifting the offshore moratorium on natural gas production would have been a great first step toward having a genuine discussion about the safety, feasibility and necessity of domestic energy production. But even if my language had passed, the existing presidential moratorium — slapped on by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990 — would have remained intact. That interdiction, which largely overlaps the congressional moratorium, was extended by President Clinton and will not expire until 2012.

So here we are today: A full 85 percent of our offshore energy tracts, referred to as the Outer Continental Shelf, are under lock and key, putting out-of-bounds trillions and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that could — could — be used to cultivate hydrogen in the near future, and keep our homes warm and American businesses competitive in the present.

But our loss is our competitors’ gain. Right now Canadian companies are drilling for oil off the coast of Maine, and producing natural gas in Lake Erie. Fidel Castro’s Cuban government has dropped wells only 45 miles from Florida, and has invited its friends from Spain, Norway, and even China to come down and enjoy.

Indeed, sooner rather than later we will have state-run Chinese firms producing energy in the southern Gulf of Mexico while we continue to squabble over whether we should allow ourselves similar access. I know what they say about keeping your friends close and enemies closer, but this is, if I may say, getting a little ridiculous.

Ultimately, it’s in our country’s best interest to produce as much energy at home as possible. The law of supply and demand tells us increasing the natural gas supply will lower the price. And the law of common sense tells us a lower price will go a long way toward helping kick-start our national hydrogen agenda into full gear.

From there we will need a combination of technological advances and investments in a hydrogen energy infrastructure if we’re to succeed. But before any of that can happen, we need access to domestic supplies of natural gas. And we need them right now.

John E. Peterson, Pennsylvania Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus, and serves on both the House Appropriations and Resources Committees.

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