08/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

T. Boone: Why Not Get Inventive?

T. Boone Pickens has been spending millions (actually, tens of millions) to promote The Pickens' Plan, which, while captivating to many, is a fundamentally flawed concept that could help nail the coffin shut on America's future rather than, as he promotes, set the stage for something better. There are worthwhile elements in The Plan. There is a basic value for having a prominent Republican oil man emphasizing that "this is one problem that we can't drill our way out of". Even with those values, Pickens is offering transitioning from one fossil fuel addiction (oil) to another (natural gas) when it comes to transport, without offering anything to cut America's other fossil fuel addiction (to coal for electricity generation).

Sigh ...

Sigh ...

T. Boone, however, could put his eloquence (and he is eloquent), knowledge, and resources to work for real solutions. Even real solutions that build on some of his thoughts when it comes to The Pickens Plan. And, even real solutions that would help him earn some money to help pay back those tens of millions in advertising and lobbying. To do so, T. Boone would have to become truly innovative in his thinking, moving beyond a stove-piped concentration on CNG (concentrated natural gas) vehicles. Here is one example of such a potential next step.

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Natural Gas School Buses (PHENGSBs)

Plug-In Hybrid Electric School Buses (PHESBs) simply make sense on multiple levels: reduce oil addiction, reduce health risks to America's school children, and provide wide-spread mobile emergency generators. But perhaps adding "NG" makes sense to make this an even better solution for America's school transport.

The benefits of PHESBs are compelling across a spectrum of arenas, from improving the electric grid to providing important emergency service capabilities around the country. (How might post-Katrina have gone differently with 1000+ school buses ready to serve as mobile power generators?) Going with PHESBs can help cut America's oil addiction and, as per T. Boone's mantra, going with CNG versions would do this even better. (And, relatively simply since they could be refueled at central bus depots and there is excess space appropriate for the NG tanks.)

For this discussion, however, let's look at just one angle: diesel fumes and childrens' health. While the exact degree of total impact is unclear, consider what happens with these buses each day

In the United States more than 23 million schoolchildren board school buses each day. Of the country's half million or so school buses, most are aging diesel-powered vehicles. We are all familiar with the black plumes of smoke billowing from the tailpipes of diesel trucks and buses, and just as we would not hand our child a cigarette, we would hardly allow our children to stand behind a smoke-belching school bus.

Yet ... yet ... yet ...

The truth is that tailpipe exhaust often seeps inside the bus, sometimes in concentrations far higher than the amount outside the bus, and diesel exhaust is linked to a host of public health hazards.

  • Diesel fumes are known to cause cancer, especially lung cancer.
  • Particulates/other elements in diesel exhaust cause respiratory illnesses and contribute to premature deaths

According to a study carried out in the Los Angeles area, the levels of diesel exhaust on a bus can be four times as high as those found in passenger cars driving just ahead of the bus. And the concentration of diesel fumes found inside the buses were more than eight times that of the average amount found in California's outdoor air.

Let's put this into even stronger context. What about the idling, that burning of diesel that would basically be eliminated with PHENGSBs?

Idling buses often spew out higher concentrations of particles and carbon than moving buses, although buses may emit more when climbing hills or moving in heavy traffic.

Children are spending hour after hour exposed to diesel fumes, waiting for their school bus next to other idling school buses at the end of a long day at school. To give a feel for that impact,

Children on diesel buses breathe in more soot than everyone else in the surrounding metropolitan area combined, and up to 70 percent more soot than the average commuter. ... Kids not only face this increased risk from exposure; they are also more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that young children's lungs will get two and half times the dose of soot particles as an adult's lungs.

Who is counting the health impacts on the children and others in the community? How are an asthma sufferer's more frequent crises accounting in school transportation decisions as to whether to buy PHENGSBs? How do we account for the lung cancers that could be avoided?

Going with a PHESB offers a 70 percent -- according to preliminary testing -- reduction in riders' exposure to diesel fumes.

Going with, however, a CNG variant would offer the potential for eliminating that exposure to diesel fumes. Hmmm ... starting to get interesting.

But, then there is the next step. Just as there are "bio-diesel" options for diesel fuel, there are "bio" options for CNG.

Starting this September, Oslo, Norway, will be using methane-digesters to process sewage into methane for using in 200 CNG public buses.

Hmmm ...

We all remember our wonderful school lunches. What if, as part of the vision for PHENGBs, we looked toward developing methane digesters in America's schools to process food and other waste into methane that can be used to fuel the school buses?

In brief, T. Boone, look for the real solutions. Here is something that takes your vision for cutting into America's oil addiction and your knowledge (and investment) in CNG-transportation systems a step forward into the type of real solutions to America's problems.