According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it's gas hydrate, natural gas in a frozen state. And it's under the North Slope in abundance - 85.4 trillion cubic feet of frozen natural gas crystals. To put the new find in perspective, the total estimated U.S. reserves of conventional (gaseous) natural gas sources is just 30 trillion cubic feet. We're talking about a domestic energy bonanza here, enough to heat 100 million homes for ten years!
But natural gas can do much more than just heat homes. As a motor fuel, it burns cleaner than gasoline, ethanol or any other currently available motor fuel source, conventional or renewable. Honda currently markets a version of its popular Civic model called the Civic GX which runs on natural gas. There's even a nifty home refueling device trade named Phill for NG-powered vehicles that can be connected to the house's existing natural gas lines and installed in the garage for overnight refueling. An on-the-road refueling infrastructure still has to be developed, of course. But the nation can look to Oklahoma to see how it's done. That natural gas-rich state has more NG refueling stations per square mile than any other part of the country.
Natural gas has great potential as a motor fuel not only because it's so friendly to the environment, but because it's cheap. When gasoline prices go up again, as they inevitably will, it will become more viable as a motor fuel alternative. It's already extremely important as a fuel for home heating. Just as it burns cleaner than gasoline in car, truck and bus engines, it burns cleaner in home furnaces than coal and heating oil.
Here's where Sarah Palin enters the big picture. That $40 billion gas pipeline plan she pushed through the Alaska legislature was an accomplishment of considerable importance, something no one else in Alaska politics has been able to do in 30 years of trying. Now it becomes an even bigger deal, thanks to the new discovery.
There's still much to be done. She has to herd the project into the construction phase of the 1,700-mile transmission line, and engineers have to determine the best way to extract the gas in an environmentally safe manner. But there are ways to do it using existing technology. While all of this is being done, there are still plentiful supplies of conventional domestic natural gas, enough to last us until the pipeline is completed and extraction and conversion methods are worked out.
Gov. Palin's larger challenge is to sell the incoming Obama Administration and a Democrat-controlled congress on natural gas. The boutique alternative fuel sources that liberals find so attractive - wind, solar, hydrogen, etc. - are still decades away from being able to contribute in any significant way to our overall energy mosaic. In the meantime, a bridge fuel will be needed to get us through the continuing developmental phases of those technologies. If Palin can make the sale, even her loudest critics will have to acknowledge that she's a serious political player with a bright future in national politics. The progress she's made in getting the pipeline plan approved and bargaining hard for her state with the oil companies are impressive achievements, but despite all the attention given to her in the media, they are still not widely known here in the lower 48. If she can contribute to making the U.S. more secure and independent in its use of energy, a much wider audience will sit up and take notice.
Alaska's governor has some things working in her favor. Natural gas burns so cleanly that the enviros can't object to its use, providing the method of extraction is also clean. And, as was mentioned before, it's relatively cheap when compared to all its competitors. Also, Alaska's interests and those of energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens coincide. Perhaps the new frozen gas find will lead him to modify his Pickens Plan to put more emphasis on the natural gas part and less on the wind power component of it, at least for the near future. Whatever Pickens' motives, he's an effective salesman and could be a powerful ally for Palin to work with on making the case for natural gas. And Gov. Palin is at her best when she discusses energy matters, speaking with authority thanks to her considerable first-hand knowledge of the subject matter.
Obama has his own agenda, but he's no dummy. He's promised energy independence, and exploiting natural gas may be the easiest way for him to get the country at least started in that direction. Using his considerable powers of persuasion and the bully pulpit of the presidency, he can make the sale to congress while they are still in a willing mood to listen to him. Palin has already pledged to work with him on energy matters, and if he's as serious about reaching across the aisle to get things done as he says he is, now's the time to prove it. It certainly would make for a strange partnership, but it's not without precedent. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil found ways to work together when the situation called for it.
Energy security and independence are crucial to the future of our nation. Strong leadership is needed now to get us started down the road to making it a reality. Gov. Sarah Palin has the attention of the press and the people for the time being, but that window of opportunity could close at any hour. Will she make herself heard?
Cross-posted at Gov. Sarah Palin for President