If it seems like a while since T. Boone Pickens has graced your television screen pushing his “Pickens Plan” for energy independence, it isn’t because he’s given up. The most recent Pickens Plan spot began airing yesterday, the first of three ads highlighting the appeal of domestically produced natural gas to power American vehicles.
Pickens and his cohorts stand vehemently in opposition to foreign crude oil, which they argue is largely sold by enemies of the United States. Foreboding music and cryptic Arabic characters associate a vague terrorist threat with the gasoline used to power the nation’s vehicles. Pickens appears on the screen offering a better solution: American natural gas.
Winds of Change
The strategy marks a change in course for the legendary Texas oilman, who suffered a string of setbacks that drove his vision out of the public discussion and back to the drawing board. First, a series of ballot initiatives that would have funded wind and natural gas investments in California failed to make headway in 2008, despite a mammoth advertising and PR campaign (mostly funded by the billionaire) aimed at drumming up grassroots support. Around the same time, oil prices crashed, knocking the wind—literally—out of the Pickens Plan’s populist appeal. Pickens seems to have dropped wind energy from both his rhetoric and his investment portfolio.
A failure to get mass-produced compressed natural gas vehicles into showrooms—or even moving through the development pipelines at car companies—was punctuated last week at the North American International Auto Show. Auto makers featured a wide range of hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles, which are miles ahead right now in the race to displace gasoline as America’s transportation energy of choice.
But just because natural gas isn’t winning at the consumer level doesn’t mean it’s out of the picture completely. The New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act, or “NATGAS”, is currently working its way through Congress. The bill aims to provide major tax credits for producing natural gas and the manufacture or purchase CNG vehicles. It would also mandate that 50 percent of new vehicles purchased or placed into service by the US Government be capable of running on natural gas. With only one natural-gas model, the Honda Civic GX, available to consumers—and with extremely limited prospects of more being produced—Pickens is focusing on trucks and buses.
Another Push, By Pulling Strings
NATGAS has nearly 130 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and recently picked up the support of big-league Washington power player John Podesta, who is best known as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. That’s a job you don’t get without a big Rolodex and sharp elbows—and he’s been campaigning both alongside Pickens and on the phones to get NATGAS the support it needs to become law.
After failing to get plans moving for a massive wind farm project that has been in the works for years, Pickens cut a $2 billion wind turbine order in half, a move that has sent reverberations throughout the industry. From a business perspective, his eggs are now firrmly nestled in the CNG basket. Pickens own Clean Energy Fuels, formerly Pickens Fuel Corporation, the largest provider of natural gas for transportation in the United States. The die-hard free market oilman is now looking to Washington subsidies and fleet adoption of CNG vehicles as his last best hopes.