ENERGY POLICY:

DOE chief 'agnostic' on natural gas-powered cars

Energy Secretary Steven Chu today said he is "agnostic" about proposals to expand the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel -- an idea that President Obama's chief of staff has strongly backed in the past.

Natural gas currently fuels about a fifth of the nation's electric power. But using natural gas to power trucks, buses and other vehicles has powerful backers -- including billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- who say it could displace oil imports.

Chu called the idea a "possibility" when speaking to reporters at an energy conference today. But he added, "I'm agnostic, really, about it."

Chu continued, "My first impression is, let's decrease the use of personal transportation, our use, by going to more fuel-efficient cars and other mechanisms." The other "path forward," he said, lies in developing biofuels from farm and lumber wastes, and plants specifically designed for producing fuels, to help offset oil imports.

About natural gas, he said, "Remember, if we significantly shift our use of transportation to use natural gas, that will put a strain on natural gas use for industrial uses, for heating and other things ... electricity generation. It's a complicated issue."

Pickens is aggressively promoting a plan in which wind-generated electricity would be greatly expanded, thereby freeing natural gas for use in the transportation sector. He envisions using natural gas for long-haul trucks, as well as municipal vehicle fleets, buses, taxis and delivery trucks.

Emanuel, who was an Illinois Democratic congressman before moving to the White House, introduced legislation last year filled with incentives to achieve 10 percent market share for natural gas vehicles by 2018.

His bill included incentives for manufacturers of natural gas vehicles, buyers and gasoline station owners who install natural gas refueling pumps. Several lawmakers, including Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, this month announced a new version of the legislation.

There are more than 120,000 natural gas-powered vehicles on U.S. roads -- a tiny share of the total auto market -- and more than 8.7 million worldwide, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, a trade group.

AT&T announced last month that it plans to spend $350 million to replace 8,000 gasoline-powered service vehicles with natural gas vehicles over the next five years.

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