Oil tycoon pushes renewable energy

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LEXINGTON — It’s been 10 months since oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens announced a massive plan to reduce American dependence on foreign oil through a major expansion of natural gas and wind power sources

Pickens brought his plan to the campus of Washington and Lee University on Thursday night, telling several hundred students and alumni how he thinks natural gas can be used to replace diesel and gasoline as the fuel that powers American vehicles.

He said the dramatic fall of oil prices from more than $140 per barrel when the plan was announced in July to $51 today is not a sign that the United States can afford to stick with the status quo.

“OPEC has already said it needs $75 per barrel, so I think we’ll see that by the end of the year,” Pickens said in an interview after the speech. “Say the global economy recovers in two years; oil will be back at $150 per barrel in three years.”

He lamented the fact that American automakers produce natural gas cars but then sell them only abroad.

“There are 10 million natural gas vehicles in the world, but only 142,000 are in the U.S.,” Pickens said. “General Motors makes 18 types of natural gas vehicles but none in the U.S.”

Some cities and companies are already converting their fleets to natural gas vehicles. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority has begun replacing its diesel-burning buses with ones that run on natural gas. The switch was initially made because natural gas buses have lower emissions. But the city is so pleased that garbage trucks are now being converted as well, Pickens said.

Natural gas generates 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Pickens wants to use that gas to move cars and trucks. To replace that electrical capacity he is urging expansion of wind energy.

Before the proposed wind turbines can start delivering power from remote, windy locations to major cities, Pickens acknowledged that the nation needs new high-voltage transmission lines. But those lines often meet resistance from people who don’t want the lines near their homes.

The congressional stimulus package included money to help fund these new power lines. Pickens said President Obama must use his popularity to push for the new energy grid and keep emphasizing renewable energy sources.

The final key, Pickens said, is getting students to take the lead in his movement.

“I’m going to offload some of the responsibility to you,” he said. “A guy who is 81 shouldn’t have all of the responsibility.”

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