T. Boone, Prop 10 and the Questionable Effect of Natural Gas Cars

The LA Times story that knocked the green halo off T. Boone Pickens’ head, with its spotlight on Pickens’ funding of California’s Prop 10, generated a lot of heated comments from readers. This morning the Wall Street Journal takes a crack at the story and points out some more interesting details.

The Prop, which would gives thousands of dollars in rebates to natural gas vehicle buyers, as well as spending on R&D, will supposedly cost California $9.8 billion over 30 years and would come from taxpayer money. The WSJ says, if the prop passes, it could lead to a million natural gas vehicles for California; if the Prop is defeated then natural gas vehicle backers will have to compete — against cleaner alternatives like electric vehicles — for the $840 million in funds under law AB 118. In a vacuum natural gas cars sound OK, but it’s hard to justify spending on dirtier-burning natural gas vehicles when those funds are directly competing with “zero emission” alternatives, like electric cars powered by a solar grid.

So, the biggest issue with choosing to fund natural gas vehicles or not is the questionable emissions benefits. Yes, there is a national security and supply issue that is answered by natural gas vehicles, but the WSJ quotes a California Energy Commission study: When natural gas replaces gasoline, greenhouse gases are reduced by just 20 to 30 percent. When natural gas is used instead of diesel in trucks, greenhouse gases are reduced just 10 to 20 percent. If diesel is almost comparable, then it makes more sense to fund that as a stop gap as that infrastructure is already in place. The article also points out that the natural gas vehicle benefits over gasoline have dropped over the past two decades as newer internal combustion engines have become cleaner and more efficient.

The WSJ says together Pickens and Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon have spent $3.7 million supporting the proposition. Previously Pickens had been isolated as the only backer of the prop. Chesapeake Energy’s claim to fame is that it’s the “third-largest overall producer of natural gas in the U.S” — so it’s not surprising that the firm would invest to get this passed. Earlier this week it also came out that Pickens is getting into natural gas vehicle development, too. Pickens and the natural gas distribution company he founded, Clean Energy Fuels, joined with the Perseus fund to invest $160 million into building a natural gas vehicle.