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Pickens' 'clean' secret

July 29, 2008|Anthony Rubenstein | Anthony Rubenstein consults on clean technology, eco-sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens is pushing a national campaign to make the U.S. "energy independent" through wind power and vehicles that run on natural gas. His blitz of TV ads featuring his own down-home voice has picked up a lot of admiring news coverage. To date, Pickens has yet to explain whose dime will pay for this.

Well, Californians can clarify exactly whose dime it will be: Ours. Along with being the country's biggest wind power developer, Pickens owns Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a natural gas fueling station company that is the sole backer of the stealthy Proposition 10 on California's November ballot. This measure would authorize the sale of $5 billion in general fund bonds to provide alternative energy rebates and incentives -- but by the time the principal and the interest is paid off, it would squander at least $9.8 billion in taxpayer money on Pickens' self-serving natural gas agenda.

The initiative deceptively reads like it's supporting all alternative-fuel vehicles and renewable energy sources. But a closer read finds a laundry list of cash grabs -- from $200 million for a liquefied natural gas terminal to $2.5 billion for rebates of up to $50,000 for each natural gas vehicle.

Much of the measure's billions could benefit Pickens' company to the exclusion of almost all other clean-vehicle fuels and technology. Engines that run on compressed natural gas have a place in pollution reduction, especially for heavy trucks and public buses. But natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel that we import from foreign sources, and it is no better (and in some cases worse) when it comes to emissions and fuel efficiency compared with the best hybrid cars or the new ultra-clean diesel engines. Most insidiously, Proposition 10's lavish rebates for natural gas-powered cars and trucks could crowd out superior technologies from taking root in California, the largest transportation market in the United States.

Even worse, private trucking and delivery companies could buy 5,000 natural gas trucks, collect California taxpayer-funded rebates of $200 million or more and immediately send those fleets out of state. There's nothing in Proposition 10 to prevent that. It's like asking California voters to finance a new bridge with taxpayer dollars, without mentioning that the bridge could be in Ohio.

Pickens is selling Proposition 10 to green-minded, high-gas-price-paying Californians under the official name of "The California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuel Act." If the name rings a bell, that's because it's intentionally similar to the "California Clean Alternative Energy Act" of 2006, also known as Proposition 87. Proposition 87's rebates and incentives would have been funded by fees on the oil industry for petroleum extracted in California, not by taxpayers.

Proposition 87 lost after the oil industry spent more than $100 million campaigning against it. I was the founder and chairman of Californians for Clean Energy, the force behind Proposition 87, and am disgusted that Pickens' lawyers and natural gas sales team have lifted Proposition 87's language and twisted it into such a deceptive, counterproductive initiative.

Pickens' raid on California's general fund comes while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are racking their brains trying to make state ends meet. The payments over the 30-year life of the Pickens bonds would deprive Californians of at least $325 million a year to fund schools, fight wildfires and keep emergency rooms open.

Yet in the paragraph of Proposition 10 titled "Accountability," there isn't a word about requiring proof that the billions of dollars spent would result in one less ounce of petroleum used or one fewer wisp of greenhouse gases emitted in California.

I've met Pickens, and I'll vouch for his patriotic intentions to get the U.S. off of foreign oil -- but not for funding his interests on the sly with billions of dollars from California's taxpayers. In fact, I'd prefer to believe that he's being ill-served by his lawyers and political consultants, because it's clear that the shortcomings of Proposition 10 could ultimately hurt his energy independence message.

Given that Pickens can also play rough -- he was a funder of the nasty "Swift boat" campaign in the 2004 presidential election -- it'll take guts to challenge him. California's governor, attorney general and treasurer should be the first to say no, because there's certainly a case against a $5-billion bond that results in almost no lasting infrastructure, could siphon taxpayer money out of state and would distort the clean-vehicle market. The makers of hybrid and biofuel vehicles, and California teachers, hospitals and firefighters, who would be on the losing end of Proposition 10, should also think hard about what Pickens' plan would do to them.

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