Boone Pickens on Natural Gas: It’s the Way to Defeat OPEC

He put his money where his mouth is.

Wolf here: The use of natural gas for power generation in the US has been soaring for two decades. But its use as transportation fuel, while growing, hasn’t seen a similar surge. Some municipalities have been using buses, garbage trucks, and the like that are powered by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Ford has been selling CNG/propane powered vehicles for years as well, including its new F-series trucks. Anyone can buy them. In 2009, the Port of Los Angeles began a program to replace trucks that run on diesel with trucks that run on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) or CNG. And so on.

Natural gas is relatively cheap and clean, yet in the US it just hasn’t fully caught on as a transportation fuel. So here is T. Boone Pickens. As always when he talks, he is talking his book. But he also makes a lot of sense.

By Lincoln Brown,

One way or the other, the world will eventually be forced on to cleaner fuels for its vehicles, so says Bruce Pile, who runs the Marketocracy fund, and so hopes T. Boone Pickens, one of the world’s extraordinary investors who is banking on America’s trucking fleet shifting to natural gas sooner rather than later.

Is it realistic? Pile’s theory says yes, and so may Pickens’ money.

According to Pile, in the long run, evolving fracking techniques will eventually drive up oil prices, allowing natural gas to move ahead in terms of fuel usage. In fact, Pile predicts that by 2020, natural gas will outpace oil as a fuel source for vehicles.

Pile notes that while there is some interest in natural gas today, people still have plenty of concerns, including safety and logistics.

But in the state of California, whose policies often serve as harbingers for the rest of the nation, busses in the city of Los Angeles are already running on natural gas, which burns cleaner than oil.

So the question is: Is T. Boone Pickens a natural gas hopeful, or a prophet? Are his investment choices ideological or strictly financial?

Pickens, according to Pile, is a proponent of natural gas, in part because he holds to the theory of climate change, but moreover because Pickens wants to see U.S. trucking fleets weaned off foreign oil. As far back as 1991, Pickens chaired the Natural Gas Coalition, and prior to that, he had a 1993 presidential appointment to the Natural Gas Task Force.

Also in 1993, his company Mesa Petroleum, created Mesa Environmental, which would subsequently become Pickens Fuel Corp, began operating natural gas stations. In 2001, Pickens sold a 75 percent stake in the company to BC Gas, and then repurchased that stake in 2006—renaming it Clean Energy Fuels. By then the company had purchased even more stations, and had made a substantial profit in natural gas. In 2007, the company went public as CLNE, and now owns approximately one-third of the country’s natural gas fueling stations.

CLNE is one of the few successful companies in the market, and so Pickens’ stake in natural gas has so far paid off. One might call him a realist who had the foresight to see natural gas for what it was—a stepping stone to a cleaner tomorrow.

Tomorrow, as always, is extremely relative. While Pickens may have the patience for this tomorrow, others will not. At the end of the day, Pickens’ stepping stone is likely covered in the moss of foresight—but it’s a very large stone.

Pile cites data from the Hubbert projection indicating that natural gas will peak somewhere around the year 2040, and that the country needs to get moving on non-fossil fuel sources. But for now, natural gas is a logical choice.

According to Future Market Insights marketing intelligence, the global NGV market by volume is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 5 percent to 7 percent during the forecast period of 2015 to 2025 due to stringent government emission regulations and growing demand for fuel-efficient vehicles.

The public interest isn’t quite there yet, but this isn’t really what Pickens is banking on. His focus seems to be on the commercial trucking fleets.

A Class 8 commercial semi-truck can burn a lot of diesel fuel, placing them high up on the hit list for environmental advocates and government regulators. But this diesel guzzling is also a problem for fleet operators themselves. It’s expensive. And while natural gas commercial trucks are around twice the price of their predecessors, the savings in the end makes sense for fleet operators.

