Once in a great while events converge to make, not just news, but to make a real difference. This is one of those times.
Yesterday, Randall Stephenson, the Chairman and CEO of AT&T announced that his company was taking a giant step forward by replacing about 8,000 vehicles currently running on imported diesel with vehicles that run on domestic natural gas.
In a period when we have seen oil prices swing between $147 per barrel last summer to just over $30 per barrel this winter it is more clear than ever that American businesses cannot remain at the mercy of foreign oil suppliers.
I have been talking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil for years, and last July I introduced the Pickens Plan to show the path to make that happen.
I started talking about building out our wind and solar capacity to replace about 20 percent of the power that is now produced by using natural gas. Then I talked about using the natural gas we wouldn't need to generate electricity and use it as a transportation fuel to replace foreign oil.
Last year we spent upwards of $475 billion on foreign oil. And we imported about two-thirds of all the oil we used. It was clear to me that America was at risk. We were at risk for some foreign government from the Middle East, or Africa or South America to decide to turn a valve and cut our supplies.
The Pickens Plan is designed to reduce our exposure and it's having an impact.
As Keith Johnson wrote in his Wall Street Journal blog: "Telecoms titan AT&T has apparently been listening to the endless appeals by T. Boone Pickens to start using natural gas for cars."
The AT&T deal is a one-for-one trade. For every gallon-equivalent that AT&T uses in natural gas, that is a gallon that doesn't have to be imported.
There has been a great deal of resistance to being "green" on the part of a lot of companies. Too expensive, too chi-chi, too whatever.
Well, AT&T isn't in the business of losing money. In fact, in the face of this bleak economy, AT&T's market cap is within a few percentage points of where it was this time last year.
I wish I could say that.
So, when a company like AT&T says it is making a major commitment to come off foreign oil and go to domestic alternative fuels, that is big news. There are all kinds of good reasons for doing this. It is better for the environment -- natural gas is cleaner than diesel or gasoline. It is better for the company's bottom line -- they can plan for a more stable price and a much more stable supply. It is better for America -- the benefit of keeping American dollars circulating at home rather than in places like the Middle East is something even a geologist can understand.
Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, who has been behind the Pickens Plan since its earliest days also congratulated AT&T but, on the Sierra Club website pointed out that AT&T wanted to do even more:
"That's exciting, even wonderful, news. But the backstory is less cheerful. My sources indicate that AT&T was prepared to make an even larger commitment to CNG, but that the domestic auto industry wasn't willing to meet the customer demand -- and AT&T wanted in this economic moment to buy domestic."
That speaks to the momentum value to AT&T taking this step. The chief operating officers of other major corporations will be telling their transportation departments to take a look at what AT&T is doing and come back with a report on whether they should do it, too.
Smaller companies will look to the majors and say "if it's good for them to change 8,000 vehicles to natural gas, maybe I ought to look at my eight (or 80) trucks."
Finally, we should expect cash-starved cities, counties and states to start looking at their fleets and decide that they should begin moving to a clean, abundant, available and cheaper fuel source - natural gas.
When that happens the domestic auto industry will have found the market it says it is looking for.
The stars have aligned and AT&T is a leader in making the skies clearer so those stars are brighter.
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