In the unlikely case you haven't heard of T. Boone (Time magazine named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world in 2009), in July 2008, he launched an $82 million national advertising campaign to promote the Pickens Plan, an energy policy aimed at reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
His primary solution is "switching the nation's 18-wheeler truck segment to natural gas fuels, of which the United States has an abundance of supply," notes his website. Although he also promotes wind and solar power, natural gas is his main focus. He founded Clean Energy, a leader in efforts to build a natural-gas fueling infrastructure, and he appears tirelessly on TV, before Congress, and in front of groups like the TMW Transforum software user's conference I attended a few weeks ago in Dallas.
Pickens' message, on the surface, is downright inspiring -- we can replace much of the oil we import from the volatile, less-than-friendly nations of the Middle East with home-grown, clean-burning natural gas.
The OPEC problem
"About 88 million barrels of oil a day is all the world can produce," he told the audience. "The U.S. uses 20 million barrels. So we're using 20 percent of all the world can produce. We're only producing 7 million. We're the only country in the world without an energy plan."
Over the past 10 years, he said, the U.S. has spent about $1 trillion on OPEC oil. If we continue current trends, he said, and oil averages $100 a barrel over the next 10 years, that same 5 billion barrels of oil we're buying each year will cost $2.2 trillion. "We can't afford that," he said.
On top of that, Pickens is convinced that some of that oil money flows through to the Taliban and terrorist organizations.
"I say I want to use a resource in America," he said. "The only thing that's going to move an 18-wheeler is diesel or natural gas; battery won't work, maybe someday. Natural gas is cleaner, it's cheaper, it's abundant, and it's ours."
Pickens predicted that if the U.S. and other countries pursues their abundant natural gas resources for use in transportation, that in five years, OPEC will not have the clout it does today.
"Today the U.S. has more natural gas than any country in the world," he said. "We could sit at the big energy table, but right now we're in the hallway and OPEC is at the big table."
Flip and glib
I admire T. Boone's sense of vision and his tireless campaigning for it. However, I get frustrated by his flip and glib answers to valid questions and concerns from audience members, environmentalists and others.
The first time I heard him speak, I was frustrated by his answer to the "chicken-or-egg" question of how we could convert trucking to natural gas if there weren't the fueling infrastructure to support it. Pickens seems to have a reverse "if you build it they will come" approach.
"This is the first question you get in any audience -- who's going to pay for the infrastructure," he said in response to a question after his speech to the NGV (Natural Gas Vehicle) Fleet Summit in March 2010. "The people who sell the fuel will build it. All they have to do is have customers."
This time around, Pickens dismissed concerns by environmentalists about the new hydraulic fracturing methods that are allowing us to tap previously unreachable natural gas supplies. "Fracking," as it's called, is accused of allowing methane into water wells, resulting in spectacular demonstrations of being able to light water coming out of a faucet, as shown in the controversial documentary "Gasland."
Pickens said those concerns were a "temporary bogeyman." The problem was those folks in Eastern Pennsylvania "are amateurs on fracking," unlike his own experiences drilling industry in Texas and Oklahoma. (He's a geologist by training, by the way.)
A better way to say that might have been to tell the audience about a study this year by Duke University that suggested that it's not the fracking or the chemicals used in the process that is the problem - it's bad well construction during drilling. (Here's a good article about the issue in the New York Times from May.)
A bridge fuel to where?
One audience member, who had apparently read the Pickens Plan, noted that the plan talks about natural gas being a "bridge fuel to the future." If that's the case, he asked, then what is it a bridge to?
"That's not my problem," Pickens said, apparently referring to his advanced age. "That's your problem." While the answer drew laughter from the audience, it seemed almost an avoidance of the question. He continued:
"With the kind of energy planning we have lacked in Washington, I wouldn't be surprised if ... we end up bridging ourselves to a Chinese battery, and we've just swapped the Saudis for the Chinese."
And when asked whether there was any performance difference between natural gas and diesel, Pickens said, "I'm not very knowledgeable about that."
Mr. Pickens, you have spent millions of dollars and most of your time pursuing the goal of switching trucks from diesel to natural gas, and you really don't know if there's any performance difference?? Surely, you have the money to hire knowledgeable people who can educate you on that.
Instead, we got a funny anecdote:
"I do know the trash truck driver of a natural gas truck, when asked on television in California, said he'd rather have natural gas. He said, 'It's a good fuel and improves my sex at home.' When asked why, he said, 'because I don't go home and smell like diesel.'"
Pickens' folksy manner and humorous remarks make him a popular speaker. But I feel that this is an issue that's too important to reduce valid questions to an opportunity for a laugh.