Outside editorial: Taking advice from an oil man

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

As legendary oil investor T. Boone Pickens tells the story, Republican Bob Dole wanted him to head up his 1996 presidential campaign in Texas. In return, Pickens wanted to be Dole's chief adviser on energy policy.

Dole listened. And Dole advised Pickens on political reality:

Right there, on the floor, that's a sleeping dog. Politicians don't kick sleeping dogs. Bill Clinton doesn't give a damn about energy and I don't either. We're not either one of us gonna kick a sleeping dog and so energy will not be an issue in this campaign.

But in case one of us stumbles over the dog, and if one of us has a problem, you will be the guy who advises me.

"Neither one of them," Pickens said, "had a problem with energy. ... They didn't want anything to do with it."

And that, he said, sums up why the United States has stood by and watched its addiction to oil grow for decades.

Why would Dole or Clinton have cared? The price of oil struggled to crack $20 a barrel in 1996 and a gallon of gas sold for about $1.50.

Now gas is over $4 a gallon and Pickens isn't waiting for the government to come up with an answer. He has devised his own plan to help the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign oil - and he's putting money behind it.

In a visit to the Chicago Tribune editorial board last week, Pickens used an easel and a green marker to draw a picture of a country in crisis - and in denial. Net oil imports needed to meet daily demand have nearly doubled in the past 35 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, to nearly 60 percent from 35 percent. That's $700 billion a year draining out of the country.

"This is very close to war for this country," said Pickens.

He proposes replacing the 22 percent of electricity the nation gets from natural gas with wind energy. That would free up that natural gas to become an alternative fuel for cars. He says cars running on natural gas could cover 38 percent of U.S. transportation needs.

Pickens is on to something here. Dependence on foreign oil is creating a drag on the U.S. economy and puts the nation in a strategically vulnerable position.

With gasoline this expensive and the U.S. economy teetering, John McCain and Barack Obama aren't talking about sleeping dogs. They're talking energy alternatives. McCain is pushing to build 45 new nuclear plants - and wants to offer a $300 million prize for a better car battery. Obama wants the government to invest $150 billion over a decade in new energy sources.

The Pickens proposal should be part of this mix.

Natural gas has a lot going for it. There's plenty of it here. It's a clean fuel; it doesn't contribute to greenhouse gases. It doesn't poach on the nation's food supply, as corn-based ethanol does.

There are a lot of moving parts to his plan. A large number of wind turbines would have to be built on a broad swath of the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico. (Price tag? About $1 trillion. Pickens is an investor in wind energy.) A distribution system for the wind power would have to be built. (Estimated cost, $70 billion.) U.S. automakers would have to make a commitment to selling cars powered by natural gas.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., says he plans to push legislation to encourage automakers to sell natural gas cars here. The technology is available. European markets have shown strong demand for such cars.

These are intriguing ideas. They carry some risk: boosting demand for natural gas cars would hike the price for natural gas if supplies don't rise or if the wind alternative doesn't materialize. But wind, too, is plentiful. These ideas would boost rural economies. And they would help the U.S. halt the disastrous upward trajectory of oil imports.

There are plenty of other ideas. Let's work on clean coal technology. Coal still produces half our electricity - and will for years to come. We need a lot more nuclear power. Conservation efforts? Yes, absolutely.

Swap wind power for natural gas vehicle fuel? Let's see Obama and McCain put that on the table.

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