Alternative car fuel extolled by Pickens at local symposium

THAT'S GAS, NOT GASOLINE

July 15, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

T. Boone Pickens, who made his reputation as a corporate raider and a champion of stockholder rights, has turned his attention to promoting natural gas as the automobile fuel of the future. And if it catches on, it would also help his money-losing Dallas natural gas company.

Mr. Pickens shared his view of the future yesterday at a symposium sponsored by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. to inform car fleet owners about developments in natural gas vehicles. The conference, held at the Turf Valley Country Club in Howard County, attracted representatives from about 225 businesses, BG&E said.

"I'm fighting for survival," Mr. Pickens said regarding MESA Limited Partnership, which has been hurt with the rest of the natural gas industry by falling prices. "I'm tired of waiting for a cold winter," he said. "I want to go head-to-head with gasoline."

Even though only 50,000 vehicles nationwide use natural gas, Mr. Pickens said, he expects this number to swell to 20 million, or 10 percent of the vehicles in the country, by the end of the decade.

The main force behind this projection is the Federal Clean Air Act of 1990, which requires that all vehicle fleets with central fueling facilities begin phasing in "clean fueled" vehicles by 1998. "It's going to change America's energy [picture] dramatically," he told the symposium.

He dismissed the possibility of electric cars filling that need because of their lesser power, problems with recharging batteries and their high cost. "That isn't going to be the way it's going to go," he said.

Instead, Mr. Pickens said, the natural gas option was more attractive because of the plentiful domestic supply, its low price and because it gives off 90 percent less emissions than gasoline. "Natural gas is the only one," he said.

He conceded that one obstacle is the public's perception of natural gas as unsafe. But he said the fear was unfounded, because in the 40 years that natural gas cars have been used extensively in Italy, there has not been one natural gas vehicle fire. There are thousands of gasoline fires annually on American roads, he noted.

An upturn in natural gas sales would certainly help MESA Limited lTC Partnership, of which Mr. Pickens is chief executive officer. The company, which has 80 percent of its fuel reserves in natural gas, has lost about $300 million in the past three years, he said.

Mr. Pickens is so eager to see natural gas used that he is offering to pay for the conversion of vehicle fleets in Louisiana and in Phoenix, Ariz., provided that those companies or governments buy natural gas from him for five years at the higher gasoline rates.

BG&E is trying to promote natural gas vehicles in Maryland and plans to convert 400 of its own vehicles to natural gas in the next four years, according to BG&E spokesman Arthur J. Slusark. The company also hopes that among the state's commercial fleets 100 vehicles will be using natural gas by the end of next year.

The people attending the conference were "practically a who's who of fleet owners," Mr. Slusark said. These included such companies as H&S Bakery, Crown Central Petroleum, Genstar and Acme Delivery & Messenger Service.

Another effort by BG&E is to establish seven natural gas filling locations in central Maryland in the next year. The company is talking to three unnamed gas retailers about this project, Mr. Slusark said.

But unlike Mr. Pickens, BG&E is also looking at the electric option. It has joined with the state, Chrysler Corp. and the local Westinghouse Electric Corp. division to work on a commercially viable electric car.

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