11 Apr 2011: Analysis

A New Pickens Plan: Good for
The U.S. or Just for T. Boone?

Three years after unveiling his plan for U.S. energy independence, which won praise from environmentalists for its reliance on wind power, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is back with a proposal to convert the U.S. trucking fleet to natural gas. But as his new plan gains traction, questions arise over how green it really is.

by fen montaigne

Remember the Pickens Plan?

Three years ago, with a flurry of national publicity, billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens outlined his vision of how to help wean the U.S. off imported oil. The crux of the plan was to build a massive, $1 trillion network of wind farms stretching from Texas to North Dakota, which would replace domestic natural gas used to generate electricity. The excess natural gas would then be used to power millions of American trucks and cars, thus freeing the U.S. from the shackles of OPEC oil.

Even some environmentalists swooned over the Pickens Plan, with Carl Pope, then executive director of the Sierra Club, saying, “To put it plainly, T. Boone Pickens is out to save America.”

T Boone Pickens
Bloomberg
T. Boone Pickens and his plan have received a boost from President Obama.
Within a year, however, the wind-power scheme was all but dead, and soon Pickens – and his multimillion-dollar ad campaign – had largely faded from the airwaves.

Now, however, Pickens and his plan are back, although the Texan’s new version is a good deal less green, considerably more dependent on controversial methods of extracting natural gas, and focused tightly on a single immediate goal: converting 8 million of the U.S.’s largest trucks, including its 18-wheel, tractor-trailer rigs, from diesel fuel to compressed natural gas.

In the past two weeks, Pickens and his plan have gotten a boost from none other than President Obama, who in a March 30 speech on energy security praised Pickens’ goal of expanding the use of natural gas in the nation’s transportation sector and called on members of Congress to support legislation that would increase the extraction and use of natural gas “in a safe, environmentally sound way.”

Last Thursday, at Pickens’ urging, a bipartisan group of 76 members of the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would provide tax credits of up to $64,000 per truck or vehicle to convert the nation’s large trucks and corporate and government fleets to compressed natural gas. Pickens predicted that the bill would receive more than 300 votes in the House and could pass as early as May, before moving to the U.S. Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has voiced support for Pickens’ new plan. The nation’s truckers are keeping a close eye on the legislation, saying much would depend on the size of the tax credit. Pickens repeatedly points out that recent events, including soaring oil prices and instability in the Middle East, have considerably strengthened his case for turning to natural gas as a way of breaking U.S. addiction to foreign oil.

With momentum building for the Pickens Plan, Part 2, the question is whether it is good for the nation’s energy security, good for the environment, or just good for T. Boone Pickens. Some transportation and energy experts say that the new Pickens plan indeed has merit and — with a significant caveat — is worthy of support. But other energy experts and environmentalists say it is a misguided attempt to impose a single “silver
It was probably inevitable that Pickens would not remain the darling of environmentalists.
bullet” solution on the transportation sector and commits the U.S. to a long-term embrace of fossil fuels.

“It was a big disappointment when T. Boone Pickens walked away from the wind side of his plan,” said David Friedman, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “He kept saying that this wasn’t about private interests, it was about the nation and the world. But to dump the part that actually had the greatest potential to cut global warming and pollution and help create new jobs in the U.S., in favor of the piece that really does most benefit his bottom line, was a disappointment.”

Although many environmentalists heaped accolades on Pickens when he announced his plan in 2008, it was probably inevitable he would not remain the darling of the environmental movement for long. At heart, Pickens is an oil and gas man whose fortune and business interests are grounded in fossil fuels. As a founder of Mesa Petroleum, he made billions in the oil business, starting in the 1950s. Today, he heads BP Capital, which invests in the oil, gas, and energy sectors.

