Did Pickens Have a Point About CNG?

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D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook...

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UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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Just over four years ago in July 2008, as most of the country was engrossed in the upcoming election that would see Barack Obama elected as President of the United States, an American businessman named T. Boone Pickens introduced himself and what sounded like a radical plan to transform the nation’s energy policy.

The average price of a gallon gasoline was $4.165 at the time, and it stayed above four dollars for the bulk of July, before finally retreating down to right above $2.00 per gallon on the day President Obama was elected, and gas had fallen under the $2 mark in January 2009 when he was sworn into office.

And now, as President Obama runs for reelection, the Pickens Plan is nearly an afterthought of history. But is it posible that Pickens was really on to something with his plan to eliminate much of our nation’s dependence on foreign oil?

Reshaping Energy Policy

Over the last 40 years, it’s been the goal – or at least a promise – of every President we’ve elected to make our nation energy independent. And over those 40 years, we’ve moved from importing a bit over 20 percent of the oil we use to now importing more than 60 percent of it. Relying on wind to generate our electricity and utilizing compressed natural gas (CNG) to power our heavy trucks – and eventually perhaps even our automobiles- may sound radical at first glance, but the plan would go a long way towards reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.

In 2011, more than $450 billion was spent importing oil from OPEC nations and other countries. And as Pickens points out, the largest consumers of imported oil are vast fleets of trucks that move goods across the U.S. in the form of gasoline and diesel burning engines. It’s these vehicles that would initially use CNG as their source of fuel.

According to Pickens, the heavy trucks in use here in the U.S. burn 3 million barrels of oil each and every day. Since the United States imports 4.4 million barrels of oil from OPEC nations each day, just switching our truck fleets from oil-powered diesel to CNG produced domestically would wipe out 70 percent of OPEC imports.

But according to Pickens, there’s more than just the country’s dependence on outside energy sources. CNG is cheaper. Environmentalists will bemoan that CNG is another fossil fuel rather than a renewable resource, but it burns substantially cleaner than gas, emitting 25 percent less greenhouse gasses compared to gasoline (30 percent less than diesel).

And in terms of price, it’d take crude oil selling at the equivalent of $20 a barrel. As of today, that means CNG is more than four times cheaper, since a barrel of crude costs more than $80. In reality, CNG is often half the price of gasoline and diesel, but even by just those figures, companies and local governments that run fleets of vehicles could all see substantial savings with CNG.

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Infrastructure Remains a Problem

Natural gas is the second most abundant energy resource available in the United States, and automakers offer CNG vehicles for the public and fleet use right now, with pickups available from the Detroit big three of GM, Ford and Chrysler. And they’re not the only ones in the CNG act, either. Honda offers a Civic model that runs on CNG too.

Approximately 20 percent of the buses used by municipal public transportation systems in the United States run on CNG right now, and they’ve been around for decades. In all, there are more than 10 million CNG powered vehicles on the roads worldwide, but just 150,000 in use in the U.S. Considering that there are more than 480,000 school buses used to transport our children back and forth to school, even local districts could see millions in savings by converting to CNG instead of their current diesel-burning engines.

But with our nation set up to run on oil products like gasoline and diesel, one of the biggest issues with CNG is the basic infrastructure isn’t in place, and there are limited choices for those with CNG vehicles to fuel up. New Jersey, for example, only has three CNG stations that are open to the public for refueling. Out in the midwest, there are more stations, but again, they’re rare when compared to the thousands of stations that sell traditional gasoline, diesel and E85 fuel.

Will CNG Ever Become Common?

In the four years since Pickens unveiled his plan to convert to CNG in the heavy trucking industry, there has been an increase in interest in CNG vehicles, but they’re still but a smattering of the entire fleet on American roads. CNG is cheaper than gasoline, is sourced in the United States, and also burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel. While the Pickens Plan may be nothing more than a pipe dream, it seems that he may have had a few very good points towards reducing our dependence on OPEC oil imports and increasing our nation’s energy independence.

Perhaps it’s still too early for such a “radical” idea to work, but we suspect CNG will continue to slowly gain in popularity as the years unfold before us.

 

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