Can Natural Gas Really Deliver American Energy Independence?

Several members of Congress seem to think so.

A bipartisan mix of lawmakers is pushing for increased use and manufacture of natural gas in the U.S., but their paths for reaching that goal are different.

Proponents of natural gas believe that the U.S.-produced energy source can deliver jobs, lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually lead to American energy independence — the day that the U.S. no longer has to rely on the Middle East or Venezuela for energy.

Although this may seem like a pipe dream to some, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., believes the U.S. can secure economic and national security based on natural gas.

"It's not only possible, but we're heading on the road even without Washington's help," Burr said at a National Journal Live event on Tuesday. "We've got an opportunity to really develop our natural resources."

He said there are 120,000 vehicles in the U.S. that are powered by natural gas, but there are 14.8 million vehicles worldwide that do the same. If the U.S. creates incentives, but not mandates, for the 500,000 school buses nationwide to use natural gas, Burr said, it reduces the cost of transportation for children and puts money back in the classroom.

But how the U.S. can deliver on this goal, pushing more Americans to use and produce natural gas, is still unclear. Burr said that it requires "leadership from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," but he would not elaborate on how Congress and the White House could find a solution. For him, it's all about creating an environment for the market to succeed.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., however, suggests using the tax code to incentivize users and manufacturers to promote natural gas.

"Frankly, a lot is happening without incentives, but it's not happening rapidly enough," Larson said at the event. "This isn't rocket science. This can be done. We have the ability and technology."

The markets, Larson continued, are going to set prices, but governments are always going to intervene to make sure regulations are there for national security.

President Obama often touts a solution that harnesses not only natural gas, but also wind, solar, and geothermal energies. Burr criticized this policy, saying the president should focus on one element at a time, instead of "listening to his base."

"In reality, he's talked about everything under the sun," Burr said. "There's the doable and the not doable with the current technology. [Natural gas] is doable."

But, as Larson admits, "this hasn't been a let's-put-a-man-on-the-moon project."

Many scientists and green activists, however, see natural-gas production as environmentally unsafe The advent of "fracking," a hydraulic process of drilling and pumping fluid into the ground at a high pressure, exacerbated these concerns. It even inspired a Matt Damon movie, Promised Land.

The lawmakers pushing for natural gas say those worries are overstated. Burr, in fact, said "there's no concern" that natural-gas production would have an environmental impact. He, however, backtracked slightly: "There's concern, but I don't think it's science," Burr said. "I've seen science to suggest that there is, I've seen science that says there's no impact."

Larson still thinks the U.S. should approach the all-of-the-above strategy that the president promotes, but he pleads with his Democratic colleagues who want to stick to wind and solar energy.

"The benefits here far outweigh the burden," Larson said. "And the burden you can take care of in a safe, secure way that environmentalist can be comfortable with."

Though it's not directly related to the production of American natural gas, both lawmakers agreed that a key element of energy independence is the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. The pipeline, which is widely opposed by environmentalists because of a greenhouse-gas-heavy production, needs State Department approval before it goes forward. Burr said it would be a "huge mistake" if it doesn't go forward, while Larson said he was confident the president would eventually let it go ahead.

The bigger elephant in the room is Congress itself. Because of a political environment that makes it nearly impossible to get any sort of large-scale legislation through Congress, experts are skeptical that lawmakers can deliver on the promise of natural gas. That's where the market comes in.

Already, companies like UPS and AT&T are starting to use liquid natural gas for their trucks, while Honda has developed a car that runs on natural gas. But experts and lawmakers agree that the day natural gas is widely used and fully embraced by the markets is a bit down the road.

And some companies don't think there is enough natural gas nor do they think the market is ready to start investing heavily in the energy source. Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves said, "We don't think it's cost effective on a large scale." But Graves, now the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said he is hopeful for the potential of natural gas in the future.