Reality Check

NATURAL-GAS BOOSTERS SAY the stuff is the fuel of the future. Cleaner-burning than oil, it's prevalent in the U.S. and prices are up more than 100% in two years, making it a domestic drillers' delight. A broad alliance stretching from the Sierra Club to Amoco to the White House is urging the nation's power plants, cars, and trucks to convert to natural gas. One industry group, the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, aims to push usage to 10%, or some 20 million vehicles, by 2010.

IN REALITY, natural gas faces formidable obstacles. While oil's share of overall U.S. energy demand has declined five points, to 40%, since 1950, two-thirds of that is in transportation. And it's likely to stay there. Easy-to-store and sustained by some 200,000 filling stations, gasoline is a very powerful incumbent against natural gas (700 outlets). Natural-gas-powered vehicles have limited appeal: They require large pressurized fuel tanks and have a top range of only 150 miles or so per tank. And if powerful current trends continue, keeping crude prices low, natural gas' recent success with power plants will dim considerably.

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