While Pickens may be anxious to see U.S. trucking fleets make the switch to natural gas, it is worth noting that Class 8 natural gas truck sales in the US and Canada saw a dip in year-to-date sales through August—a drop of 29 percent behind last year’s level. The bulk of natural gas vehicles seem to be the purview of mass-transit entities and garbage trucks, according to ACT Research.

But the dip in sales may not suggest something fundamentally wrong with the natural gas truck market. As ACT’s Steve Tam notes, other market factors may have been involved. Heavy trucking companies are competing for the same freight, and as it happened, operators moved to increase their fleet sizes just as freight growth began to slow, thus leading to an overall slump in truck sales.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service, the cities of Ogden, Utah; Long Island, New York; and Norman, Oklahoma; along with Leon County, Florida, are among the entities to make the first switch to natural gas vehicles. Recently however, the city of San Diego made the choice to switch its fuel supply to “renewable diesel,” which is comprised of vegetable oil, animal fats and agricultural waste. That city chose renewable diesel over natural gas, which had been its original choice.

Natural gas commercial fleets are likely to move forward precisely because the government wants them to, and fleet operators are increasingly on board. In fact, a new bipartisan bill in Congress offers to help this segment along. The bill would cut federal excise taxes on trucks that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) or renewable natural gas (RNG).

Ultimately, legislation of this nature this will help to ease the tax burden for fleet operators who want to get in on the natural gas trucks.

This will please T. Boone Pickens to no end. After all, for him, converting the US commercial fleet to natural gas is not just about an investment he hopes to make a few bucks on: it’s about geopolitics. It’s about trumping OPEC.

Transportation, Pickens has famously noted, accounts for more than two-thirds of all the oil we use—and as such, a huge chunk of our dependence on foreign oil is oil from the Middle East, and as such, has become a national security issue. “As long as we keep buying oil from the Middle East, our enemies can continue to fund terrorism,” he wrote for Time magazine.

So Pickens is very serious about lobbying to make the shift to natural gas for America’s heavy-duty trucks because it “will introduce the first real competition into our fuel supply. It will improve our balance of trade, it will improve our environment, and it will remove the last marked card from OPEC’s poker hand over our national security.” By Lincoln Brown,

There is a global shift underway among automakers. And it poses some problems. Read…  EVs will Crush Jobs in Auto Manufacturing, VW Warns

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  55 comments for “Boone Pickens on Natural Gas: It’s the Way to Defeat OPEC

  1. Ptb says:

    Pickens loves a good project where he can get the gov to help out in a big way. I remember him lobbying for wind power back in 2006…. He was advocating the gov help out his project with a few $B. Seems laughable now.

    But, the US has the most developed gas pipeline structure in the world and very large reserves of th stuff. My dad converted a couple of cars to it back in the 1970s. They seemed ok, but the fill ups were a hassle as you had to a dispensing station and they were not all that common.

    • Captain KurtZ says:

      Besides that rolling bomb problem,….. you are still stuck with the ICE inefficiency problem, compared with electric engines. (33% versus 99%)

      The last big Auto show told us where we are going with transport – 40 new electric models from all makers.

      You can bitch and complain about the battery questions, but the Chinese have a hammerlock on the lithium supply and in this century, we will do what they say, instead of the Texan/California/Saudi cartel.

      • Chicken says:

        Aside from the reliability issues battery storage represents, transmitting electricity and charging batteries are 99% efficient?

        • Bob W. says:

          The efficiency of the average combined-cycle natural gas power plant – one of the most efficient types of power plant – (btus in the electricity produced / btus in the fuel used to generate the electricity) is about 45%. Energy lost on the transmission of the power to its distribution point, another 10% or so. So by the time you plug your electric car battery into the charger station, you’ve lost half or more of your source energy value.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          The CCGTs built today are well over 60% efficient.

