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Texas oilman donates to phone tax effort

February 01, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign for a $243-million telephone users tax has received a major contribution from an unlikely source -- a Texas oilman whose company could see a windfall from one of the mayor's environmental initiatives.

Proposition S, which is on Tuesday's ballot, took in a $150,000 contribution last week from billionaire T. Boone Pickens, the co-founder of Clean Energy, which bills itself as the nation's largest supplier of liquid natural gas.

Clean Energy, based in Seal Beach, has been banking on a windfall from a plan to reduce truck emissions at the Port of Los Angeles, which is overseen by appointees of the mayor.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach plan to replace thousands of exhaust-spewing diesel trucks with vehicles powered by liquid natural gas, a fossil fuel that is marketed as less-polluting than petroleum.

The campaign contribution rattled critics of liquid natural gas, who argue that the Los Angeles Harbor Commission should rely on cleaner, emerging technologies such as fuel cells to solve its air pollution problems. Those critics fear that the donation, made in the final weeks of the campaign, could spur city officials to expand their reliance on liquid natural gas.

"The only relationship I can see between Clean Energy and Proposition S is the clean truck program," said Kathleen Woodfield, a San Pedro resident who opposes liquid natural gas on the grounds that it is not a renewable resource. "Why else would [Pickens] be getting involved in a proposition that has everything to do with California and nothing to do with Texas?"

Pickens did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday. But in an August conference call, Clean Energy President and Chief Executive Andrew Littlefair told investors that the port truck plan would result in the conversion of as many as 5,300 trucks to liquid natural gas -- a move that would allow the company to ship an additional 100 million gallons of the fuel each year

Clean Energy, the only company supplying trucks at the harbor with liquid natural gas, serves 15,000 vehicles nationwide.

"We have heard people talking about LNG because they're seeing the opportunities that we're seeing, this Port of Los Angeles opportunity. It's real and it's going to happen," said Littlefair, according to a transcript of the call posted on the company's website.

Villaraigosa's appointees on the Harbor Commission voted in November to require an estimated 16,800 trucks to be replaced with cleaner-burning equipment by 2012. But Harbor Commission President S. David Freeman, a mayoral appointee, said the port has not yet decided how many of those would be replaced with liquid natural gas vehicles.

Freeman said he was unaware of the contribution and insisted it would have no bearing on the implementation plan, which could be decided on as soon as this month.

"Hopefully, the two ports will adopt a policy that puts our money into the cleanest, most reasonably priced technology," he added. "If LNG fits that program, great. If something else fits that bill, that's even greater."

The two ports have promised to spend a combined $80 million over five years on trucks powered by alternatives to diesel -- liquid or compressed natural gas, or electricity, said Christopher Patton, environmental affairs officer for the L.A. port.

Proposition S was placed on the ballot last year by Villaraigosa out of fear that the city's telephone utility users tax would be struck down by one or more court rulings. Although labor unions have contributed a majority of the money to the tax campaign, Pickens is one of the few business leaders to have stepped forward.

Villaraigosa appeared with Pickens in December at an event celebrating the opening of a Clean Energy fueling station in Carson, the first of three planned at or near the harbor. In many ways, Pickens and the mayor make odd allies.

A lifelong Democrat, Villaraigosa co-chaired the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry and has been campaigning across the country for the presidential bid of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Pickens, on the other hand, was a financial backer of the "Swift Boat" campaign that undermined the Kerry campaign. He was also a major contributor to the presidential campaign of Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City.

When Villaraigosa traveled to the Carson station, the company handed out brochures stating that liquid natural gas would emit fewer asthma- and cancer-causing emissions than diesel trucks. In green ink, the brochures said the company is "pledged to fully support the San Pedro Bay Ports' Clean Air Action Plan."

Pickens praised Freeman on the back cover of the harbor commissioner's new book on the environment, "Winning Our Energy Independence." Below quotes from actor Robert Redford and former President Carter is a statement from Pickens describing Freeman as "a real visionary and leader when it comes to addressing America's energy and environmental problems."

"He's an environmental zealot, and the world needs more Dave Freemans," Pickens said.

During the conference call, Littlefair said the activity in the harbor had spurred new interest in liquid natural gas.

"I think as this business grows, we're bound to start drawing some competition," he said. "That's OK. That's healthy. . . . There's plenty for several of us to say grace over."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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