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Aspen Ideas, Natural Gas, Armenia Unheralded

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The Aspen Ideas Festival brings together as panelists/speakers individuals of tested competence and talent. Such was the case last week with a gathering of Ray Lahood, our Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Lisa P. Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and panel moderator the eloquent and erudite Vijay Vaitheeswaran (yes, I did get the spelling right) senior correspondent of the "Economist" taking on the subject of "What Will Fuel the Automobile of the Future?"

Of course alternative transportation strategies were touched upon such as electric powered cars, biofuels, hybrids, as well as C.A.F.E. standards all of which can add significantly to the search for solutions to overturn our gas guzzling and fossil fuel addiction.

Yet given the current advances, Secretary La Hood went directly to one of the core issues. The game changing potential of compressed natural gas with its attractive price and its vast reserves within the confines of the United States. A munificent resource accessible through new drilling techniques, bringing the nation to the cusp of energy independence. A fossil fuel, yes, but as a transportation fuel emitting some 25% less greenhouse gases than petroleum based gasoline, and now being domestically sourced and cheaper by far. Environmentally, in terms of national security and economically (natural gas at today's quoted price of $3.00 mmbtu delivers an energy quotient that would require crude oil to sell at $20bbl or less compared to today's price of $85bbl) therefore a win, win, win.

Secretary La Hood shared with the audience his recent visit to Carbondale Colorado where the entire bus transport system had been converted from gasoline powered engines to buses fueled by compressed natural gas. Among early steps in a policy shift that in time will have broad implications for metropolitan transport throughout the United States. But yet, as we will see, it is only a small beginning.

Also present was Lisa P. Jackson , the fiery and all hands on Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Inevitably the issue of fracking came up given its important role in the production of the newly accessible shale gas resources near nationwide.

When confronted to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal Editorial ("A Fracking Rule Reprieve" 06.01.12) hailing the temporary suspension of federal fracking regulations covering everything from disclosure of drilling chemicals to well integrity as "redundant" to the plethora of state regulation, going on to berate the Environmental Protection Agency as in, "has tried to dig up pollution stories." Castigating the Department of the Interior and the EPA for bringing on, in the WSJ's view, obstructionist and burdensome regulation hampering the production of gas and the expansion of these new drilling methods.

Mrs. Jackson was fierce in her defense of the EPA's actions and policies. Significantly, she stated clearly and unambiguously her understanding of the enormous importance this new resource and the potential that shale gas represents to the nation both economically and in terms of energy independence. But simultaneously she was clear that it is incumbent on federal agencies to set standards in keeping with the environmental well being of the nation as a whole, and in the interest of future generations. Yes, drill and frack, but it must be done responsibly to issues of water safety and air quality, and the federal agencies such as Interior and the EPA must serve as guardians of the nation's environmental well being. It was quite a performance.

But here we are at the cusp of a vast change in our energy destiny and given Secretary LaHood's vision, veering in the right direction. Yet we still remain without a true national commitment to wean ourselves from gasoline to natural gas as our foremost transportation fuel. The transformation of occasional municipalities to natural gas fired transport from gasoline engines is but a hesitant beginning. Consider Armenia!

What you ask, and why Armenia? Barely known to most everyone, Armenia leads the world. 75% of its automobile and truck fleet is propelled by compressed natural gas (CNG) (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-26/natural-gas-cars-can-drive-us-toward-a-better-economy.html). An amazing accomplishment for a country hardly in the forefront of public discourse.

Showing the way, Armenia serves as example of what needs be done nationally- a full bore program to set up a national distribution system (pumping stations) for compressed gas, incentives to Detroit and consumers to changeover to natural gas powered cars. During World War II Detroit retooled itself in six months and became the Arsenal of Democracy. With our government pitching in it can this day become the arsenal of our energy independence and our environmental protector (in that natural gas is significantly less polluting than gasoline emmisions).

Let's show Armenia we can do it too!