      • hidflect says:

        I saw an “after” picture of a car bomb explosion in Iraq and the only identifiable parts of the vehicle were the rear axle and the gas cylinder on top of it. I suspect the perception of dangers with gas in accidents has been the successful, combined result of many a dedicated oil industry PR flak…

    • Islander says:

      Mistake: it should be called FOSSIL gas. Or coal gas, or rock gas, or farts of methanogen-aneorobes-having- fed-on-rainforests when the earth was warmer than g warming will ever make it. ‘Natural’ gas my a$$!

      Long term, I’m investing in new battery tech and science. Fossil gas trading may yield profits now; decades long investment not so much. Jmo

      • hidflect says:

        The vast quantities of methane gas on the so-called gas giants in our solar system are not derived from fossils. I believe the fossil origin theory developed when it was still believed that chemistry was strictly divided between organic and inorganic processes, before the Haber process proved that assumption false.

  2. RD Blakeslee says:

    “According to Pile, in the long run, evolving fracking techniques will eventually drive up oil prices, allowing natural gas to move ahead in terms of fuel usage.”

    This statement doesn’t make sense to me.

    Evolving fracking techniques are making drilling for gas and oil BOTH cheaper, per unit of energy produced.

    • Mark says:

      The idea that natural gas is a clean energy is a myth and most people realise that the methane it emits makes it much more deadly than the CO2 from petroleum.

      • Wolf Richter says:

        Mark, spilling methane into the atmosphere is like spilling oil: it’s terrible. But burning methane throws much less CO2 and pollutants into the atmosphere than burning any other hydrocarbon.

        With oil and natural gas, the idea is the same: avoid spills and leaks.

        • NY Geezer says:

          If natural gas leaks were small and infrequent I would not disagree, but I do disagree strongly because these leaks are an everyday occurrence and some are very large leaks.

          Although the huge Aliso Canyon leak that lasted for months is an extreme example, there are many thousands of methane leaks across the U.S.

          In addition to all the documented well leaks, natural gas leaks also occur in old infrastructure that includes corrosion-prone cast iron pipes. The Environmental Defense Fund reported that it drove a team of cars outfitted with air sensors for four months in 2014 and found an average of about one natural gas leak for every mile driven in New York City’s Staten Island and in Chicago: one leak for every three miles. Those are a lot of methane leaks in just those areas for a gas that has 84 times the greenhouse effect of CO2. I doubt that the rest of the US is leak free.

          In other words, if actual data related to drilling, storing, transporting and handling as well as burning were gathered together it would show that natural gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal or oil, for any possible uses.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          We don’t disagree on the leaks. They’re a big issue. They’ve been understated by the industry. Outside testing firms have consistently found far higher levels of leakage than stated industry data. It needs to be addressed (and some work is being done to address it). It’s expensive to address, so the industry isn’t going to do it unless they’re forced to do it.

          But those leaks are negligence or worse by the industry, and not a problem of natural gas per-se.

    • night-train says:

      “Evolving fracking techniques are making drilling for gas and oil BOTH cheaper, per unit of energy produced”.

      The evolving fracking technologies, assuming there are any that make real production impact, are and will be expensive. So to employ them, you have to have an oil price that supports the use of said advances.

      I think your statement applies everywhere else but oil & gas and healthcare.

  3. NY Geezer says:

    This is totally nuts.

    Natural gas use as of 2015 account for only 3% of the US energy transportation market. At a time when the global trend is to move away from all combustion engines used in transportation and build out infrastructure and capability for electric vehicle use, Mr. Pickens would selfishly have the US divert its resources to developing natural gas combustion vehicles instead. Even the diversion of a small amount of resources to this folly is harmful to US national interests at this stage is the world conversion to electrification.

    Let’s not stupidly enrich Mr. Pickens and let the rest of the world leave us far behind in electric vehicle development, deployment and sales. Let’s serve our national interests for a change instead of the private interests of an elite person who needs to be bailed out of a bad bet.

    • RD Blakeslee says:

      Um, small problem: where does the electricity for charging electric vehicle batteries come from?

      Coal, oil and natural gas-fired power plants.

