At a time of economic decline and record-high gas prices, there is something refreshing in an oilman turning into one of the nation's leading advocates of renewable energy. This could explain why T. Boone Pickens' multibillion-dollar efforts to reduce America's oil dependence and develop clean energy have garnered so muchpublic attention.
Pickens is right to suggest that America's oil dependence is a source of economic ruin and that Congress must act to stop the biggest transfer of wealth in human history. But Pickens stands to benefit from his own campaign -- and his proposal could do more damage than good to U.S. energy security.
Pickens' proposal involves a California ballot initiative to provide $5 billion in subsidies for developing clean-energy fuels on top of a $58-million public relations campaign to reduce America's oil dependence through wind power. Not coincidentally, the Texas oilman is heavily invested in natural gas and wind power.
The Pickens plan promises to dramatically reduce oil use by shifting the transportation sector from gasoline-powered cars and trucks to natural-gas-powered vehicles. This would allegedly reduce oil imports by more than 30% and would supposedly save the U.S. economy $300 billion that otherwise would end up in the coffers of oil-rich foreign countries. According to the plan, wind energy would substitute for natural gas, now generating 20% of the nation's electricity, freeing natural gas to power a third of the vehicles in the U.S.
There is nothing wrong with wind power. On the contrary, it is one of the cheapest ways to generate renewable power. But since only 2% of U.S. electricity is generated from oil, wind power (as well as nuclear power, solar energy and other renewable power sources often touted by politicians and pundits) would do nothing to reduce U.S. oil dependence unless we start using electricity to power our vehicles.
Pickens' assertion that increased use of wind power would displace natural gas is based on wishful thinking. Our energy system is not a Lego game -- one piece can't replace another at whim. Even if 78 other billionaires were willing to follow Pickens' footsteps and build a 4,000-megawatt wind farm -- that's the number needed to displace the current electricity production from natural gas -- there's no way to guarantee that natural gas would be the only energy source that would be displaced by all those turbines. Why not coal, or solar?
Furthermore, implementation of the Pickens plan might actually tie more natural gas to the power sector. Wind is an intermittent source of power -- the wind doesn't blow 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- and until and unless our electricity grid has sufficient power storage capacity, utilities counting on wind need to have backup power plants that can be powered up to fill in the gaps when the wind does not blow. This back-up power is today generally provided with natural gas.
Pickens also claims that a shift from oil to natural gas would strengthen U.S. national security. But contrary to Pickens' proclamations, in relation to its need, the U.S. is not rich in natural gas. Just as with oil, the U.S. consumes 23% of the world's natural gas but it only has 3% of the world's reserves. Its reserve-to-production ratio is less than 10 years. At last month's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing (in which both Pickens and I testified), he invoked a recent Deutsche Bank study, "From Shale to Shining Shale," which claims that there are massive reserves of gas shale in the U.S. Just like oil shale, such unconventional energy sources hold great promise. But their recovery costs are still high, and their existence has not been able to suppress the rising price of either oil or natural gas.
A shift to natural gas could even weaken U.S. national security: More than 60% of the world's reserves are concentrated in five countries -- Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- countries that are already engaged in discussions on the establishment of an OPEC-like natural-gas cartel. Shifting from dependence on one authoritarian regime's energy source to another's is like jumping from the frying pan to the fire. It's also the best gift the U.S. can give Iran at a time when it should be working to weaken Tehran economically.
At a time of great public anxiety about our energy future, Congress should focus on policies that would grant Americans true energy independence, rather than replace one dependence with another. Instead, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate have preferred to follow up on Pickens' plan with bills to increase the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Such initiatives would certainly be a boon for Pickens, but not for America.
Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based energy policy think tank.