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Canadian energy expert: Pickens blowing smoke

by Chris Gray
Oct 14, 2008


 Chris Gray/MEDILL

U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel talks about greater use of natural gas as a winning solution to our immediate energy needs before T. Boone Pickens pitches his energy plan at Navy Pier Tuesday.

T. Boone Pickens’ plan to move the United States away from oil and toward natural gas and wind power  may sound like a compelling idea on the surface, but environmental experts say a closer look may reveal his ideas as all hat and no cattle.

“Well, he’s got it half right,” said Anthony Perl, a Vancouver, B. C., author and professor of urban studies. “We’re going to have a lot of need for that natural gas he wants to sell us .… We’re going to have a better use than putting it into SUVs.”

Josh Mogerman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, agreed. "We feel that natural gas should be used for electricity production, not for use in cars. … We’d rather see these [cars] plugging into an electrical grid.”

Perl was more receptive to wind power, a renewable source of energy, but even that is problematic when the wind doesn’t blow, a point Pickens noted.

Pickens presented his plan in Chicago Tuesday at Navy Pier, pushing for greater use of natural gas as a fuel and wind power as a source of electricity generation.

The Texas oil tycoon said natural gas now used to produce electricity could instead be used for use in semi trucks and automobiles while a $500 billion investment in Great Plains wind mills would offset the loss of natural gas now used to create electricity.

“I got into this crusade I’m kind of in now because I think I am about the only one in America who has a plan,” Pickens said. “We’re all to blame for the predicament we have found ourselves in today.”

He was supported in his speech Tuesday by U.S. Rep Rahm Emanuel (D-5th), who pitched natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper solution to our energy needs that General Motors already makes great use of in Europe.

“Great for the environment, great for our foreign policy, great for our energy needs,” Emanuel said. “It’s not often that you get a hat trick in politics.”

Emanuel and Pickens touted a 100-year supply of natural gas in North America, but a top Canadian geologist was not so optimistic.

Pickens said he has no problems importing from Canada, as opposed to unfriendly nations in the Middle East and Africa, but Dave Hughes, who retired recently after three decades with the Canadian Geological Survey, said Canadian gas production has been dropping 4 percent a year while domestic Canadian use rises.

“Our ability to export to the U.S. may disappear altogether in 10 or 15 years,” Hughes said. “We export half of our gas to the United States just to be nice, but we may have to keep it for ourselves.”

Hughes said natural gas production in the United States, which had been falling for years, did rise recently after new discoveries in shale in Texas, but he wasn’t optimistic those new supplies could keep up with demands.

“If you didn’t drill any new wells, [production would drop] 32 percent,” Hughes said. “Shale gas probably needs $8 [natural] gas in order to have a decent rate of return. … I think that Pickens is probably blowing smoke.”

To keep up with a new demand for natural gas, now at $6.50 per thousand cubic feet, the United States may have to import more liquified natural gas from overseas, which is currently selling for $16 in Japan and South Korea.

Perl said the bottled natural gas carried on ships is so explosive that flights into Boston’s Logan International Airport must be halted until the ships can release their cargo.

“You’re going to have to liquify it and put it in on a ship that has the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb.” Perl said. “One terrorist attack on those ships would destroy the city of Boston.”

Instead of using a “stop-gap measure” like natural gas, Perl said we should move straight to electricity to power our buses and trains, and when the technology arrives in a few years, with cars like the plug-in Chevrolet Volt.

“If we’re going to change our automotive system, we should do it once, not several times,” said Perl. He said the technology is there to increase rail capacity and electrify the train system to carry both freight and passengers.

“If you’re in the energy business, you make more money from two systems than one,” Perl said. “We better start looking for cheaper ways of doing things without going back to the Stone Age.”

The defense council's Mogerman echoed many of Perl’s thoughts.

“We definitely support the bold call for industrial-scale wind,” he said. The fact that “Mr. Pickens is on that shows that it’s definitely doable and profitable and will create jobs and renewable energy here in America."