By Jim Schutze
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Another problem, says Pickens, is that only one natural gas car is being sold in America, compared with at least eight different cars produced by automakers in Europe.
Pickens has moved on to focus on heavy-duty trucks and fleet vehicles that return to central fueling stations every night, such as garbage trucks, city buses, taxis and commercial vehicles owned by companies like WalMart and UPS. This approach has landed Pickens far more supporters than did his original plan, but it still faces considerable criticism.
For starters, says Tom "Smitty" Smith, while natural gas vehicles run 90 percent cleaner than their conventional-fuel counterparts, they only reduce greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions by 20 percent, compared with a 50 percent reduction by hybrid-electric vehicles. Then there's the price of natural gas, and while it currently costs less—priced at about $1.60 a gallon versus just over $2 a gallon for diesel—it is volatile, and the price will most likely increase if use and demand rise.
Pickens points out that in the last several years, huge supplies of natural gas have been discovered in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia. With such a vast domestic supply, he argues, why not use it? After all, for the last several years it's been thought that the hydraulic fracturing method of extracting the gas, whereby enormous amounts of water and chemicals are shot miles into the ground to split the rock and release the gas, was perfectly safe. The Environmental Protection Agency said as much in a 2004 report.
However, a recent investigation by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, finds that this process may in fact pose serious risks to the country's increasingly dwindling drinking-water supply. According to the report, "contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts...[and] the 2004 EPA study was not as conclusive as it claimed to be."
What this means to the future of natural gas is yet unclear, but it seems sure that environmentalist groups will continue to investigate and potentially obstruct drillers.
One of the more vocal opponents of Pickens' plan for 18-wheelers is the American Trucking Association. The group's vice president, Rich Moskowitz, argues that the cost of a natural gas engine truck runs between $40,000 to $70,000 more than a diesel truck, and most companies cannot afford them. He acknowledges that tax incentives can help offset the costs, but says that because the industry is so competitive, "the idea of spending 40 grand more on a truck is not something that's easily absorbed."
Other problems, he says, include a limited operating range for natural gas trucks and their extremely heavy gas tanks that can add an extra 300 to 400 pounds. Because of weight restrictions imposed on trucks, this means they would have to carry that much less cargo.
The largest obstacle, though, is that there are so few natural gas pumps across the country, meaning an entirely new and costly infrastructure system would have to be built. A daunting task, given that the existing infrastructure for gasoline and diesel took the better part of a century to create.
"You can't just put one natural gas fueling station every so many miles," he says, "because without multiple stations competing, the prices will go up."
Moskowitz points out that Pickens' company, Clean Energy Fuels, is one of the largest manufacturers of natural gas fueling stations in the country.
"Mr. Pickens is a very successful businessman, and I'm sure there's nothing better, in his mind, than to have a monopoly selling fuel to a captive audience," Moskowitz says. "The infrastructure issue makes me reluctant to warmly embrace the Pickens Plan as an immediate solution applicable to all segments of our industry."
That leaves fleet vehicles, and on this score, Pickens seems to be making the most headway.
The trash removal company Waste Management is reportedly investing tens of millions of dollars in natural gas vehicles and recently announced plans to build a $7.5 million fueling station in Seattle with the goal of converting its entire Seattle fleet to natural gas within five years.
Walmart has said it will begin testing natural gas trucks, and at a February clean-energy conference in Washington, D.C., former CEO Lee Scott joked, "So, Boone, please don't call me anymore."
Pickens admits he's been contacting key business leaders, such as Scott, whose companies have large fleets, to convince them to change over to natural gas. Pickens won't say who he's been phoning, but says he feels hopeful.
"I don't think Walmart is ready to do it yet," he says, "but I'm hoping someone will. But when we get a real high-profile company to say, 'We're going to go with a domestic fuel,' that's going to be real leadership."
Pickens is also looking to politicians on Capitol Hill to guide the way.
The stimulus bill didn't do much for natural gas other than to provide some tax incentives for installing fueling stations, just a peck on the cheek rather than the committed relationship Pickens was hoping for.
He was pushing Congress to include a $28 billion pilot program to convert 380,000 of the nation's roughly 6.5 million heavy-duty trucks to natural gas. Pickens claims it would cost $75,000 per vehicle and create more than 450,000 jobs.