In a recent meeting with reporters at Yale University, Pickens made it clear that he remains an enthusiastic booster of hydrocarbons, that he doesn’t foresee a transition to renewable energy anytime soon, that he isn’t convinced about human-caused global warming, and that he certainly doesn’t believe that hydrofracking — a controversial practice that extracts natural gas from shale — poses any serious environmental risks.

“You’re stuck with hydrocarbons — come on, get real,” Pickens, the 82-year-old Oklahoma native blessed with a silver tongue and a self-deprecatory, down-home charm, told the reporters. “I’ve been in meetings before where somebody says, ‘I want to cut out all coal-fired plants and go to wind.’ What are you talking about? I mean you’d run the price of electricity 10 times what it is [now]. Realistically you’ve got to use coal and you’ve got to use oil and, no, I don’t approach it from an environmental standpoint. But my record is good on the environment.”

When I asked Pickens whether human activity is causing the planet to warm, he replied, “I’m not saying that we’ve gone that far, but I’m saying we have caused some problems... I think we screwed around with the thing. I don’t know what we’ve impacted, but I’ve seen enough that I believe that we
At heart, his plan was not about going green, but about breaking our addiction to imported oil.
have messed up some things.”

Pickens’ proposal has struck a sympathetic chord across the political spectrum, for reasons of both economic and national security. At heart, his plan was never about going green, it was about breaking our addiction to imported oil, and as far as Pickens is concerned, anything that helps end that addiction – natural gas, wind, solar, corn ethanol — is okay by him. “Anything American, I’m for,” Pickens told a large and enthusiastic crowd at Yale University Law School last month.

He said his plan to help jump-start the nation’s wind energy industry fell victim to a simple economic truth: with the growing exploitation of natural gas reserves trapped in underground shale formations, natural gas prices have fallen to the point where wind power is not economically competitive, especially considering the cost of connecting wind farms to the national electricity grid. In 2009, Pickens put on hold his own plans to create a giant wind farm in West Texas, and he is now in the process of selling roughly 250 turbines from his proposed project to other North American wind farms.

Pickens has now shifted his hopes of ending America’s dependence on foreign oil — at least in the next several decades — to the country’s abundant natural gas supplies. His arithmetic is simple. He argues that if a concerted effort is made to shift America’s 8 million tractor-trailers and large trucks from diesel to cheaper compressed natural gas (CNG), the U.S. can largely end its dependence on OPEC oil within a decade. (He refers to OPEC as “the enemy,” since Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries have channeled money to Islamic fundamentalists.) By converting government and business fleet vehicles, and even some cars, to natural gas, Pickens says the country can begin to reduce oil imports from non-OPEC countries. “If we miss this opportunity,” he told the Yale audience, “all of us will go down in history as the dumbest crowd that ever came around.”

The House bill introduced last week would cost the U.S. treasury roughly $3 billion to $4 billion in tax credits for converting millions of trucks to natural gas, Pickens said, contending that the shift to CNG trucks and a national CNG fueling infrastructure would be a powerful engine of job creation. Pickens also is urging Obama to issue an executive order mandating that in the future all new federal vehicles run on domestic energy supplies, which Pickens says would further speed the transition to natural gas vehicles.

Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, said he supported Pickens’ plan and the government tax credits. “Should have done it ages ago,” Smil said in an email interview.

Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the nonprofit government watchdog group, Public Citizen, said that even though Pickens is promoting an energy program that would be “enormously beneficial to his fortune,” the plan to convert the nation’s heavy trucks to compressed natural gas has
The problem is that much of the natural gas Pickens is counting on would come from fracking.
some merit. Large tractor-trailers are too heavy to be powered by electric engines, and natural gas does burn more cleanly than diesel fuel, Slocum said.

The problem, said Slocum, is that much of the natural gas Pickens is counting on to power the U.S. trucking industry will come from the hydro-fracturing, or fracking, of shales — a process in which a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is forced at high pressure deep underground to free natural gas trapped in shale formations. An increasing number of reports by the media and state regulators indicate that fracking, if poorly done, can contaminate water supplies.

