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Energy – Past, Present, and Future

The next Spindletop or Prudhoe Bay is not filled with black gold. Instead, the next great domestic energy source (of the fossil-fuel variety, anyway) is probably the natural gas trapped inside shale beneath large parts of the United States. Compared to its oil reserves, the country is awash in natural gas, and T. Boone Pickens wants us to tap it, the sooner the better, to end our dependence on foreign oil.

The oilman and the Congressman

Pickens was in East Hartford yesterday, speaking at a forum sponsored by Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut). Larson is a co-sponsor of HR 1835, which offers tax credits for alternative energy sources. The focus of the forum was on using natural gas to power vehicles, especially large trucks that now run on diesel. Switch 7 million trucks to natural gas, Boone said, and we could cut OPEC imports by 50 percent.

Friend T. Boone! And you can follow him on Twitter too!

Pickens had lots of numbers and facts, which he rolled out without notes or slides or a PowerPoint presentation. The man has made this effort his main focus since 2008. Then, he made a big splash by calling for a crash course in wind-power development. Now, he is gung-ho for natural gas. He claims he’s spent $62 million of his own money to spread the word about the need for energy independence, using the fuels we already have and technologies we can develop. (He has more on his “Pickens Plan” at his website.) Of course, he stands to profit from investments he’s made in wind and natural gas. But his concern for the country seems genuine. Pickens never served in the military, and he sees this effort as his “national service.” He, like many Americans, is galled by the idea of our sending billions of dollars each year to countries that don’t like us and in some cases are our enemies. He asserts: “We’re paying for both sides of this war,” though he didn’t clarify exactly which war. Iraq? Afghanistan? The general war on terror? But his point was, some of the money we pay for foreign oil trickles down to people trying to kill US troops.

Pickens had a comment on our friend in Venezuela, too. Hugo Chavez might not be arming terrorists (though he seems to be aiding Colombian rebels), but he’s certainly made it plain he wants to thwart the United States whenever he can. Pickens called Chavez a “cluck” as he lamented our buying oil from him.

But don’t let the folksy putdown and his oil-patch drawl fool you – Pickens is one sharp cookie. Trained as a geologist and successful in his field, he lays out the technical nuts and bolts as easily as he (“this old Republican”) tells stories about his new buddy, Al Gore. The former veep is pushing batteries as the next great power source for cars. Pickens prefers compressed natural gas (CNG ), but concedes the point to Al on smaller vehicles – for now. Getting the trucks to convert is Pickens’s first goal.

So, why natural gas? It’s cleaner than gasoline. We now have the largest reserves in the world. Building the infrastructure to run our vehicles on CNG will create jobs. But most importantly, as he and Larson stressed over and over again, it reduces the amount of money we send to OPEC.

Several times during the talk, Boone made reference to “40 years ago,” when we should have first come up with an energy policy that went beyond reliance on petroleum. I’m not sure why he chose that number, since the first major oil embargo came four years later. That’s when OPEC flexed its muscles and Americans realized the precarious position they were in: We did not control our own fate, when it came to this precious commodity around which we structured so much of our lives. (An earlier embargo, in 1967, had nowhere near the same impact. Perhaps that explains Boone’s “40 years”?) Of course, Boone’s point is we could have controlled our own fate since then, if we had developed a systematic policy, one that pushed forward on finding alternatives, whether oil soared to $147 a barrel or plunged down to $10.

We knew, as the years went on, that domestic oil sources would not solve the problem. Even now, the idea that offshore and Arctic drilling are panaceas is whistling in the dark, Pickens says. If we opened up all of it, maybe we could produce 2 million barrels a day. One expert he talked to laughed at that figure, and said the reality is more like 30,000 barrels. Currently, we import about 10 million barrels of oil per day, which is about 60 percent of our needs.

After 9/11, some people talked of a “Manhattan Project” for developing energy alternatives, to stanch the flow of U.S. dollars overseas. Eight years later, do we have a plan in place that will create energy independence? Pickens says no. To be fair, both Bush and Obama did call for spending more on research and providing tax credits, but the amounts are pretty small, compared to what’s needed to make a huge dent in our oil imports. (And Pickens recounted meeting Bush in 2008 and telling him that his legacy as the “ethanol president” would not exactly be one for the ages….)

Pickens and Larson admitted that natural gas is not the total solution either. The representative sees it as a transitional energy source until we have hydrogen cars. And both men admitted that money for mass transit would help. Left unsaid was the potential environmental risks of extracting the huge reserves of shale gas that seem to offer so much promise. Getting the gas to the surface requires piping in large quantities of water treated with chemicals. The problem: Some of the water returns to the surface, picking up harmful minerals that blend with the chemicals, creating quite a toxic stew. The government calls this “produced water,” and the brew from the gas production is more dangerous than what comes from oil production. Produced water from natural gas operations has led to contaminated wells and polluted streams in Pennsylvania. A few scientists also fear the produced water could kill the helpful microbes used at water treatment plants.

Honda Civic, powered with CNG and on the road today.

The hope natural gas seems to provide brings up the issue we face with all our sources of power – nothing is perfect. Even such “green” technologies as wind and ocean power raise concerns about dangers to wildlife or humans. The solution seems to be, find the least-worst alternatives. So, maybe it makes sense to push for more CNG and propane (LPG) vehicles and filling stations. The cars are already out there, though the number in the U.S. is paltry (just 130,000, out of 10 million worldwide). Work for better electric cars, though we still have to generate the electricity to recharge the batteries, yes? And that means burning coal and natural gas…unless we ramp up with nuclear, which has its own issues, mostly political/psychological. (Remember Three Mile Island and the China Syndrome.) Keep working on fuel cells and that transition to hydrogen. But the key seems to be, as Pickens says, have a policy dedicated to reducing our reliance on foreign oil. I would add, and one that calls for lessening our dependency on all fossil fuel. One day, folks, it will all be gone; no more Spindletops or shale deposits to feed our growing needs.

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