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Dumping gasoline, going with gas

Posted by | October 4, 2008

Bold visions have shaped American economic history at many different watersheds in our nation’s history. T. Boone Pickens fits squarely in that tradition, applying the think-big approach to American energy needs.

A geologist by training, Pickens has most recently been trading in oil and gas futures. He’s also just published a book to tout his ideas about energy independence, and he’s buying television ads to express his ideas.

Pickens’ book The First Billion is the Hardest features information about the personal life of T. Boone Pickens. The last third of the volume, however, contains his message about a national energy plan.

Here’s his sermon.

First, Pickens says we should use natural gas to power our cars and trucks. Second, we should use wind farms to generate the electricity we now make by burning natural gas in power plants. The second action will free up the fuel we’ll need to run our cars and trucks. Problems solved!

Pickens is not a man troubled with details and parts of his vision are sketchy – as he freely admits. But he makes some good points.

It’s not difficult to run cars and trucks on natural gas. Some taxis in Seattle run on natural gas, and most of the buses in Los Angeles are powered by it. If you’ve had a van ride at an airport with a company called SuperShuttle, you and your luggage have been ferried around by natural gas.

One version of the Honda Civic is manufactured to run on natural gas, and those vehicles are now being snapped up by economy-minded drivers in the U.S. In some places in the country, natural gas costs only about a quarter of the price of gasoline!

In Utah a number of people have started to get serious about running vehicles on natural gas. The governor has converted his SUV to run on it.  (Cautionary note: Utah has unusually cheap natural gas. But even here in the Northwest, natural gas costs a good bit less than the equivalent amount of gasoline.)

By the way, burning natural gas is a heck of a lot cleaner than burning gasoline or diesel. Urban smog would be greatly reduced if many Americans switched to cars powered by natural gas.  What’s not to like?

Pickens thinks we’ll have a great deal more natural gas in the future as geologists learn to exploit a certain type of shale we’ve previously overlooked. I’m less sure than Pickens that we are awash in natural gas, but we Americans certainly have more of it than we do petroleum.

But before you put yourself on a waiting list with Honda or convert your present car to run on natural gas – which costs about $12,000 – you need to think through some details.

Pickens is building natural gas refueling stations as rapidly as he can, but there are still none available throughout much of the Northwest.

You can, however, buy a small device that uses natural gas from a standard home line and compresses it to fill the tank of a vehicle. The refueling takes some time, but commuters could fill up as they sleep, with the clear reward of driving to work in the morning with vastly lower fuel costs.

An astute consumer may ask, what are the odds that natural gas prices will soon reach the price of gasoline?

Pickens writes, “Natural gas will always be cheaper than gasoline or diesel. I’ll bet my ass on this one.”

I don’t know that he’s surely right about that, but this geologist would hate to bet against Boone on anything relating to energy prices in the future.

The second part of the Pickens national plan is to develop thousands of wind farms to generate electricity – which will be needed if we move a lot of natural gas into transportation and thus come up 20 percent short on electricity.

Again, Pickens thinks big. He sees wind farms from Texas through the plains to Canada. He’s plowing hundreds of millions into wind-farm leases and wants to greatly expand the work. He demands that Congress take action now to make transmission lines from the Great Plains to our metropolitan areas.

Wind power is Pickens’ biggest gamble ever, and he says it’s his very best one.

Whether you agree with everything Pickens envisions or not, his current campaign is surely impressive work for an 80-year old.

Geologists age well. Thank goodness.