Slocum said the only way the government should support the conversion of heavy trucks to compressed natural gas is if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins to strictly regulate fracking under the Clean Water Act; fracking was exempted from the act under legislation passed in 2005 during the administration of George W. Bush. Federal oversight is particularly important, Slocum said, because state environmental agencies are overwhelmed trying to monitor pollution emanating from the fracking boom sweeping much of the U.S.

“I think natural gas has huge advantages if extracted in clean ways, and that is going to entail federal regulation,” Slocum said. “The national security issue of importing 65 percent of our oil is significant. But so are issues of drinking water contamination in a large number of states.”

In his Yale speech, Pickens said that water pollution from fracking is “not an issue” because the shale deposits are far below aquifers. “I do not know of any problems with freshwater aquifers being damaged by hydrofracking,” Pickens said.

Other transportation experts chiefly object to Pickens’ latest plan because it uses government policies to promote a specific technology, rather than leveling the marketplace to enable a host of potentially effective transportation and energy technologies to emerge.

“In general, I do not look fondly upon these technology winner-picking adventures that have been, and continue to be, a hallmark of America’s failed energy policy,” John M. DeCicco, of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, said. “The U.S. transportation energy market is way too huge to create a business case for anything through taxpayer subsidies.” Citing the synthetic fuel initiative of the Carter administration and other U.S. policies, DeCicco added, “How many times does the country have to get it wrong before realizing that such approaches don’t work?”

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Friedman of the Union Concerned Scientists agrees with DeCicco that trying to pick a “flavor of the month” in transportation fuels, such as compressed natural gas, is unwise. The better course, he said, is to use natural gas to generate electricity, since new combined-cycle gas turbines at power plants are more than twice as efficient at converting natural gas to energy as a truck or car engine running on compressed natural gas. That electricity could then be used for electric vehicles or to power fuel cells for hydrogen cars.

The fundamental problem, Friedman said, is that Pickens’ plan ultimately represents a “stranded investment,” pumping many billions of dollars into a compressed natural gas technology that will eventually be phased out in favor of more sustainable, long-term transportation alternatives: electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, biofuel- or algae-powered vehicles, or a new technology altogether. For now, he said, a better approach would be to pass tax credits that would reward the trucking industry for reducing emissions, either through designing more efficient trailers, developing hybrid trucks, or improving the efficiency of diesel engines.

Pickens has heard these criticisms before, and as far as the former wildcatter is concerned, it’s time to quit talking and start acting. “With the Mideast in turmoil, you go to sleep at night and you don’t know what you’re going to get in the morning,” he said. “The solution is to get on your own resources.”

Video: The New Pickens Plan


POSTED ON 11 Apr 2011 IN Business & Innovation Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Europe North America 

COMMENTS


And don't forget that Pickens is on the Board of Directors of a company called Clean Energy, of which he is co-founder and in which he has substantial holdings:

http://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/main.html#

Clean Energy describes itself as, "The leading provider of natural gas fuel for transportation in North America, Clean Energy is the smart decision for vehicle fleets demanding the most reliable connection to CNG and LNG."

According to this site, http://www.gurufocus.com/news.php?id=22250, Pickens' relationship with Clean Energy (as of 2008) was as follows:

      T Boone Pickens initiated holdings in Clean Energy Fuels Corp.. His purchase prices were between $14.71 and $18.93, with an estimated average price of $16.7. The impact to his portfolio due to this purchase was 0.43%. His holdings were 392,518 shares as of 12/31/2007.

      Clean Energy Fuels Corp. provides natural gas as an alternative fuel for vehicle fleets in the United States and Canada. It designs, builds, finances, and operates fueling stations and supplies compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas. Clean Energy Fuels Corp. has a market cap of $688.85 million; its shares were traded at around $15.58 with P/S ratio of 5.93.

