By Jake Rossen
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However, a recent investigation by Pro Publica finds that this process may in fact pose serious risks to the country's increasingly dwindling drinking-water supply. According to the report, "contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts...[and] the 2004 EPA study was not as conclusive as it claimed to be."
What this means to the future of natural gas is unclear, but it seems sure that environmentalist groups will continue to investigate and potentially obstruct drillers.
One of the more vocal opponents to Pickens's plan for 18-wheelers is the American Trucking Association. The vice president of the group, Rich Moskowitz, argues that the cost of a natural-gas-engine truck runs between $40,000 and $70,000 more than a diesel truck and that most companies cannot afford them. Other problems, he says, include a limited operating range for natural-gas trucks and extremely heavy gas tanks that can add an extra 300 to 400 pounds. Due to weight restrictions imposed on trucks, that means they would have to carry that much less cargo.
The largest obstacle, though, is the fact that there are so few natural-gas pumps across the country, meaning an entirely new and costly infrastructure system would have to be built. That's a daunting task given that the existing infrastructure for gasoline and diesel took the better part of a century to create.
"You can't just put one natural-gas fueling station every so many miles," he says, "because without multiple stations competing, the prices will go up."
Moskowitz points out that Pickens's company, Clean Energy Fuels, is one of the largest manufacturers of natural-gas fueling stations in the country.
"Mr. Pickens is a very successful businessman and I'm sure there's nothing better, in his mind, than to have a monopoly selling fuel to a captive audience," Moskowitz says.
That leaves fleet vehicles, and on this score, Pickens seems to be making the most headway.
The trash-removal company Waste Management is reportedly investing tens of millions of dollars in natural-gas vehicles and recently announced plans to build a $7.5 million fueling station in Seattle with the goal of converting its entire Seattle fleet to natural gas within five years.
Wal-Mart has said it will begin testing natural-gas trucks, and at a February clean-energy conference in Washington, D.C., CEO Lee Scott joked, "So Boone, please don't call me anymore."
Pickens admits he's been contacting key business leaders like Scott, whose companies have large fleets, to convince them to change over to natural gas. Pickens won't say who he's been phoning, but says he feels hopeful.
"I don't think Wal-Mart is ready to do it yet," he says, "but I'm hoping someone will. But when we get a real high-profile company to say, 'We're going to go with a domestic fuel,' that's going to be real leadership."
Pickens is also looking to politicians on Capitol Hill to guide the way.
The stimulus bill didn't do much for natural gas other than to provide some tax incentives for installing fueling stations—just a peck on the cheek rather than the committed relationship Pickens was hoping for.
He was pushing Congress to include a $28 billion pilot program to convert 380,000 of the nation's roughly 6.5 million heavy-duty trucks to natural gas. Pickens claims it would cost $75,000 per vehicle and create more than 450,000 jobs.
Now that Congress has moved past the stimulus bill and is turning its attention to drafting a comprehensive energy bill, Pickens's proposal appears to be gaining steam.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chairman of the Commerce and Energy Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, shocked energy insiders in early February when he said, "And I guess the headline is: I agree with T. Boone Pickens."
Sen. Harry Reid also says he's onboard, declaring on a conference call with Pickens that he supports the pilot program.
Pickens knows he needs the support of lawmakers such as Reid and Markey and says he's prepared to apply as much pressure as it takes.
"Pressure," he says, "I can assure Washington has not seen before."
In contrast to his January appearance at RiceUniversity, Pickens has the energy of a foxtearing through a henhouse during a star-studded clean-energy summit one month later at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. He is beaming as he takes his seat between Al Gore and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
John Podesta and the Center for American Progress assembled a Who's Who list of Democrats and business leaders for the event, and all of them are treating Pickens like the cute girl in the room.
"The glue that's been holding all this together for months," says Reid, "is T. Boone Pickens. He's put his money where his mouth is."
Pickens has been pouring most of his time, energy, and money over the past several months on Washington, D.C. He and his interests, PickensPlan.com, Mesa Power, and Clean Energy Fuels, spent more than $1 million on lobbyists in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.