Pickens Plan Promotes Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles

If you’ve watched any cable news or read the editorial pages of a major newspaper in the past few months, you’re likely to have come across advertisements for the Pickens Plan. Devised by legendary energy baron, T. Boone Pickens, the Pickens Plan promises to decrease America’s foreign oil expenditure by more than 40 percent. One element of the plan is the promotion of a long existent but relatively unused automotive technology: engines powered by compressed natural gas.

While CNG vehicles aren’t the linchpin of the Pickens Plan, it’s interesting that such an obscure technology would factor in at all, especially considering all of the excitement about the new wave of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles that are expected to hit the market in the coming years.

The answer may lie in fact that Pickens owns the largest provider of natural gas for transportation in the United States, Clean Energy Fuels. Or perhaps it’s the $160 million joint investment he and the Perseus investment group entered into earlier this year to develop a mass-market CNG powered car. Or maybe both of these investments arose out of a genuine interest in environmental responsibility and a reduction of America’s dependence on foreign oil?

As with most of the green capitalist endeavors to hit the financial pages in recent years, the success of the Pickens plan and of natural gas vehicles in general will be determined not by intentions, but by technological feasibility and market acceptance.

Although CNG has enjoyed some success abroad, there are very few regions within the United States with enough filling stations open to the public to facilitate widespread use. Italy and Canada boast the most CNG-friendly infrastructures, and countries all over Europe, South America, Asia, and the Middle East, have converted their public fleets to the fuel. Several states and municipalities within the US have even converted their fleets to run on natural gas, but the fact remains that the technology is far from even gaining a foothold with car buyers. Except in Utah.

As recently covered in The New York Times, the popularity of CNG powered vehicles in Utah has skyrocketed in the past year due to rising gas prices and the widespread availability of filling stations offering the fuel. More than 6,000 CNG vehicles currently exist in Utah, and that number is growing by several hundred each month.

Since compressed natural gas emits about 15 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline, and is significantly less expensive—although the gallon of gas equivalent can be tricky to calculate—its newfound popularity is understandable. But how likely is this trend to spread elsewhere?

Aside from the scarcity of fueling stations in most parts of the country—which isn’t quite as problematic as one might think given that a full tank can usually take you about 200 miles—there’s also a shortage of legally approved CNG-burning cars on the market. The only major model available in he United States is the Honda Civic GX. The GX is only available in select states, and according to the Times article, about a quarter of 800 that have been sold so far this year were sold in Utah.

The Civic GX boasts a few advantages beyond fuel efficiency and its certification as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero-Emission Vehicle. Because gas burns cleaner than liquid fuel, maintenance costs on the GX run considerably lower than those of gasoline vehicles. Oil changes are only required once per 10,000 miles, and tune-ups once every 100,000. The engines are also reported to last more than 500,000 miles with good maintenance, though verification for this claim is difficult to come by. The Civic GX has a sticker price of around $25,100.

Because the availability of new and used Civic GXs has been so limited in markets where the technology is rising in popularity, many drivers are choosing to convert their gasoline powered cars to run on CNG. This can be problematic because of strict conversion standards in many states and inspection and certification costs, which can be quite pricey. The cost of the conversions vary greatly depending on what model of vehicle you start with—some cars will run you less than $10,000, while others can cost several times as much.

But there are factors beyond the scarcity of Civic GXs and the cost of conversion that threaten to keep CNG vehicles from breaking into the mainstream. For one, if the GX is any indication, these cars are likely to remain more expensive than their hybrid counterparts, even though their emissions are higher and the fuel savings they offer are relatively nil compared to hybrids. The Civic GX is $2,000 more expensive than a Civic hybrid, and $7,000 more expensive than a standard Civic.

Furthermore, many detractors point out that developing new cars to run on CNG just distracts from the real challenge facing carmakers and society at large: getting off of fossil fuels and on to renewable energy.

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  • Samie

    CNG should have been developed & regulated in the 1970-80’s for cars. Now this option is somewhat outdated. Not sure if this is right but I hear some talk about using natural gas in small delivery trucks like UPS, in that case it doesn’t seem that bad. If distracted by this (for cars) it could create a real step back in the overall scheme of things, o remember the great hydrogen, & corn ethanol stories and schemes of the early 2000’s.

    Not an expert on this but where usually does natural gas come from?…. We may see a rise in imported natural gas, isn’t that something we would like to avoid especially from places like Iran or Russia?

  • Shines

    It would be fun to have a plug in CNG hybrid vehicle. I could charge the battery and fill up the tank from home.
    If Chevy could make a CNG Volt! I’d be free from big oil !

