A Clean-Air Program, Texas-Style (Side Effects May Include A Natural Gas Subsidy)

Beleaguered is how you might describe efforts to clean Texas air. Emissions reduction plans -- leaning primarily on cutting vehicle exhaust -- have been gutted by the state Legislature. But one provision, passed in the last legislative session and sponsored by Woodlands Republican Senator Tommy Williams, promises a seeming panacea -- to bolster our energy independence from foreign oil; to clean the air; and to spur clean-energy job creation -- all in one $2.4 million stroke.

The idea is to create a "Clean Transportation Triangle" by providing grants to install compressed natural gas and liquified natural gas fueling stations from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, all the way down to San Antonio, over to Houston, and back up to DFW again -- a veritable natural gas highway spanning the state. State environmental regulators just closed the grant round with some 21 applications from entities like the United Parcel Service, Central Freight, the city of Fort Worth, the city of Denton and others. They're planning 10 sites in the DFW area, including one near Love Field, for example.

The pumps will be open to the public, but the applicants are large organizations that could probably stand to save a buck or two on pricey diesel and gasoline at a time of cheap, plentiful and domestically produced natural gas. The pumps already exist in Texas; most of them, in fact, are in the DFW area. Lawmakers are betting more businesses will convert their fleets to natural gas as the fueling stations proliferate.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the natural gas industry, shell-shocked by a surfeit of natural gas selling at prices that make producing it nearly unprofitable, are among the program's most ardent supporters. Open up new markets for your product, create demand and shale gas formations might be worth producing again. It's been no secret that companies like Chesapeake Energy and others have dumped their shale leases and moved rigs to drill instead for petroleum in places like South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale.

Chesapeake has been a vocal and active proponent of natural gas-fueled vehicles. Pull up a map on the Oklahoma City-based company's website and our norther neighbor is a veritable pincushion of natural gas fueling stations. The Texas comptroller's website features an interview with a Chesapeake spokesman who touts bi-fuel technology -- a natural gas hybrid -- as a tool to clean air and save money.

The industry gave Senator Williams its Blue Flame Award, calling the bill "smart public policy" and a step away from dependence on foreign oil.

And that it may be. But, rightly or wrongly, it may also be a taxpayer subsidy to one of the state's biggest industries -- an industry that, in the heady early days of the shale boom, became a victim of its own success.

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Brantley Hargrove