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Carl Pope

Carl Pope

Posted: July 3, 2008 12:38 PM

T. Boone and Me


Sweetwater, Texas was once known for hosting the world's largest rattlesnake "roundup" -- 12,000 reptiles every year. Now it calls itself "the world's wind capital" and, by the end of the year, turbines there will be pumping out 3,000 megawatts of wind to provide green power to America's electricity customers. Sweetwater is the County seat of Nolan County, which by itself would rank as the world's fourth-largest nation for wind power -- boasting more wind than the entire state of California. The rattler-friendly pastures and cotton fields around Sweetwater are dotted with General Electric, Siemens, and Toshiba turbines -- big ones, some generating 2.3 megawatts a pop.

T. Boone Pickens was first known as an oil and gas man and then as a corporate raider, but these days he is jousting to topple Sweetwater from its title. Flying with me to visit his wind operations in Sweetwater, he makes it clear that his next wind project is big, Texas-style -- 4,000 megawatts up in the Panhandle north of here. Pickens just doesn't believe that America's energy future is in oil any more. He dismisses the current calls for opening up the coast to drilling, saying that the government's official estimates of oil and gas reserves are wildly inflated -- "the geology just isn't there."

Pickens is infuriated by our continued and increasing addiction to imported oil, which he says now costs us $700 billion a year, and will soon climb to an even trillion. (He is watching the market as we fly, and as oil hits $143 a barrel, the Dow plummets. Boone notes "well, my securities are going to go down, but my commodities book will make up for most of today's loss." Pickens is long on oil, meaning he is betting that the price keeps going up.)

To put it plainly, T. Boone Pickens is out to save America.

But how can wind power, which generates electricity, help us out of our imported oil dilemma? Long-term, it will be through plug-in hybrid cars. But Pickens doesn't think we can afford to wait for the long term, so he's offering an audacious alternative vision -- generate enough wind so that America no longer needs to use natural gas to generate electricity, and then use that gas instead to power up to one-third of our vehicle fleet with compressed natural gas (CNG).

The conversion is clearly feasible. CNG cars are already normal in countries like Argentina, where they cost no more than conventional models. The  barriers in the U.S. have been the resistance of the major oil companies and that we would need to install CNG pumps at service stations. But many fleets already burn the fuel, which is much cleaner, and emits about one-third less carbon than gasoline. And CNG now has another advantage: It costs about half as much as gasoline does. If we were to convert any significant part of the U.S. fleet, the resulting decline in world oil demand would actually reduce oil prices, potentially sharply. It's probably the only short-term (2-3 year) strategy that might.

How to recruit the necessary public support? This would take, it seems to me, a government mandate to get the distribution network in place. After all, the oil industry has hardly rushed to install E85 pumps for ethanol. We can expect that it will fight any effort to break its monopoly. And the auto industry would need to be more than a passive partner if we're going to get enough CNG vehicles rolling off the assembly lines to make a difference.  Will it embrace this play? Lastly, the millions of Americans who own gasoline-powered trucks and SUVs would need to start buying affordable CNG-conversion kits for their vehicles to lower their driving costs. Pickens says he has a game plan, and will announce it next week.

Who knows? I certainly never expected to be inspecting wind operations with Pickens or to be hearing his scorn for the current political notion that we can somehow drill our way out of the oil-price crisis. He's certainly likely to draw an audience that a green wind-power advocate from the Sierra Club could never command. I think we should all stay tuned.

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