  • TD

    We are already importing some natural gas. It would only get worse if we start running cars on CNG, which would put us back to square 1. Better to invest in hybrid technologies as the interim solution until we can have all electric vehicles with truly renewable energy.

  • Bryce

    Give me an electric car instead. : )

  • steved28

    Even Pickens knows this is just a stepping stone technology. He freely admits it as such. His plan is to “buy time” for the true breakthroughs of the future, but in the mean time drastically reduce our oil imports. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s better than our current “no plan”. What we can’t produce here we just look to Canada to provide.

  • Anonymous

    We don’t need to buy time we need to push electric technology as hard as possible. If that requires higher gas prices, so be it. BTW Pickens plan is a big water rights land grab poorly disguised as a green revolution.

    Also natural gas really is not a good idea from an environmental perspective. People are getting desperate in their search for natural gas. They are trying to tap “unconventional” reserves locked in shale formations deep under ground. In order to get the gas out they have to fracture the shale with high pressure water filled with all sorts of interesting chemicals. In some cases they use some diesel. Yes you read that right, they pump diesel into a hole so they can get natural gas out of a hole! Of course some of those chemicals have to be pumped back out in to detention ponds. All this chemical pumping is a huge threat to ground and surface water quality. Obviously the high pressure pumping is also very energy intensive. I’m surprised the process has a net gain in usable energy. In some cases it probably doesn’t. But none of this stops people in Pennsylvania and else ware from signing away their mineral rights.

    They should call “natural gas” what it really is, predominantly METHANE. Methane happens to be an incredible potent greenhouse gas. I don’t think bring more of that stuff to the surface of the earth is a good idea. They will not be able to capture all of it and capped wells will leak eventually.

    So in summary natural gas is not a good idea just developed electric technology.

  • mdensch

    If you review information on the EPA and Dept. of Energy web sites, you will learn that CNG vehicles are significantly cleaner than gasoline or diesel vehicles and emit less CO2, as well.

    Given the fact that most of our electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, especially coal, driving an electric car would not be emissions-free by any means. Maybe some day we will produce most of our electricity via solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric or other clean methods, but that day is well into the future.

    CNG can be used as a fuel in almost any vehicle with very little modification and, unlike hydrogen, is already in wide use throughout the country. Scaling up production and distribution could be done quite easily. Turning to CNG as an interim fuel makes a great deal of sense.

  • Will S

    Shines said:
    > …a plug in CNG hybrid vehicle.

    Yes, if we are going to use NG for vehicles, then let’s at least be smart about it, such as a parallel PHEV with a highly efficient micro-turbine.

  • Nathan

    Personally, I don’t know why we don’t develop dual fuel CNG cars. Just put a CNG tank big enough to go 50-100 miles and refill at home but with a normal gas tank as backup. You would immediately be driving on cng most of the time without any need for new filling stations.

    And CNG is much better than gasoline. Burns cleaner and we have a lot more of that here in the US than oil. And from what I have read getting methane from shale is now economical and not bad for the environment. It does use a bunch of water but they are starting to recycle that and use less. Many times better than getting oil from tar sands or oil shale.

    All that said, I still prefer plug in hybrids, there you can use wind and nuclear and natural gas, and electric motors are still more efficient. But it terms of getting us off oil ASAP and helping the environment ASAP, BOTH plug in and dual fuel might be the way to go.

  • Picky McPicky

    Stated in article…”Oil changes are only required once per 10,000 miles, and tune-ups once every 100,000. The engines are also reported to last more than 500,000 miles with good maintenance, though verification for this claim is difficult to come by.”

    This is precisely why this CNG will never hit the market in our lifetime. It’s too maintenance free. There are too many automobile aftemarket lobbiests that never want to see this car manufactured because it would kill their industry in the long term. Short term, many aftermarket mechanics and tune up shops could profit from conversion, but after that it will be a ghost town at Freddy’s Auto Repair Shop.

    I love this concept better than Electric Vehicles, but the definition of free market system doesn’t mean that we get stuff for free and this CNG basically gives you free maintenance for the life of the car. Can you imagine GM or Ford telling their dealers that rely on their maintenance departments for a good portion of their profits that they wil be manufactiring virtually maintainance free cars?

    Corporations don’t really build cars for you and me folks. They build them for their stockholders, their stakeholders and their money holders (wallets). It’s sad, but true. Another innovation cast aside because it worked too good. Capitalism or Crapitalism. Sometimes I wonder.

  • gok

    Doesn’t his plan also push wind and solar? Why focus on the one thing you disagree with. This is why Environmentalist can’t get anything done. Your to busy arguing for the perfect solution.