Posted by David Alberswerth on 11 Apr 2011


Pickens is not concerned whatsoever with the environment -- he's concerned with his still-growing bank accounts. He's also a big investor in the Alberta tar sands oil. He could not care less about climate change either.

Unfortunately he has convinced the media and most of Congress that we should spend billions transforming our automobiles to run on natural gas and he has also convinced most politicians that natural gas is "clean" and that there is an endless supply. We need to stop listening to billionaire oil men and seriously invest in renewable energy as a country!

As for transportation, we need more trains. Forget cars that run on natural gas. It's just another way for T. Boone Pickens to leave his grandchildren another billion or two.

Posted by Shelly T on 12 Apr 2011


Mr Pickens is not a stupid man. Wind power must be paired up with natural gas generators when attached to the grid since the energy cannot in the forseeable future be stored at a significant level and the smart grid is still just an expensive dream. The more wind plants built, the more we rely on natural gas. Add trucks to the equation and we become ever more dependent on this fossil fuel - climate change be damned.

Posted by Keith on 12 Apr 2011


We need it all. We need the energy from every available source to become self reliant. We need to be smart and efficient about our consumption of energy. We need to protect our home planet for our own good.

My main concern about hydro-fracturing is that the process forever removes about 1MM gallons of fresh water from the surface of our planet. The lack of available fresh water will be the new crisis of our near future.

There are processes available for processing the fracking water to extend the useful life and even for extracting fresh water from the billions of gallons of brine produced by our oil and gas processes everyday. It is time for the Oil and Gas industry to embrace the technology and replenish the surface of the earth with fresh water at least equal to that which is being consumed.

Posted by Johnny Dyer on 12 Apr 2011


A revolutionary breakthrough in cost-competitive green energy has opened a door to superseding the need for all fossil and Uranium fuels much faster than might be believed by almost anyone.

See Cold Fusion at www.aesopinstitute.org to learn more about it than you probably want to know.

This appears to be a Black Swan, a highly improbable energy event with huge implications.

Posted by Mark Goldes on 12 Apr 2011


So now we're going to poison our water to fuel our cars and trucks? To blight the landscape with hundreds of thousands of drilling rigs? And all this in the face of much evidence that in the long run fracking is not even economically viable -- that the wells are depleted before the original investment is paid off -- that the true cost of drilling site cleanup and the millions of gallons of water used would make the cost exorbitant, if the industry had to pay these...(that is, if costs weren't secretly subsidized, i.e. "externalized")...

Rather than look for new ways to fuel our fleet of trucks and cars (indeed, nothing really replaces petroleum), it's time to look beyond mass motorization to restoring our once proud rail and trolley system, to relocalizing agriculture and industry, and to rebuilding walkable cities. Anything else is just a pipe dream or a get-rich-quick scheme.

Posted by Ando Arike on 12 Apr 2011


I think Pickens is going the right way, but what he should also be promoting is a more efficient use of the natural gas that we do have.

Today 20% or more of all the natural gas consumed is being blown up chimney's across the country as HOT exhaust into the atmosphere. The technology of "Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery" is designed to recover the heat energy from the waste flue gases, so that it can be further utilized in the building or facility.

Natural gas can be used so efficiently that COOL exhaust is then vented into the atmosphere, and WATER is also being created from these combustion gases. Do not waste the water! Have you ever seen combusted natural gas irrigate the lawns and flower beds?

The DOE states that for every million Btu's of energy recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and utilized ~ 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere.

How many Btu's are consumed hourly across this country?

Posted by Sid Abma on 14 Apr 2011


A Pickens plan to move the cargo on railways and get rid of the 18 wheelers would be a lot more constructive.

Posted by Kevin Cobley on 15 Apr 2011


Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the nonprofit government watchdog group, Public Citizen, said that ... Large tractor-trailers are too heavy to be powered by electric engines.

