While an event in itself can be pretty insignificant, its symbolism can sometimes stand out.
Trust Chesapeake Energy (NYS: CHK) to play a heralding role for natural gas as the foremost alternative fuel to power vehicles in the future. Last week, CEO Aubrey McClendon, along with John Surma, his counterpart at U.S. Steel (NYS: X) , commissioned a compressed natural gas fuel station for the steel company's fleet of trucks.
With gasoline prices at the pump showing no signs of easing, Americans -- and people across the globe -- are desperately looking for an alternative energy option. And transportation consumes a ton of energy.
Consider this: Transportation accounted for a whopping 28% of the total energy consumption in the U.S. in 2010. However, natural gas accounted for a paltry 2.5% of consumption in the transportation sector. Clearly, the room for growth is immense.
According to McClendon, the U.S. could have tens of thousands of natural gas filling stations in the next five years: "At the end of the day, you can fill up for $0.75 a gallon." Wow! If McClendon turns out to be correct, I'd call that a solution to our energy problems.
Of course, if natural gas becomes so freely available, prices would rise to meet demand. But whether it sells for $0.75 a gallon or $4 a gallon, natural gas is going places. This is beyond doubt, and it's not really surprising either. As Foolish colleague Dan Dzombak says, it's the energy opportunity for the next 25 years.
Granted, the transition to natural gas as an auto fuel is not going to happen overnight. But I'm looking at those vehicles with predictable ranges that natural gas is capable of easily catering to, such as trucks and buses. Here, the switch from gasoline is already taking place. Clean Energy Fuels (NAS: CLNE) , which installs natural gas fueling stations, estimates that about 15% of the country's buses and trash trucks are already running on natural gas.
The top movers
This figure is only bound to grow. One of the first movers in this region is David Gardner's Stock Advisor pick Westport Innovations (NAS: WPRT) -- a company whose fuel-injection technology allows diesel engines to run on natural gas. This company has deals with leading engine manufacturers to build natural gas engines. A joint venture with Cummins (NYS: CMI) to build such engines for delivery and trash trucks and buses looks really exciting.
In simple terms, the natural gas market is going to grow big time. Dependence on foreign oil has been an eternal grouse. Take a look at this: The U.S. had to import 49% of the oil that it consumed last year, i.e., net imports stood at 9.4 million barrels of oil per day!
The country's natural gas resources can easily reduce this dependence. The Energy Information Administration estimates that there are 2,632 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas resources in the United States. This is huge. Imagine a huge chunk of transportation energy consumption being met by natural gas. I'm starting to believe that this will soon turn into reality.
However, bigger natural gas companies should see a growth in production as well and take advantage of the impending boom. SandRidge Energy's (NYS: SD) and Ultra Petroleum's (NYS: UPL) business models look perfectly suited to go for the kill.
Foolish bottom line
A boom in natural gas demand may be soon. While the glory days may take a couple of years more to materialize, it's worth the wait. There is no reason why natural gas shouldn't enjoy the status that oil has now. Chesapeake's outspoken CEO makes sense. Natural gas at $0.75 a gallon might not be too distant a dream.
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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Isac Simon does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ultra Petroleum. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Westport Innovations, Chesapeake Energy, and Ultra Petroleum. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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