  • Samuel

    He has a very good plan.
    Expand renewable, such as solar and wind, free natural gas for cars.
    Yes, electric cars sound sexier and are better long term solution.
    But they will be feasible for only small passenger cars in the foreseable future.
    What about trucks, bases, commercial vehicles like fed. ex and UPS trucks etc?
    They do not need fuel stations at every corner.
    This will free and lot of oil consumption and decrease our overall fuel bill.

  • Bryce

    its true, something is better than nothing, and atleast half of his plan is viable. In all likelihood, the whole CNG thing won’t take off, however, wind production has already had a record year of production every year for about the last 5 years and is expected to continue.

  • Thom Hopkins

    A multi/flex fuel vehicle is already being used outside the USA. The auto makers know this and could provide us with a vehicle that could run on gasoline, natural gas and electricity. This would allow the market to determine the perfered fuel. I do not understand why consumers are not demanding action from the big three.

  • Rich Kolodziej

    RE: The author comments about natural gas vehicles and muses over why “such an obscure technology would factor in at all”. He then concludes that Boone Pickens just wants to make more money. Well … maybe that’s not it. Maybe it’s because the public and decision-makers are tired of hearing unfulfilled promises and waiting for other transportation vehicle technologies to finally make it to the market at a price that is competitive with gasoline and diesel vehicles. Since there are over 8.7 NGVs in the world today, it’s pretty clear that NGVs are a here-and-now technology for light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. No waiting. Maybe it’s because we use 50 billion gallons of diesel in the US, and virtually all the focus of the electric vehicle industry is on sedans. Maybe it’s because decision-makers worry about how plug-in hybrids will work for vehicles that weigh 26,000 pounds and are on the road all day.

    And, by the way … Boone Pickens enjoys making money, but he certainly doesn’t need it. He’s 80 years old and a multi-billionaire. He couldn’t spend all the money he has now if he wanted to. Moreover, he’s given away $700 million of his money to charity, and will be giving away a lot more. He passionately believes the Pickens Plan is needed and it will work. That’s why he’s investing his own money in wind and NGV companies. What would the naysayers say is he WEREN’T investing his own money in these technologies?

    Two more points. According to a report funded by the California Energy Commission, NGVs produce 22% less greenhouse gases than comparable diesel vehicles and 29% less than gasoline. And … the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy rated the natural gas Honda Civic GX as the “greenest” vehicle sold in America – beating all the hybrids – for five years in a row.

    Re: Samie & TD: Right now, 85 percent of the natural gas we use is produced in the US and virtually all the rest is produced in Canada. We have enough domestic gas to serve all our domestic needs, but it’s cheaper to bring gas over the border to serve northern cities than to bring gas up from Texas, Oklahoma, etc. With the commercialization of gas from shale (not to be confused with oil shale), the US natural gas resource base has almost doubled. Current estimates are that we have 118 years of natural gas at current production. This does not include biomethane from landfills, sewage and animal waste. Nor does it include cellulosic biomethane, which the Europeans (especially the Swedes) say is more energy productive and less expensive than producing cellulosic ethanol. The potential of renewable natural gas (biomethane) is huge. Nor do these estimates include gas from methane hydrates. This is methane trapped in ice formations in deep water off of almost every coast. It’s estimated that there is twice as much energy in methane hydrates than in all the coal, oil and natural gas in the world combined. The problem is that, currently, we don’t know how to mine it. But keep in mind that, 15 years ago, we didn’t know how to mine gas from shale. Now we do. The Japanese have announced that they will be producing gas from hydrates within 10 years.

    Re: Shines: The July 31st posting on the General Motors blog by
    GM Vice President, Research & Development, Larry Burns, was very bullish on NGVs. The blog says: “In the near term, we can use compressed natural gas (CNG) in internal combustion engines. Mid-term, we can leverage natural gas to create electricity for the Volt and future variants.” Maybe you’ll be able to drive a NGV Volt someday.

  • JD

    His plans makes sense so it won’t work, congress and big oil will stop it.. Our Morons in the congress and senate couldn’t pass a good bill if they fell over it..

  • JD

    His plan makes a lot of good sense, so it won’t work. Our Morons in the senate and congress are in big oil’s pockets. Congress and senate couldn’t pass a good bill if they fell over one..

  • Samie

    Can we be confident that the 85% would stay the same if we ramped up CNG production for cars? Also more new homes are going with natural gas, does that 85% also represent increase in commercial and residental dwellings? Like it or not more imported natural gas will be used.

