After four failed attempts at a broad energy bill, the head of Atmos Energy remains optimistic about the chances for comprehensive legislation to pass next year in the 109th Congress.

“With the [largely Republican] makeup of the Senate and with President Bush probably being in a better position to help with an energy bill, I think the chances are better” for a broad-based energy bill to clear Congress in 2005, Robert Best, president and CEO of Dallas-based Atmos Energy and outgoing chairman of the American Gas Association (AGA), told the Natural Gas Roundtable in Washington, DC last Tuesday.

“We need [in the next] session of Congress to pass an energy bill because nothing is going to change the pricing [of natural gas] in our country unless we get more supply,” he said. “It’s amazing to me with oil prices at $50 and natural gas prices at $6-7 that somebody [in Washington] isn’t saying we ought to do something about this.”

In October Atmos Energy acquired the gas distribution and pipeline operations of TXU Gas Co. for $1.905 billion, making it the largest pure-play gas distribution company in the United States and one of the largest intrastate pipeline operators in Texas. It serves more than 3.1 million gas customers in 12 states.

Best noted that AGA has joined with other gas associations and energy companies to form Americans for Energy and Economic Growth, which is lobbying Congress to take another serious stab at a broad energy bill when it returns for a new session in January. The group does not support separate stand-alone bills for natural gas, electricity or other energy sources.

“We thought about just a natural gas bill, but there seems to be, at this point anyway, more support for a comprehensive bill,” he said. But “if it came down to just getting a natural gas bill or nothing, that would be something that we’d want to try.”

A comprehensive energy bill would have to promote increased land access for gas producers, financial incentives to build more gas-related infrastructure, more funds for research and development, support for energy efficiency programs and additional funding for low-income heating customers, Best noted.

“We have a strong [natural gas] resource base. We haven’t to this point had the political wherewithal to go get all the gas that’s there,” he said. “We are not talking about drilling in public park lands. We’re talking about responsible drilling in federally owned lands in the InterMountain West” and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Best said the supply problem is not going to be solved by “just speeding up the permitting” process, as some lawmakers have recommended. Nor does he see proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and an Alaska gas pipeline providing a “quick fix,” although he believes they could play important roles in the supply mix in future years.

Best said he finds it “incongruous” that while the federal government, states and environmentalists are pushing the use of natural gas in electric generation, they are espousing policies that restrict drilling for gas. If they are going to demand that gas be the principal fuel for power generation, they will have to compromise either on the siting of LNG terminals or drilling offshore or in the InterMountain West region, or a combination of these, he noted.

So far, there’s been “very little success on the Eastern Seaboard” in getting LNG terminal projects approved due to the opposition of environmentalists and local communities, Best said. He noted it looks like most of the new LNG terminals will be built along the Gulf Coast.

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