ATLANTIC CITY - The energy business has probably never been more competitive, but attendees of the Atlantic Region Energy Expo on Wednesday said they are optimistic about the future of the industry.

Hundreds of companies, including some from South Jersey, participated in the trade show at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

The trade show features companies in natural gas, oil, biofuel and propane, among others. The convention evolved from a time when it catered almost exclusively to oil companies, said Ted Schoening, of Glassboro, a sales representative for the Absecon office of R.E. Michel Co. Inc.

"Fifteen years ago, if you had a natural gas firm here, they'd chase you out," he said. "The motto was, 'Go gas, go boom!'"

Segments of the energy industry continue to be at odds over each one's respective merits and business plans, he said.

"Oil is not going away, trust me," said John Gerner, of Egg Harbor Township.

He is an inspector for Terminal Evaluation & Design, an Egg Harbor Township company that inspects commercial and industrial oil tanks for leaks and flaws.

His brother, Brian Gerner, of Philadelphia, works at sister company Aboveground Storage Tank Specialists, in Egg Harbor Township, which installs new fuel tanks, especially in industrialized parts of northern New Jersey.

"I call them Jersey trees," Brian Gerner said. "Past Exit 10 of the Turnpike, it's one big tank farm."

Natural gas has made vast inroads into the fuel oil industry, especially in South Jersey. Meanwhile, biofuels such as ethanol are becoming more commonplace. And Ameri-can crude-oil production is on a five-year upswing after more than 20 years of declining production, according to federal figures.

"There's far too much negativity in the industry, particularly in heating oil," said Alan H. Levine, of Potomac, Md., chairman of the energy risk-management firm Powerhouse.

He gave a speech to attendees this week on the changing dynamics of the industry. Levine said America currently has strong availability of oil and natural gas. And last year, energy consumption went down as prices continued to rise.

"Pricing is another issue. Gasoline demand has fallen," he said.

Levine said cars are getting more efficient while driving patterns are changing. Older residents are cutting back on their driving, especially at night. Meanwhile, younger people seem to have less urgency to get their driver's licenses.

"We're seeing big changes in demographics," he said.

Levine said oil producers and distributors should not be overly concerned about encroaching competition from natural gas.

"It's a pendulum that swings back and forth. The competitive price of natural gas is starting to move higher, too," he said. "As inventories stabilized, the price started going back up."

Advancements in green technology are helping the oil industry compete with natural gas, he said.

"The reason we write the obituaries for distillate fuels, particularly home-heating oil, is because it's environmentally unacceptable and natural gas is less expensive," he said.

But biofuels - renewable products derived from plants or even recycled restaurant grease - are becoming more commonplace each year, he said.

This week's convention also is promoting BioHeat - a blend of traditional fuel oil and biodiesel derived from soybeans and other renewable resources.

"I'm not saying everything in the industry is coming up roses," Levine said. "But we have companies that are quite successful."

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About New Jersey energy

• Ranked sixth highest in energy prices in the United States.

• Mostly consumes natural gas and gasoline, followed by nuclear power, jet fuel and out-of-state electricity.

• Ranks 37th in per-capita consumption of electricity nationwide. Cold-weather states Wyoming and Alaska, where transportation costs are higher, ranked first and second. Rhode Island residents use the nation's least energy per capita.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration