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|March 12-18 2009
• Back to letters
T. Boone Pickens marches on Washington
by Paul Danish
T. Boone Pickens is having so much fun he ought to be arrested.
Last summer Pickens, the Texas oilman and 1980s corporate raider, proposed a simple, direct plan for slashing the country’s dependence on imported oil: replace the 22 percent of U.S. electricity currently produced by burning natural gas with electricity generated by wind turbines. Then use the 7 trillion cubic feet a year of natural gas this would save to fuel cars and trucks.
Seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas contains about the same amount of energy as 1.4 billion barrels of oil. Substituting the gas for gasoline and diesel fuel would result in a 4 million barrel-a-day drop in U.S. oil imports, a more than 30 percent decline.
Pickens has spent the past eight months signing up some 1.4 million supporters, whom he’s dubbed his “army,” traveling around the country talking up his ideas, both publicly and privately, in his own inimitable style.
For example, last summer he met privately with both John McCain and Barack Obama. Here’s how he recently described both meetings:
After meeting with McCain, Pickens said he concluded that both “John McCain [who is 72] and Boone Pickens [who is 80] are too old to be president of the United States.” He said that during the meeting he told McCain he ought to use a “cram-down” to create by force an energy grid the way Eisenhower built interstate highways. “I said, ‘Your personality kind of fits a cram-down.’”
At his session with then-candidate Obama, held in a Reno Hotel, he was equally pointed. “Two hundred fifty million cars and trucks in the United States and we’re burping them out at 13, 14 million a year, and you’re going to have 1 million — in 10 years — plug-in hybrids?” he recalled asking Obama. “He [Obama] said, ‘That’s not very many, is it?’”
It sure isn’t.
Pickens also made a couple of adroit modifications to his original plan that make it a lot more doable, both technically and politically.
First, instead of pushing natural gas as an alternative fuel for cars and trucks, he’s focusing on making it an alternative fuel for large trucks, which are too big to be run on electricity. The current iteration of the plan calls for subsidizing the conversion of 350,000 18-wheelers, about 5 percent of the country’s fleet. An initial infrastructure of 89 liquefied natural gas plants and 2,000 refueling stations would be needed. Assuming the price of natural gas stays below (or is kept below) the price of diesel fuel, eventually the network would expand on its own.
Focusing on trucks would make the job of installing the necessary natural gas fueling infrastructure a lot more manageable. And trucking companies are more likely to opt for vehicles to run on natural gas than individual car owners.
Second, the original plan called for replacing natural-gas-generated electricity with wind-generated electricity. The current iteration has added solar-, geo-thermal-, and bio-mass-generated electricity as well. The change seems to have won the heart, and whole-hearted support, of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
Reid’s support is giving Pickens some real political traction.
Last week Reid introduced a bill to rebuild and expand the nation’s electric grid — and make major elements of the Pickens Plan the law of the land.
Reid’s bill gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Administration authority to fast-track designation of corridors for high-tension lines that will carry electricity generated by alternative sources (including wind, solar and geo-thermal) if state governments fail to do so in a timely manner. (A timely manner, in this case, is 90 days after passage of the law in the western states, and 270 days after the passage in the east.)
Reid’s bill also requires the president to swiftly designate “renewable energy zones” throughout the country, areas where alternative energy projects can be located and served by the new grid. And it provides that the transmission lines will be built by the feds if private companies don’t step up to build them.
Reid’s bill sounds a lot like the cram-down Pickens wanted McCain to champion. (In the press release accompanying the legislation, Reid characterized it as clearing the way for Nevada to become a national leader in alternative energy, i.e. as pork.)
Last Friday, the New York Times reported that Reid agreed to have his bill combined with the Obama administration proposals for a cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions and a nationwide “renewable electricity standard” (RES) that would require all electric utilities to generate a set percentage of their output with renewables.
The cap-and-trade and renewable-electricity standard are viewed as climate change legislation, and the Times fretted that combining climate change and energy-independence legislation in the same package might make the resultant bill un-passable.
That’s a valid concern. But cap-and-trade and RES, if they become law, will also be big enablers of the Pickens Plan, by giving utilities a none-too-gentle shove toward replacing natural-gas generated electricity with electricity from renewables.
Pickens is asking his “army” to stage a virtual march on Washington from April 1-3, during which its members will flood Congress with e-mails, calls and letters, so the combined bill will be getting some populist support. (If you want to enlist, go to www.pickensplan.com.)
Pickens is offering renewable-energy advocates something they have long aspired to but never found — a way for renewable energy to make a large and immediate impact in slashing America’s dependence on imported oil, a far more urgent threat than climate change. In other words, he has found a way to transform green energy into a national security issue.
Pickens is giving “greenies” (as he calls them) the sort of legitimacy they’ve never had before. He’s offering Harry Reid home-state pork in undreamed of quantities. He’s giving the United States a way to stick it to Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Putin. And he stands to make a pot of money in the bargain, which he cheerfully admits.
If that’s not change we can believe in, what is?
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