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Pickens' natural gas idea picking up steam

Will cars be fueled by CNG? Yes, if ex-oil tycoon has any say in the matter

Image: T. Boone Pickens
Larry W. Smith / Getty Images file
Since T. Boone Pickens unveiled his plan in July, Honda has witnessed increased demand for Civic GX.
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Oct. 6: T. Boone Pickens, founder and chairman of BP Capital Management, talks with Race for the White House David Gregory about his advocacy for U.S. energy independence through the non-partisan Pickens Plan.

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Aug. 27: Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens talks with NBC’s Tom Brokaw about his call for the country to move away from oil and toward alternative energy.

MSNBC

By Jennifer Alsever
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7:44 a.m. ET Oct. 21, 2008

What will power your car a decade from now? Billionaire T. Boone Pickens is betting big that it will be compressed natural gas.

The former oil tycoon has put $58 million into touting his "Pickens Plan" in TV ads, YouTube videos, town hall meetings and media interviews to get people talking about boosting wind power for electricity and using the nation's natural gas supply for the next auto fuel.

The publicity is working. After years of a relatively low profile in the alternative fuel discussion, compressed natural gas or "CNG" vehicles are now at the forefront of a national debate.

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"No one would be talking about CNG in vehicles but for T. Boone Pickens’ ad campaign," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Multiple congressional bills aim to expand the use of natural gas vehicles, proposing new research programs, tax incentives for automakers and changes in fueling station requirements.

In California, a fight is under way over Proposition 10, a November ballot initiative that would authorize the state to issue $5 billion in bonds to provide financial incentives to buy and develop such vehicles.

Critics charge that Pickens' own financial interests drive the push for CNG cars. He is the largest shareholder of Clean Energy Fuels, a Seal Beach, Calif., company that builds natural gas filling stations for buses and fleet vehicles. Clean Energy is also the author and co-financier of the California ballot proposal.

Pickens also has come under fire for misstating some facts in the debate. For example, he contends in media interviews and in ads that the United States spends $700 billion on foreign oil, but the figure is closer to $327.6 billion, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And critics point out that natural gas is a finite resource, just like oil.

“Most environmentalists believe natural gas is not the future,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, which is opposed Prop 10. “This is an attempt to divert public money away from zero-emission vehicles to a dead-end technology that gets us nowhere.”

The group estimates the bond issue will cost state taxpayers $350 million a year.

Natural gas industry executives say CNG is a cleaner alternative to gasoline — producing 23 percent less greenhouse gas than diesel vehicles and 30 percent less than gasoline vehicles. And thanks to new drilling technology, they say, unprecedented amounts of natural gas can be obtained domestically and at far cheaper prices — about $1.50 a gallon.

“It is the most viable technology that you can do on a big scale,” says Jim Harger, a senior vice president of Clean Energy. “We have a glut of natural gas across the country. It’s right here in our backyard. We can do this now. It’s all ready to go.”

Harger said more than a dozen automakers, including Porsche, General Motors and Volkswagen, now make natural gas vehicles for the European, Argentinean and Brazilian markets. But the only domestically available natural gas car is the Civic GX from Honda.


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