      • David Calder says:

        In the short term you are right but 500,000 solar panels were added to the mix every single day in 2015.. Wind was powering 30% of Iowa’s needs the last time I bothered to look it up.. The whole upper Midwest is a goldmine of potential wind power.. Windy places like Scotland and Denmark are now 100% wind powered..

        • nick kelly says:

          Re: Its household electricity almost, which is impressive.
          Its transportation fuel is fossil fuel.

      • Wolf Richter says:

        In the US, on average: 33% NG, 33% coal, almost 0% oil, 20% nuclear, 14% renewables.

    • Merlin says:

      Sir: everything in your life likely arrives at the store or at your door via an over-the-road truck powered by diesel engine. The primary reasons for this delivery system are power to pull an 80,000 lb load and a range of more than 100 miles. Natural gas is the next step away from diesel at this time.

      A Google search did not reveal any electric trucks capable of coast to coast runs with a full load.

    • nick kelly says:

      Baby steps, baby steps.
      Seriously – everything in this area will happen gradually.

      Although ‘baby steps’ was a joke- stepping stones are a good idea instead of ‘great leaps forward’, as we feel our way towards the optimum solution(s)

      EV’s aren’t going to be the majority of vehicles for at least ten years.
      They are very unlikely completely to replace combustion engines in the forseeable future. No contemplated battery breakthrough can come anywhere near the energy density of gasoline/diesel. When a drum of diesel is dropped off at a logging, mining, etc., site, the equivalent battery drop- off would weigh more than the vehicle. And it wouldn’t weigh any less when it was discharged and had to be returned.

      A fleet of natural gas trucks could be built, worked and pretty much retired in the years before EV’s POSSIBLY take over.
      The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact they may be complimentary, as nat gas for IC engines supports the capacity/distribution/ pipelines that can also be used to generate the electricity to charge the batteries of EVs. Solar alone won’t do it.
      A vast expansion of the grid will be required to replace fossil fuels for transportation- its input power and the capacity to deliver that power.

  4. WO says:

    Interesting that Pickens bought back CLNE shares that he had dumped a few years earlier at a higher price. They’re still losing money and have a lot of debt though.

  5. Ishkabibble says:

    For the cold parts of Canada, I think CNG-fueled vehicles make more practical sense than EVs.

    Canada already has an extensive distribution system for natural gas because many homes and businesses in Canada are presently being heated by natural gas. Even gasoline filling stations are heated by natural gas.

    One problem to be overcome is how to compress the natural gas available in a home into a vehicle’s compressed-natural-gas tank. Here is just one possible solution:

    Another problem has been how to increase the capacity (range), while lowering the pressure, of natural gas tanks in vehicles. Over the past few years there has been publicly-funded research into so-called “advanced” or “adsorptive” natural gas tanks and great strides forward have apparently been made, as detailed in the “Executive Summary” here:

    In short, “shaped” tanks with both higher capacity and lower pressure are going to become a reality and, depending on the relative price per unit of energy between oil and natural gas, could be a game-changer when it comes to internal combustion engine powered vehicles. Such low pressure tanks would allow faster, lower-pressure compressors in homes, filling stations, etc.

    As usual, “private” companies are going to be the ones that “profit” from taxpayer-funded research.

    Should natural-gas-fueled vehicles really become a competitive alternative to gasoline, you can imagine the political ramifications.

  6. Charger01 says:

    On an emotional level, I want CNG to work. I really do. I want to use internal combustion for the next 50 years with only modifying the fuel source. The key problem(s) is cost. Taking the cheapest factory available (Honda Civic CNG) back in 2015 was priced out at 30k, the comparable gasoline model was 22-26k. You have to drive quite a bit to make that pencil out. For lower MPG service vehicles like 2500/3500 trucks and vans, this makes a bit more sense if you’re going to drive an enormous amount anyways. You have to have expensive gas/diesel compared to CNG to make it work, to counterbalance the high upfront costs (with rebates!) that normal consumers will incur. But this will be a niche market for ages to come.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Yes. I think it’s somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem. If there were enough demand to build 1 million CNG vehicles for US consumers a year, prices would plunge and normalize. If prices were to come down to near normal levels, demand would rise. Since neither is happening, there isn’t a lot of process.