Obviously he's never looked under the hood of a 100-ton railroad locomotive and seen the electric motors that drive the wheels. Not to mention that the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 uses electric motors to drive its four giant propellers.

Posted by Dean on 15 Apr 2011


Trailer trucks running on natural gas is the lesser evil, when compared to running them on diesel. As others have pointed out, the preferred solution would be to use electric trains to move cargo over large distances; this uses approximately 15% of the energy semi-trailers use.

The 64 billion dollar question is, why does the right-winger Pickens want the government to subsidize the conversion of trucks and other costs? You'd think this would be anathema to his ilk.

Posted by jimvj on 16 Apr 2011


For a comprehensive view of the effects of the Pickens Plan go to: http://www.steelinterstate.org/topics/why-not-convert-trucks-natural-gas

Posted by rshearer on 21 Apr 2011


Also don't forget ol' Boone "owns" the Ogallala aquifer and was stymied in his plans to pipe it to Texas and sell that water to cities there. Then he tried to tie the pipe line to his wind power transmission line as a way to get around the rules. That didn't work out for him either so he ditched the tubines and now he's sitting on a huge resource and no way to sell it. Enter natural gas, fracking, the rivers of water that fracking needs and Boone, that old oil and gas man, with all that sub-surface water just waiting for a buyer.
Then there's all that government money. There were subsidies for the wind tubines and the gov.'ll be paying to convert all those engines to natural gas. And the energy from the turbines and the energy for the vehicles, it'd all be courtesy of Boone.
Bonus is, you can toss on the cloak of patriotism and the crown of green and have people saying good things about you for a change. Foolin' some of the people some of the time.

Posted by Phil on 06 May 2011


Surprise -- T. Boone Pickens doesn't care about the environment and doesn't care about global warming. He has said he does not even like the "Greenies". So much for saving the world.

In fact, he invests heavily in Canada's tar sands oil. You've been duped, if you believed he was for clean energy. He's for energy that makes him richer.

I have written about T. Boone Pickens quite a bit at futurismnow.com

Trucks should get off the roads and/or transfer to hybrid gas/electric power. We don't even need 18-wheelers. Did he mention that?

Posted by Shelly T. on 08 May 2011


It appears most of the comments are expressing a preoccupation with the motives of Pickens, or expressing the ideal (trains going from and to everywhere) but not dealing with the facts at hand.

Some facts that I believe matter....We have trucks moving almost all of our commerce in NA. Today the price of NG as a fossil fuel is stupid cheap, so much so that it is being burned off at production sites around the world. Burning NG produces roughly half of the CO2 of petroleum. By creating demand for NG, we raise its price to better reflect and respect its long term value, and it becomes economically viable to recapture almost all NG at production site. And, as Pickens says, yes, we really do lower our dependence on imports.

Posted by Danny Mandel on 04 Jun 2011


America is strangled by regulations. The Big Business guys ask for regulations that will create barriers to entry. They kill competition. The Big Government guys ask for regulations that will give their constituent organizations a bigger handout and more oversight (read "power").

America is being whipsawed by the same false Fascism v. Socialism dichotomy that was being made when FDR was elected. Pickens understands the game, and he is not afraid to appeal to both sides as it suits his agenda. Most likely, his true agenda is to produce energy for a profit.

Posted by william k on 10 Jun 2011


Wow. Lots of strange and bizzare accusations and not much substance in the comments. "Fracking". the venacular for hydraulic fracturing (of the reservior rocks) has been around for decades. it isn't any thing new or mysterious. The technology and the application have improved but the concept is largely unchanged. The ascertain that the process removes forever 1MM gallons of freshwater from the surface of the planet is absurd.

The energy density of crude oil is much higher that that of natural gas. The closer that a product is to crude -petrochemically- the more effcient it is as an energy source. Hence diesel is a much better fuel than say gasoline producing more net energy per unit volume.

