Friday, April 13, 2012


Last summer, I built a new home in Gloucester, Ma.  Since I did not want to use fuel oil, and since many of my neighbors have natural gas in their homes, I asked National Grid, the local natural gas provider, to run a line to my new house.   No way, said National Grid.  It’s a long way – about a quarter mile – and it’s very expensive and we won’t do it.  So, as an alternative, I installed a geothermal system.  It cost a lot, but I got a tax break, and I don’t have to burn fuel oil.  Unfortunately, most people can’t afford such systems and end up burning oil, much of which we refine from petroleum we buy on world markets from countries that seem to dislike us intensely.   
It was a very irritating experience, and since we do not have natural gas available at my home in Florida either, it got me thinking about why natural gas is so hard to get. After all that cogitating, I concluded that like many who will read this, I just don’t understand.  It could be, of course, that the experts are right, and the great issues of the day really are too complicated for me to understand. Then again, it may be that we’re stuck with a political system that simply refuses to take on the tough problems we need to solve.   

Take the price of gasoline, for example.  The press – newspapers, talking heads, political “experts” – are full of conversation about how the President’s electoral chances are being adversely affected  by the price of gasoline.  Of course, no one bothers to explain just what it is the President can do about gasoline prices, and no one seems to care.  Like all things, anything bad must be someone else’s fault – in this case, the President’s fault. 

And there is, of course, no conversation at all about the things we could actually do to reduce automobile fuel costs  – and  other national problems like unemployment and energy independence.  It seems that the folks we send to Washington are great at raising money and spouting slogans and lousy at coming up with solutions.   

So maybe someone can explain why we don’t take advantage of our huge deposits of natural gas to solve several problems more or less simultaneously.  First, let’s pass legislation requiring every company that provides natural gas to homes and businesses to connect any home or business that wants gas.  We already require telephone companies to provide universal service, and we all pay for uneconomic telephones with those pesky surcharges on our phone bills.  Is there some reason we cannot require universal natural gas service, and recapture the costs associated with installing the lines via service charges on all users?

Installing all those gas lines – and additional pipelines to move gas around the country – would generate lots of jobs, which we certainly need.  Given the economics of oil vs. natural gas, making natural gas service universally available will cause a lot more people to heat their homes with gas, which is currently selling at record low prices and for far less than its price in other countries. When we’ve done those things, we will have put a lot of people back to work, generated lots of jobs, saved consumers lots of money and taken a big step towards energy independence.   

While we’re at it, it would be sensible to pass legislation requiring every filling station to have at least one natural gas fueling point and additional legislation requiring that all cars manufactured in the United States after 2015 be equipped to run on either natural gas or petroleum derivative gasoline.  The result?  Still more jobs, a much higher level of energy independence, and much lower fuel prices for drivers.

I’m sure there are people who would oppose these steps.  The automobile manufacturers would tell us that making cars dual fuel capable would be very expensive, while the oil companies would no doubt proclaim that mandating natural gas for cars is state socialism.  And the natural gas providers would no doubt claim that they cannot possibly live with the adverse cash flows associated with fronting the cost of installing gas lines to all those houses.   In my view, none of those objections hold much water, since the public benefits of these changes would be huge. 

What do you think?  Are such solutions really beyond us?