Monday, July 28, 2008

T. Boone Pickens Converting to Natural Gas? It's a Start

T. Boone Pickens, annointed demigod of Oklahoma State University, is apparently running for the position of King of America and has put out his first campaign ad which is running nationally on various news channels and maybe even on network TV (I don't know, I don't usually watch network TV). He's touting what he calls the Pickens Plan, which is a bold-yet-logical energy plan:

Step 1: Replace natural gas power plants with wind farms
Step 2: Use excess natural gas as fuel for new generation of cars that run on compressed natural gas

This plan to get oil out of our economy is one of the best middle-ground proposals I've heard, and people are actually talking about it. Energy policy was the primary focus discussed among the eight of us who attended the Barack Obama platform meeting I went to here in Norman a week ago. We talked about ethanol from corn, switchgrass and sugar cane, and we mostly came to the conclusion that ethanol was not going to save us from petroleum. So we democrats are completely open to alternative energy sources that will be clean(ish) and renewable.

The genius of T. Boone's plan is that it gives no lip service to Democrats at all. T. Boone frames his plan exclusively as a way to avoid paying those damned Saudis billions of dollars for their oil, an issue near and dear to the Republican heart. This is the reason why drop-in-the-bucket fixes like Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling and outer continental shelf exploration gain traction with Republicans. But in giving what is essentially a Democrat-style energy policy change a Republican-style rationale, he can shape the debate much more effectively and get both sides talking about it.

As a Democrat, I love wind farms. It doesn't get cheaper, cleaner and more renewable than wind
power, but as an engineer I also recognize its limitations. It doesn't produce nearly the number of megawatts we would need to replace all our power plants in this country. And of course you can't run a car on wind power. Well, not well anyway. So that's where the Republican-style natural gas part comes in. Natural gas is slightly cleaner than gasoline, but it is still a fossil fuel. That means the same exploration, drilling and refining processes, the same creation of greenhouse carbon dioxide and the same impermanence as oil. Plus natural gas deposits are found only where oil deposits are found; the U.S. only has about 3% of the worlds reserves, and the Middle East and Caspian Sea region combined have something like 75%. If natural gas were to become as desirable as oil, we'd be running into the same problems with dictatorships and cartels that we have now with oil.

What has got to happen in this country is nuclear power. While it is not renewable, the energy density of uranium fission is astronomically high, several millions of orders of magnitude larger than even the most efficient fossil fuels. And it does not release any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But T. Boone Pickens wouldn't be able to see any economic benefit; while Texas and Oklahoma are the Kuwaits of American oil, natural gas and wind energy production, Wyoming is the Saudi Arabia of American uranium. Once we get the American grid up and running on nuclear power, then we can use any of a number of resources to fuel our cars. Hydrogen fuel cells? Sure. Switchgrass ethanol? Whatever.

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