    Looking at where its mainly produced is in the oil fields
    Shale Gas is not a huge total of the overall “harvesting of natural gas”

    Distracting, why? We are starting the first real plugin hybrid market, thats real!!! If we do not support this and like many here would try to offer a menu of fuels, how does that help the market develop and find new and more powerful batteries or better electric systems? If politicians support various forms of “alternative fuels” (my point is only for gasoline products) how does any real solution come from things like E85, nasty corn ethanol, or any other fuel scheme. Isn’t the point to move away from one source fuels that run the gasoline engine?

    Where is any argument of say producing or purchasing more fuel efficient vehicles that run on gasoline, as a short-term solution?

  • Pablo

    For now Pickens is after the big transportation trucks, garbage trucks, city buses and so on – definitely not after the small cars.


  • Anonymous

    RE: Samie: Gas Shale: As I mentioned, gas shale may almost double the US natural gas resource base. Google “Navigant gas shale” for stories about a recent study.

    Gas consumption: From 2000 to 2006 (last data), natural gas use in the residential market declined 10%, the commercial market declined 9% and the industrial market declined 26%. Fueling 10 million average light-duty vehicles would increase natural gas use by less than 3%.

    More gasoline-hybrids and gasoline-plug-in-hybrids are fine, and we all should support them. But there are over 200 million vehicles on the road. What’s the optimistic forecast of what percentage of those will be hybrids in 10 years? If we want to really move away from oil, we don’t have choices. We have to use all alt fuels and advanced technologies.

  • Bryce

    working fleets being transfered over to CNG would be a viable solution I guess. I was wondering how in the world he wanted everyone and their mother to use CNG. Thanks for clarifying that. I still really like the ironic part of an oil baron supporting tons of wind power.

  • Samie

    Natural gas production and oil production sometimes goes hand in hand.
    Alternate fuels are great for service vehicles but why do we need them for the typical 4 door sedan? Why replace one fuel for another? Sounds sexy but didn’t we learn anything from the whole corn ethanol process? ie total energy, land resource issues, and that little thing about food prices.

    The amount of hybrids on the road in 10 years is anybodies guess. There are lots of conditions that will dictate that amount. As I said earlier the plug and electric markets are young and will continue to get more cost effective and offer better products. So why do you want to slow this by distracting the average American with options that needs massive infrastructure changes and unrealistic quick production of mass vehicles that use your other alternatives?

  • steved28

    Samie, massive infrastructure changes are not needed and an ICE is easily modifiable for CNG. Heck, a lot of people could potentially fuel their cars at home (conversion kits already exist). But you are missing the entire point of the plan. Pickens wants to avert the natural gas currently going to the electric grid and replace that with solar and wind.

    BEVs and for that matter PHEVs are still a long way from any market penetration. We can hardly get hybrids to gain 3%. As someone else stated, we need all the different solutions we can muster. There will be no silver bullet. One effort will not slow down another, it will just be another choice that does not involve importing oil. Until you realize this, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

  • Samie

    The logic is not there steved28
    The plan by NO means tries to replace ALL natural gas generated by Utilities w/ solar and wind. In fact natural gas in many cases is used as a back-up to coal or nuclear generation.
    The comment about me being the problem, what? explain this. I will laugh as you try to explain this.

  • Will Doohan

    The idea of using CNG cars is a great one. So is using Ethanol, Hybrids, Hydrogen, Electric, and any other power source EXCEPT petroleum. Instead of trying to find THE ONE SOLUTION, we should pursue ALL of these alternatives at once. How about a law that says the automakers have to offer at least one of each of these type of cars, or they can’t sell ANY cars in the US? They will howl and scream about it (and I doubt it would get passed) but it would it least BEGIN to light a fire under their asses.

    Also, what is a BEV, or PHEV?

  • Bryce

    PHEV is a plug in hybred electric vehicle

    BEV……..not quite sure. too many acronyms going on here I think

  • Ed Griffith

    The beauty of the Pickens Plan is that we could start almost immediately to use natural gas for transportation as wind replaced natural gas for power generation. No argument we should try many different options, but we need to get going now on something that will help. 700 billion dollars a year for gas is money out of our economy and finances many of our enemies.

  • Ed Griffith

    The plan is to try and gradually replace natural gas used to generate energy with wind and other renewable fuels. As this is done the natural gas is used for transportation. All this is doable with today’s technology.