    • nick kelly says:

      You also have a bigger fuel tank- this is significant for small cars and becomes less relevant as the vehicle size increases and irrelevant for say a ferry. BC Ferries I believe has one running on CNG.

      • charger01 says:

        It’s the duplication. For an F-150 or Silverado to go “dual-fuel”, it takes up an enormous amount of bedspace/cabspace to accommodate the cylinder along with the normal gas tank. We have to have duplication because CNG fueling station are sparse (at $1 million a pop for commercial vending), which kills demand. Sorry for the broken record act, but CNG will continue to be niche until the costs can be lowered or availability increased. We’ll need Uncle Sugar to help either way, because markets won’t solve it.

  7. David Calder says:

    The subtitle says; “He puts his money where his mouth is” and Mr. Pickens hopes we all do too, in his pockets. OPEC is already done for as is Big Oil.. The rush for electric vehicles, EV, will crush oil’s pricing power within 5 years. If the ability to provoke price increases is gone, and we all can see clearly that is the case with the Middle East in turmoil and prices continuing to fall, then investments in new oil will be seen as risky.. In less than 10 years the upper Midwest will be wind powered and that added to the 500,000 solar panels that was added every single day in 2015 with a fuel source that’s free. This next generation will see crude oil as our great-grandparents saw whale oil.. Charmingly archaic

    • Chicken says:

      Speaking of whale oil, why can’t we cultivate it? Okay maybe that’s a stretch but whale oil was used primarily by elites while others used alcohol mixed with turpentine up until alcohol taxes went to $2/gal I believe they were?

      Well, we needed a fuel for Henry Ford’s vehicles as well (elites could just burn whale oil I suppose) so naturally the discovery was a godsend for multiple reasons not the lest of which is agriculture and transporting said products to market thus fossil fuels brought us to where we are today.

      I certainly hoped humans would be more intelligent than emotional by now, though.

  8. walter map says:

    “natural gas will peak somewhere around the year 2040, and that the country needs to get moving on non-fossil fuel sources.”

    Saving the planet is a hopeless hobby. Makes me glad I gave it up.

  9. Bruce Adlam says:

    They tried gas buses in the public transport and it’s no were near as good or safe as diesel and are going back to diesel
    1 gas burns hoter more wear on engine
    2 need more service as they age
    3 don’t have the range diesel goes all day
    4 storing handling safety can’t match diesel
    I drive public buses and we can’t get rid of them fast enough.the latest Diesels beats gas by a long way

    • nick kelly says:

      All Nanaimo’s new buses are CNG

    • Ben says:

      I work around nat gas engines used in gas compressors. They rarely need oil changes, and the engines are more reliable than diesel from what I’ve seen.

  10. Scott says:

    One thing that I haven’t read much about is the possibility of using natural gas in locomotive engines. One potential benefit is that there is less risk regarding the traditional chicken-and-egg problem. Another is the air quality issues in the ports and yards. I believe one of the large railroads (BNSF?) looked at it a few years ago.

  11. nick kelly says:

    Wouldn’t be a funny shock if there was a way to refuse sale of gasoline, diesel, pipelines or nat gas to people who oppose them?

    • walter map says:

      “Wouldn’t be a funny shock if there was a way to refuse sale of gasoline, diesel, pipelines or nat gas to people who oppose them?”

      Wouldn’t it be even funnier if you couldn’t profit from them anyway because they switched entirely to alternatives?

      Of course, it wouldn’t be funny at all if you had all the fossil fuels you wanted and ended up facing starvation anyway because catastrophic climate change caused the usual catastrophic crop failures and nobody could sell you so much as a pickle because they didn’t even have enough for themselves.

