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Don't dismiss Pickens' plan yet

DAVID LAZARUS CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

July 09, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS

When a guy heavily invested in natural gas and wind power says the answer to our energy woes is natural gas and wind power, it's hard not to smirk at his Texas-size gumption.

But let's not be hasty.

Energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens unveiled a plan Tuesday to wean the United States from its dependence on foreign oil. By shifting to natural gas as a transportation fuel and increasing our reliance on wind power, he said, we could cut oil imports by as much as 38%.

"Our dependence on imported oil is killing our economy," Pickens said in a statement. "It is the single biggest problem facing America today."

He called the country's oil purchases from places like Saudi Arabia "the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind, sending billions of our dollars overseas to buy . . . a commodity that lasts 90 days until burned in our gas tanks."

Pickens, a legendary oilman, said his plan could change things within five to 10 years "if we can get Congress and the administration to act quickly."

That's a big if. Another big if is getting the auto industry to play ball by manufacturing more vehicles that run on natural gas instead of gasoline. And yet another wild card is whether the oil industry would support new energy priorities.

"These are big question marks," said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign and former head of the Sierra Club's global warming program. "There are a lot of things out of Mr. Pickens' control."

The so-called Pickens Plan would first entail a hefty investment -- more than $1 trillion -- in wind farms on an unusually breezy stretch of countryside extending from Texas to North Dakota.

The wind power would replace the natural gas now used by power plants to generate electricity. The country currently gets about 22% of its juice from natural gas.

All that freed-up natural gas, in turn, would be applied to fueling millions of vehicles that now run on gasoline but would be converted -- it's not clear how, or on whose dime -- to run instead on compressed natural gas.

I couldn't reach Pickens to ask him these questions. But he told the Associated Press that he wasn't guided by personal gain. "I'm doing it for America," he said.

Well, that's heartening. But the fact remains that he and his business partners are investing an estimated $12 billion to build the world's largest wind farm in Texas. That facility, needless to say, would play a pivotal role in meeting the nation's newfound demand for wind power.

Meanwhile, Pickens' more-than-$4-billion hedge fund, BP Capital, is invested in a variety of natural gas companies. He also sits on the board of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., North America's largest provider of vehicular natural gas.

"Mr. Pickens is a very intelligent man," said Don Martin, vice president of Enmark Energy, a Texas oil and natural gas company. "People in the oil and natural gas business are rich for a reason. They know where the money is."

But Becker at the Safe Climate Campaign said he didn't begrudge Pickens' turning a buck with the Pickens Plan.

"If he can find a way to make money and help the planet, I don't have a problem with that," Becker said.

However, he said, natural gas may not be an easy substitute for oil. Natural gas prices have been climbing in tandem with oil prices and are up 30% this year. Increased demand by the United States would push global natural gas prices higher, Becker said, thus mitigating any relief consumers might initially feel at the pump.

Moreover, we'd still have to import more than a third of our oil -- assuming everything went according to plan -- and would probably end up importing a greater share of natural gas as well.

Our friends in Russia are the leading natural gas purveyors, accounting for almost 15% of world exports.

"We really need to kick the tires on this and see what works," Becker said.

For his part, Pickens said he'd be spending $58 million on a multimedia campaign designed to raise awareness of the country's energy troubles and his plan for fixing them.

He'll also try to prod the leading presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, to pay more attention to the issue.

"Sometimes it takes a crisis to awaken us from our slumber," Pickens said. "But once aroused, the American people can accomplish miracles."

That some may get even richer in the process shouldn't necessarily deter us from trying.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Pickens Plan

Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens says the U.S. must reduce its dependence on foreign oil. A look at his proposed solution:

Build wind farms from Texas to North Dakota to produce at least 20% of the electricity for the United States.

Divert natural gas now being used to generate electricity for use in motor vehicles, thus cutting U.S. dependence on oil.

Costs

$1 trillion to build wind farms, plus $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns.

Unspecified costs relating to converting vehicles and automakers' plants to build cars that run on natural gas.

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Source: www.pickensplan.com

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