Energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens continues to lash out at U.S. oil import levels, urging Congress to reduce the nation’s foreign oil dependency — and a recent research report in Colorado and utility plan in Georgia may help him make his case.

Pickens wants Congress to provide more incentives for the use of natural gas in long-haul trucking and other transportation sectors as a means of strengthening national security. He lamented the impact of recent soaring oil prices in widening the nation’s trade deficit despite record export levels.

Meanwhile, with a general perception that it is a cleaner industry relative to individual motor vehicles, the mass transit industry is increasingly the competitive battleground for transportation fuel providers — traditional gasoline and diesel, along with the upcoming alternatives, such as natural gas, biofuels and hybrid electric technology. Within the sector, some options are cleaner than others, according to a research report by Boulder, CO-based Pike Research LLC.

Even with the increased competition from natural gas and electricity, diesel buses will remain strong for the foreseeable future, according to the report.

“Diesel engines in 2010 were substantially cleaner than they have been in the past, particularly in the developed world of Western Europe and North America,” according to senior analyst Dave Hurst, author of the “Clean Mass Transit” report.

Earlier this month Atlanta Gas Light Inc. (AGL) filed a plan with Georgia state regulators asking for approval to establish over the next five years a network of public and home-based compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling stations. With regulatory and legislative encouragement, AGL envisions a network throughout the greater Atlanta area and along major transportation corridors in the state.

Under a plan that the Georgia PSC is expected to rule on this summer, the AGL utility would invest up to $12 million to stimulate private investment in the construction of approximately 10-15 stations, depending on the size of the station and level of investment. Private retailers willing to invest at least 50% of the costs of the CNG station would be the owner/operator.

Natural gas would be purchased by the retailers from state-certificated marketers in Georgia’s deregulated gas market, and they will resell it as CNG to the public. Initial station locations will be largely determined based on proximity to commercial fleet customers who contract for service.

In a pitch to Congress last week, Pickens cited recent Commerce Department statistics which showed the nation’s trade gap rose 6% to $48.2 billion in March, the biggest it has been since June 2010. While sales abroad climbed to their highest level in 17 years, crude oil surging above $100/bbl and a 9.4% drop in the dollar keep driving up the cost of imports in the United States, he said.

“April’s oil import numbers are the highest we have ever seen, and the implications are disturbing,” said Pickens, calling the statistics a national security threat of the highest order and alleging that oil imports are “subsidizing terrorism.”

In a theme he repeats regularly, Pickens said the only way the United States can begin reducing its dependence on OPEC oil is to tap growing domestic resources, including natural gas. He said the Obama administration has recognized this, and he urged Congress to pass legislation encouraging natural gas use for heavy-duty vehicles.

“We have an enormous supply of domestic natural gas that can replace OPEC oil today,” Pickens said. “Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, abundant and it’s ours. Ultimately, this effort will enhance national security, create American jobs and improve our economy and environment.”

Pickens is supporting the proposed NAT GAS Act (HR 1380), which was introduced earlier this year by Reps. John Sullivan (R-OK), Dan Boren (D-OK), John Larson (D-CT) and Kevin Brady (R-TX) (see NGI, April 25).

The Pike report said overall that alternative fuel buses will represent half of all transit buses delivered in 2015. They are “gaining significant traction in the transit bus sector,” said the Pike report, which concluded that the trend toward cleaner transit buses will continue in the coming years.

It is clear that the numbers of hybrid and natural gas buses will continue growing steadily on a worldwide basis, with the number of natural gas and hybrid electric bus deliveries each reaching approximately 16,000 in 2016, the Pike report said.

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