Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pickens and Fracturing

When T. Boone Pickens tried to take over Phillips Petroleum in 1984, he was accused of not willing to make any concessions. He responded by saying he would move to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Yesterday, I attended a luncheon at the Union League Club of New York City. Pickens was the guest speaker. Although he made his name as an oil man, more recently he has been trying to promote the use of natural gas in this country. During his talk, he was very critical of the failure of all presidential administrations to articulate a coherent energy plan.

Pickens says the United States is much too dependent on foreign oil--especially on oil imported from countries that are not particularly friendly to us. He pointed out that the U.S. has the world's largest natural gas reserves, and that we can easily decrease our reliance on imported oil by switching to natural gas for transportation purposes. He proposed mandating that all 18-wheelers (i.e., tractor-trailers) be forced to switch to natural gas over some period of time. His idea is to provide a $65,000 tax credit for the purchase of each of these vehicles. However, he did not address the safety concerns, how the trucks would be refueled, or if natural gas could even provide sufficient power to push a fully loaded semi up a mountain.

He also failed to make a strong case that drilling for natural gas would be environmentally friendly. While the available technology may be good enough to drill safely, the natural gas industry must do a better job of conveying this message. In fact, today's Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article about hydraulic fracturing, a process of using pressurized water mixed with certain chemicals to break rock formations in order to get at the gas. Opponents claim fracturing will pollute ground water. As the article pointed out, Exxon Mobil insisted on a clause that would allow it to back out of its proposed acquisition of XTO Energy if the government decides to outlaw fracturing.

How big a role natural gas plays in the future is uncertain, but one thing is becoming clear. Oil prices are too high. There is a big push to promote the use of alternative fuels. Society will remain dependent on oil for a long time, but natural gas, nuclear, wind, battery, and solar will all play bigger roles in the future. Unless global growth suddenly surges, demand for oil, which is already down, will continue to decline.