|A little-known bill could be a bonanza for commercial natural gas backers.|
The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage. By Nathan Slaughter NEW YORK ( StreetAuthority) --Amid all the gridlock in Washington, a little-known bill that could create jobs and be a crucial key to our energy future is showing signs that it could get passed any day now. Even better, it could lead to yet another green light for investors in a certain group of stocks. It's called the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act, or Nat Gas Act. On Sept. 21, following a general conversation about energy tax incentives, two separate subcommittees within the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee opened the floor to debate, and several members stepped forward to discuss the pros and cons.
It has been a while since the first attempt to speed up the development of natural-gas-based transportation stalled out in Congress. But this second iteration, again championed by billionaire industrialist T. Boone Pickens, seems to have more traction. The bill (H.R. 1380) has 186 cosponsors and enjoys broad bipartisan support. It's still a long road to the president's desk, and the legislation could get derailed at any point along the way. But there's vigorous discussion taking place right now -- and for proponents, that's at least a start. So how could passage of this bill benefit investors? The Nat-Gas Act provides heavy financial incentives to encourage the adoption of vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) and other gas-derived fuels. Among other perks, the bill specifically calls for infrastructure credits to help defray the expense of installing fueling stations, along with a credit to reimburse up to $7,500 for passenger trucks and $64,000 for commercial trucks that run on natural gas fuels. In an era where high gas prices are acting as a brake on the economy, the switch to cheaper CNG (which can save $2 per gallon at the pump compared with diesel) is a no-brainer in the eyes of some -- which is why fleet owners such as Wal-Mart ( WMT) and UPS ( UPS) are slowly making the transition. If even half of the heavy-duty trucks on the road make the switch, the United States could cut its appetite for foreign oil imports by 1.2 million barrels a day. At current prices, that's $100 million staying here in the U.S. each day.
According to studies, the bill could also create 400,000 jobs, and some politicians will no doubt seek to score political points by attaching their names to it in this dismal labor market. On the other hand, with most Americans fed up with government spending and clamoring for budget cuts, this is the worst possible time to ask for $5 billion in new handouts, regardless of how they will be put to use. But there are some highly influential people behind the development of natural-gas-based vehicles, including House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and President Barack Obama (unlikely allies on this one). Even some Tea Party members (the most ardent and vocal budget-slashers) are on board, including Rep. John Sullivan (R., Okla.), who introduced the bill. The cynical might say that some of those votes have been bought (62 companies lobbied for the bill's passage last quarter, handing out a reported $25.3 million in the process). I'm not here to weigh-in on the bill's political merits, just to comment on how this might play out for investors. By my score, the bill will pass through the House without too many roadblocks, although it could get bogged down in the Senate once again. But there is certainly room for compromise. And with ethanol subsidies all but flat-lined, I think CNG will step in and soak up some of that support. Action to Take: Many stocks tied to natural gas have rallied -- not because the government might sweeten the proposition, but because it hasn't had to. The private market has already made several bold investments on its own, including Chesapeake's ( CHK) $1 billion venture with Clean Energy Fuels ( CLNE) and other partners. That free-market spending speaks volumes. Should the government lend its financial support, some experts believe there could be as many as 350,000 NGV trucks on the nation's highways within the next few years, spending $3.5 billion on natural-gas derived fuels each year. The Nat-Gas Act will undoubtedly face tough opposition. But even without it, I see much stronger demand for natural gas on the horizon (I gave readers of my Scarcity & Real Wealth newsletter six or seven iron-clad reasons why recently. Click
here to find out more.
Aside from Clean Energy Fuels, this will mean big rewards for well-positioned producers such as Chesapeake and Range Resources ( RRC), among others. Disclosure: Neither N. Slaughter nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article. More from StreetAuthority:
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