Natural gas has been flared as waste product for decades or used on site for service fuel simply because the volumes are so limited and the costs for transporting it from the well so high that there is never a payout. Moving natural gas from well head to market requires an entirely different infrastructure than moving crude over existing infrastructure (trucks and roads). Natural gas requires pipeline, new right of ways, compressor stations and so forth.

William is right when he says that America is being strangled by regulation. It's a growth industry. The only thing which changes with elections are the names of the pigs at the trough. I take exception to the Facism v. Socialim comment though. There is no difference between the two other the the number of pigs who benefit. Either way America liberty looses

Posted by yat907 on 10 Jun 2011


There is value in pursuing natural gas but only if the suppliers are not exempted from the clean water act, clean air act, & super funds. If natural gas suppliers are truly responsible they will take a pass on the exemptions conservatives have given them on these laws to demonstrate to America that they actually do have concern for doing things the right way.

I would like to revisit Mr. Pickens wind farm idea. The biggest drawback is that windmills have to be constructed where the wind blows, not all areas of America are equally blessed with strong winds near large metropolitan areas. However, there is a means to get around this build the turbines higher even MILES high. Of course this would be price prohibitive with ordinary construction methodologies. But, I was just reviewing an article on Physicist Robert L. Forward's Space Fountain. This structure does not depend upon material strength to build tall structures but rather is a device which has as its characteristic that it can support a structure of any height! This point is very significant because, not only can it potentially be used for future space flight, but could also be used for energy generation by allowing wind turbines to erected anywhere one is needed by taking advantage of near constant high speed winds at higher altitudes which are available anywhere.

Please, see the following links for further information:

Space Fountain:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_fountain
http://orbitalvector.com/Orbital%20Travel/Space%20Fountains/Space%20Fountains.htm
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2003/20030714/orbital_railroads.shtml

Just add wind turbines!

DJ

Posted by Dwayne Jackson on 02 Nov 2011


On April 15, 2011, Dean questions the statement he attributes to Tyson Slocum that... Large tractor-trailers are too heavy to be powered by electric engines. When I have heard Boone Pickens discuss this, he has said that tractor-trailers are to big for "the battery," which is a more accurate way of stating the problem.

Tractor-trailers could be pulled by electric motors, but with current battery technology, they could probably only go a few miles before they would require charging. The charging would likely take several hours to complete.

Modern locomotives do indeed use electric motors to drive the wheels. But where does the electricity to power the electric motor come from? If you look "under the hood" a little longer, you will see that there is a diesel engine, obviously powered by diesel fuel. The mechanical energy from the diesel spins an electrical generator which in turn powers the electric motors. It is done this way because it is a more practical solution for getting a train moving from a dead stop than some sort of transmission that applies the mechanical energy from the diesel engine directly to the wheels of the locomotive.

I always thought that the primary focus of the Pickens' Plan was about not sending a few hundred billion dollars per year to other countries. Converting part of our nation's energy production to a renewable source was a great bonus. I disagree that Mr. Pickens is modifying his plan so as to maximize his profits to some obscene level. I think he modified the plan that he can achieve his primary goal without going broke. It is unfortunate that with the hundreds of billions spent on the so-called stimulus, that it did not include money for the infrastructure needed to get electricity from Mr. Pickens' wind farm to the grid.

I blame the very people who claim to crave clean energy. Too many of them are so angry that Mr. Pickens' might actually profit from converting 20% of the nation's energy production to wind, that they derided the plan and effectively killed it.

In my opinion, the benefit to the USA of keeping those hundreds of billions of dollars per year inside our borders are enormous. So much so that we really shouldn't be quibbling about such things as whether we should convert tractor-trailers to CNG or use more trains.

Posted by Dennis on 08 Nov 2011


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fen montaigneABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fen Montaigne is senior editor of Yale Environment 360 and author of the recently published book, Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and other magazines. In a recent article for e360, he wrote about the consequences of a warming Antarctica.
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“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

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