Obama endorses Pickens plan for natural gas vehicles

Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Barack Obama promoted natural gas in remarks at Georgetown University on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — T. Boone Pickens has spent much of the past three years campaigning for a single candidate: natural gas.

On Wednesday, Pickens scored his biggest endorsement yet, when President Barack Obama expressed support for his idea to convert the country’s heavy-duty vehicles to run on natural gas instead of diesel.

In a speech at Georgetown University,Obama highlighted concerns about pollution from natural gas drilling,but said the domestic fuel could help to achieve a one-third reductionof imported oil over the next decade.

“The potential for natural gas is enormous,” Obama said. “Last year, more than 150 members of Congress fromboth sides of the aisle produced legislation providing incentives touse clean-burning natural gas in our vehicles instead of oil. And — andthat’s a big deal.”

Passing that legislation through the House and Senate wouldbe a political coup for Pickens, who has spent lavishly to promote hiscampaign through advertising, speeches and lobbying.

It also would boost demand for natural gas, a fuel that America — and, particularly, Texas — has in spades. The Energy Information Administration recently said the U.S. has enough natural gas to supply its needs for 110 years.

Pickens’own fortune is tied up in natural gas — and he would benefit if thelegislation passes. Pickens is the largest shareholder in Clean EnergyFuels, a California company that owns and operates 200 natural gasrefueling stations across the country. Clean Energy also ownsDallas-based BAF Technologies Inc., a company that converts vehicles torun on natural gas.

Pickens owns mineral rights on 156,000 acres in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and 30,000 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas, he told reporters Wednesday.

The$5 billion legislation, known as the NAT GAS Act, would providesubsidies to cover much of the cost difference between a naturalgas-powered truck and one that runs on diesel fuel. It also wouldincrease the federal tax credit for owners of refueling stations thatsell compressed and liquefied natural gas.

Pickens doesn’t denyhis financial interest in boosting natural gas use. But he says his planis the only immediate way to reduce oil imports from the Middle East.

“I haven’t made any money off of any of this yet,” Pickens said.

Pickens said an updated version of the NAT GAS Act would be introduced next week by two Republicans and two Democrats in the House. The bill had 155 co-sponsors last year, including many Democrats.

Hecheered Obama’s endorsement, and said he wasn’t disappointed that thepresident expressed concern about the potential environmental impact ofgas drilling. That concern is widespread in the Northeast, where Texascompanies are extracting gas from a gigantic shale formation that coversseveral states.

The Environmental Protection Agency isstudying whether a common gas-drilling method, known as hydraulicfracturing, or fracking, could contaminate underground water supplies.Obama said Energy Secretary Steven Chu would work with industry “to improve the safety of this process.”

“Ithink the fracking issue will clear up on investigation,” Pickens said.“Let’s just let it unfold. I feel pretty comfortable where we are.”