U.S. lawmakers offer bill to spur natural gas vehicles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled legislation aimed at helping the nation wean itself off foreign oil by providing financial incentives for the use of vehicles fueled by natural gas.

Vehicles drive past a carbon counting sign on the Deutsche Bank building in New York June 18, 2009. The sign, which displays the running total of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, was unveiled Thursday in Midtown Manhattan. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Sponsored by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the bill would extend for 10 years tax credits for purchasing vehicles that run on natural gas and installing natural gas refueling stations.

“We saw last summer how the wild fluctuations in oil prices helped to wreck our economy, and we’ve seen how pollutants from dirty fuels are wrecking our planet,” Menendez said at a press conference.

He added that the recent economic downturn also had “shined a spotlight on the urgent need for alternative, cleaner and cheaper sources of energy that we don’t have to import.”

The legislation is backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

Recent advances in technology have led to a natural gas production boom in the United States, after years of stagnant growth in the sector.

“We have much more natural gas than we thought we did just a few years ago,” Hatch said at the press conference.

He said there were enough reserves to “significantly increase” the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

In addition to extending the tax breaks, the bill would also raise the tax credit caps for consumers who buy natural gas-fueled vehicles and provide tax breaks for manufacturers of those vehicles. The bill would also provide grants for the development of light- and heavy-duty natural gas engines.

Menendez said he may be able to attach his bill to energy and climate change packages the Senate is set to consider some time this year.

Editing by Walter Bagley