ALT FUELS:

Autogas industry bemoans 'narrow' NAT GAS Act, pushes for separate bill

Correction appended.

With more than 170 bipartisan House co-sponsors and the backing of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan's "NAT GAS Act" appears to have widespread support.

But the propane autogas industry isn't thrilled.

The bill, which offers tax credits for natural gas vehicles and infrastructure, does not go far enough, said Tucker Perkins, chief operating officer and president of the trade group CleanFUEL USA.

"We don't think T. Boone Pickens is particularly far from the truth when he talks about the Pickens plan. The thing that infuriates us is that it's not inclusive of propane autogas," Perkins said in an interview. "I feel strongly as an engineer -- but the marketplace speaks as well -- that propane can fill as big a void, if not bigger, than natural gas can."

While autogas promoters are working on a separate bill, they see their industry's exclusion from the Sullivan measure as a slap in the face for a fuel that gets little attention in the United States. Propane is the third most widely used fuel worldwide, but there are 200,000 or so autogas vehicles in the United States. While the fuel has made inroads in recent years in U.S. corporate and government fleets, it lags in the passenger-car market.

The industry touts a U.S. EPA study that found autogas could have "potentially lower" carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions than petroleum. But Stuart Weidie, chairman of the industry group Autogas for America, said the fuel's real advantage is that it is relatively cheap.

About 90 percent of the country's supply is produced in the United States with another 4 to 5 percent in Canada, he said, and the fueling infrastructure can be set up inexpensively and quickly. Weidie said propane can retail for as much as $1.25 less per gallon than petroleum and can be cheaper than natural gas, although there is some debate about those figures because of energy output and the volatile market prices.

"If you look at the dollars spent on incentives provided, we can displace more foreign oil with autogas and receive more emissions reductions," Weidie said. "We're seeing renewed interest and people feeling a greater sense of urgency. ... We're adamant that autogas should be part of the national conversation."

The industry's focus on a separate, more targeted bill is smart politics, a House Republican aide said. House leadership is looking at smaller bills that have an easier shot at passage, the aide said.

Sullivan said his NAT GAS Act is a focused bill. "It's not surprising the propane industry wants to be included on a bill that has a great shot at becoming law this year," he said.

This NAT GAS Act offers a tax credit of as much as $7,500 for buying a natural-gas car and $64,000 for heavy trucks. It also provides a 50 percent tax credit for the installation of a natural gas fueling station and home fueling units.

Weidie and Perkins both said they had tried to get similar credits for propane included in the bill but were rebuffed. So Weidie said he is recruiting sponsors for a bill that would extend existing propane tax incentives for another five years. He declined to identify what lawmakers he has approached about sponsoring the bill.

Weidie said the lack of diversity in the Sullivan bill meant that Pickens and congressional sponsors were just playing politics rather than trying to make a change in the transportation sector.

"With the enormous expenditures and political clout utilized by Boone Pickens and the lobbying partners, they seem to not be genuine in some respects to wean us off foreign oil," Weidie said. "It really seems to be about natural gas and not foreign oil."

Meanwhile, other alternative fuel groups say they are trying to get their interests heard on Capitol Hill.

"But it's important for Congress to recognize that there are multiple solutions and biofuels ought to be a solution they consider supporting more significantly," said Brian Jennings, vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol. "If there is a way to combine the efforts of biofuels with those of nat gas and those of propane and electrics, we could make a powerful case."

Correction: About 90 percent of the country's propane supply is produced domestically, not the world's supply as a previous version of this story incorrectly stated.

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