  • owldog

    CNG is less expensive than oil now, but if we start using it, the price will skyrocket even higher. The reason we use mostly oil, is because there is much more oil on a global scale. We should be going directly to compressed hydrogen gas if we are going to do anything. Hydrogen can be made from water with electricity, which can be made by wind power, right on site. Why do it in two steps, to natural gas, and then to hydrogen, when we can go directly to hydrogen?

  • Bobfl

    It is really surprising that Iran is busy converting all their cars to run on CNG. If you don’t believe it google it. Its amazing!

  • Bryce


    Why don’t we just skip that altogether and go to electricity

  • J E Gage

    I am sure you mean well, but you do not have the facts. Please investigate natural gas, both produced and natural releases into the atmosphere and I think you will come around to the thought of using CNG, LNG, as an automobile fuel.

  • DAO

    TBoone’s commercials never show photos of solar – rather they focus on CNG and wind. If CNG is truly an interim solution then its a very poor one given the infrastructure needed to support it, not to mention potential costs to the environment; costs which should be at the center of any long or short-term energy solution

  • D.V

    Don’t think coversion to CNG from gasoline is so great compared to replacing batteries (big money) and limited use in miles with the electrics. Think CNG is the way to go for now.

  • Brooks

    You may want to check out Debatepedia’s pro/con article on the Pickens Plan (under development) and on Natural Gas vehicles:



  • kes

    hybridcars says:
    For one, if the GX is any indication, these cars are likely to remain more expensive than their hybrid counterparts, even though their emissions are higher and the fuel savings they offer are relatively nil compared to hybrids. The Civic GX is $2,000 more expensive than a Civic hybrid, and $7,000 more expensive than a standard Civic.

    Wouldn’t it be fair to consider some more details here? How would this comparsion look like if the CNG infrastructure (fuel stations, dealers, shops) would be comparable to gasoline? How do the greenhouse-gas-emissions compare for smooth highway driving, how does the total development spend for Hybrid/gasoline compares to CNG and how does the car production rate affect price?

    Kind regards
    — Klaus

  • Bill Green

    The Pickens Plan is about 20% wind energy by 2030. It is also about solar and other renewable energy sources, though I don’t the timeframe or percentages. It is mainly about reducing our dependance on foreign oil! I believe that oil is our #1 import and hundreds of billions of dollars are spent to support some very undesireable regimes. I served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, and most of that time was spent ensuring that oil deliveries from various parts of the world were maintained. We get about 20% of our oil from the middle east. This 20% all flows through a very narrow straight between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. What happens if that flow is stopped? What happens if we loose 20% of our oil? I believe the real cause for most of the wars we’ve had are because of oil. Sure T. Boone and others will get rich and I know it will not fully replace oil as our primary energy source. But it’s a big step in the right direction, then we could limit oil imports to North America! Also Picken’s plan is more about converting commercial vehicles to CNG than about cars. Also, why did you pick only the most contraversial part of the Pickens Plan to write about?

  • Bryce

    controversy makes money and gains readership….lol. The fact that his plan focuses on commercial applications (because he himself has admitted that a massive conversion of peoples cars wouldbe silly and infeasible because it would require a huge infrastructure change) and wind energy is often ignored or forgotten. It is too bad. As for pickens getting rich, I am pretty sure Bill Gates got pretty rich when he brought computing to the masses. Same can be said for others with ideas……they do it to make MONEY!

  • anonymous two

    It incenses me that you can post a comment but have no idea what you are talking about. First off, it’s not methane that’s bad, it’s CO2 after it is burned, but you really have no idea when it comes to the residue of natural gas in terms of Green house gases produced by burning it compared to Diesel or Oil. It is the cleanest burning fossil fuel in terms of particulate matter. Before you slag something you should educate yourself, instead of saying “BAD, MORE CARBON”.. when in really it has significantly less Carbon emissions then Diesel and gasoline. We don’t have the technology to use 100% renewable energy right now…how do you think all those electric cars will be charged??? Do you not know that most of electricity in North America is created from Coal and Natural Gas fired plants?? So let’s just add 500 million electric cars to the grid and see what happens. We must learn to walk before we run.

    The first step in reducing our carbon footprint is to get rid of the vehicles that produce the most ghg’s…. diesel and gasoline vehicles. Efficient natural gas vehicles can reduce particulate matter by 35% and we don’t have to be held hostage by radical dictators for their oil, why not go to natural gas vehicles, or hybrids that use natural gas?

  • Bryce

    Actually, if you took a chem or enviro sci class, you would know that methane released into the atmosphere un-burned is actually a more effective green house gas than any CO2. It is usually released during the mining process, up to 25%. The other most common release is from cows.

    Just to clarify. : )

  • jeff M

    Which Oil Company do you work for, ???

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