      I wouldn’t wish that on anybody due to my expansive compassion for others, including the otherwise spiteful, but like I said, saving the world is a thankless hobby and one I’m quite content to have given up.

      • Chicken says:

        Fossil fuels aren’t made from old people like you. But, bio-fuels are made using fossil fuels.

        • walter map says:

          “Fossil fuels aren’t made from old people like you.”

          On the contrary, corporatists in WWI Germany are known to have fueled vehicles, among other uses, from the corpses of their victims. I simply don’t happen to be one of the corpses.

          Fossil fuels by definition originate from the remains of dead organisms. Which just goes to show just how wrong you can be.

  12. walter map says:

    “Natural Gas: It’s the Way to Defeat OPEC”

    It’s also an excellent way to ensure a rather unfortunate but perfectly predictable planetary overheating as a result of a false sense of security.

    By the time that is widely recognized and political opinion has shifted sufficiently in a more positive direction it will be far too late to reverse course and establish crash programs to correct the situation, which can only mean that it is already too late, so stay calm and carry on.

  13. Lee says:

    CNG has been around in Japan for a long, long, time. IIRC most taxis in Japan run on NG.

    Here in Oz there was a time when the government would pay for part of the conversion costs for your car.

    You could run your car on both NG and gasoline. That program ran out years ago.

    Plus the government RAISED taxes on NG at the pump (dumb), but it was still (IS??) cheaper to run your car on NG than gasoline over here.

    Most of those conversion kits were for bigger cars and we could never find one for our car and never did convert.

  14. Joe Dubyah says:

    EV for city commuter cars.
    CNG for commercial light duty city fleet vehicles and public bus transport.
    Diesel for OTR trucks.
    Gas/Diesel for suburban and heavy duty fleet.

    Is appropriate/logical use of technology?

    • RD Blakeslee says:

      Ok, but “one size doesn’t fit all”.

      Here, we store 400 gals of diesel for use in an emergency household electric supply generator and/or a relatively light-duty Dodge-Cummins pickup truck.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      I agree. One addition for your EV list: Some of the biggest progress is being made with EVs for urban delivery fleets. I think that’s where we’ll see the first commercial mass adoption. The German postal service is building its own (by its own startup) and has about 2,000 on the road already. The US Postal Service, FedEx, UPS… they’re all testing them. EVs are perfect for urban delivery: lots of stop and go traffic, snarled traffic, not a lot of mileage to go every day, and a depot that’s never far away where they can swap battery packs or recharge.

  15. Kevin Beck says:

    I am all for the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel without reservations. And I support the idea of stuffing OPEC’s sheiks where the sun doesn’t shine. I like that Pickens has the foresight for how this could happen.

    The best advantages I see to natural gas vehicles over electric vehicles are the driving range and the fact that they carry the fuel supply with them. Because when you get into the open areas of Texas, you don’t know where the next electric charging station will be.

  16. Lars says:

    I own a LPG car (propane) and the driving and filling is virtually effortless compared to just driving on petrol/gas. The distribution net isn`t that great in Scandinavia compared to the rest of Europe but there is no range anxiety since I can drive on petrol when necessary. I guess for 95% of my driving there is a LPG filling station always within reach.

    CNG and LPG should be ideally suited for the US with its fleet of mainly petrol cars compared to Europe with it`s diesel infatuation in the last few years. Still 15-20 million cars in Europe run on LPG and another 2-3 on CNG. It`s about pollution and energy security + cost savings for the individual driver.

    But for drivers to do the costly conversion to run on LPG or CNG (everything from 3–5000 US$) there need to be a financial incentive, the fuel must be cheaper than either petrol or diesel. As for me now I save about 40% on LPG but it took me about 2 years to pay back the conversion costs. Now filling LPG is an easy choice but how about the US where both petrol and diesel are significantly cheaper than in Europe due to less taxes? It`s easy to see why LPG/CNG hasn`t catched on in the US but more difficult to see what can be done to reverse the trend.

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