T. Boone Pickens, who’s been saying for more than a year that Congress was poised to pass his plan to subsidize natural-gas vehicles, may not have been expecting opposition led by fellow billionaire Charles Koch.
Pickens, 83, the chairman and chief executive officer of BP Capital LLC., a Dallas-based energy investment fund, has spent $82 million since July 2008 promoting the use of domestically produced natural gas to power cars and trucks, according to Jay Rosser, his spokesman.
Koch Industries Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and the American Conservative Union all have weighed in since May against a Pickens-backed bill that would provide tax breaks to purchase natural-gas fueled trucks. The critics say it would provide unwarranted subsidies to companies such as Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a Seal Beach, California, maker of natural-gas fueling stations in which Pickens is the biggest shareholder.
“We do not believe government should be picking ‘winners and losers’ in the marketplace,” Phillip Ellender, president and chief operating officer for government and public affairs at Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, wrote in a June 23 letter to Congress.
Charles Koch, 75, is chairman and chief executive officer of Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries, which calls itself one of the world’s largest closely held companies. He is also a co-founder of Americans for Prosperity, a group that says it advocates limited government and opposes the natural-gas legislation.
‘Working for America’
“So here you are: Charles Koch working for Koch, Boone Pickens is working for America,” Pickens said today in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “InBusiness With Margaret Brennan.”
Koch’s company imports crude oil, gains from ethanol subsidies and is in the fertilizer business, which benefits when natural gas is inexpensive, Pickens said.
“We oppose all government mandates and subsidies because they artificially skew economic signals about price and demand, thereby creating inefficiencies that divert resources from productive activities to politically favored ones,” Ellender said in an e-mailed response to Pickens. “To add a new subsidy in these times of increasing unemployment and economic hardship for so many Americans is irresponsible and bad public policy.”
The Pickens bill, dubbed the Nat Gas Act, would provide tax credits of as much as $64,000 for the purchase of natural gas long-haul trucks, and lesser amounts for lighter vehicles.
On Nov. 17, Pickens told Bloomberg News the bill had “more than a 50-50 chance” of passing in the lame-duck session of Congress after that month’s midterm elections. In April, he told CNBC the bill had overwhelming support on Capitol Hill.
“Boone has an uncanny ability to predict the energy markets,” spokesman Rosser said. “Clearly, predicting what Washington will and won’t do is another matter. Boone is an eternal optimist and remains convinced that Washington will act soon and deliver the solution to four decades of failed promises to address the OPEC oil crisis.”
Since the lobbying campaign against Pickens began, 14 House Republicans have withdrawn support for the legislation. Representative Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, grew “increasingly uncomfortable with the level in which the U.S. government would be dictating winners and losers in energy development,” spokesman Steve Taylor said in an interview.
The measure is still backed by 108 Democrats and 75 Republicans. That’s more bipartisan support than for a proposal to expand offshore drilling that passed the House and failed in the Senate.
“I’m actually beating him,” Pickens said of Koch today in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. “Koch knocked out 14, and we recovered about that.”
The fight over the Pickens plan underscores the obstacles energy measures involving subsidies or tax breaks face as Washington’s political debate centers on how to reduce the federal deficit.
It also shows a split among companies over what to do with the increasing U.S. natural-gas supply. Natural gas has sold at an average of $4.288 per million British thermal units this year, down from a high of $13.577 in 2008.
The U.S. has 2,543 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural-gas resources, according to the 2011 energy outlook by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s about 1,000 trillion cubic feet more than its estimate in 2000. Most of the increase comes from projected supplies in shale formations, where the industry is injecting water, chemicals and sand under high pressure to release the gas from the rock.
AGL Resources Inc. of Atlanta and San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which distribute natural gas, support the Pickens bill, which would give them new customers.
Dow of Midland, Michigan; Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tennessee; and the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade group in Washington, were among 61 chemical and agricultural companies and trade groups signing a May letter that said “the speed of our increasing dependency upon natural gas” may raise costs and force “good U.S. manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors.”
Representative John Sullivan, an Oklahoma Republican and a sponsor of the Pickens measure, said subsidies are justified given concern over oil imports and the 500,000 jobs the bill may create.
“I’m not a tax-and-spend liberal,” Sullivan said in an interview. “This is something we must do.”
A long-haul truck that runs on natural gas can cost $195,000 to buy, about $100,000 more than the same vehicle powered by diesel fuel, according to Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Sullivan. The 8 million heavy-duty trucks in the U.S. consume about 2 million barrels of oil a day, about 10 percent of the nation’s daily appetite for oil, he said.
About 112,000 natural-gas vehicles are on the road in the U.S., according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America. The bill will “jump-start the market,” Richard Kolodziej, president of the Washington-based group, said in an interview.
The U.S. can’t afford breaks for particular energy industries during a “debt crisis of massive proportions,” said Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the American Conservative Union, which advocates lower government spending, in an e-mail.
The Alexandria, Virginia-based organization called the bill a “T. Boone Pickens billionaire boondoggle” in a statement last month, and said any Republican senators who support the legislation risk getting a lower score on the group’s ratings of conservatives.
Sullivan, who got a 100 percent rating from the group last year, said the conservative group backed a broader energy bill Republicans released in 2009 that included tax breaks for natural-gas vehicles, in addition to expanding oil production in places such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The legislation is “the only energy bill out there” that can pass Congress, Sullivan said in an interview.
As evidence of its broad appeal, backers point to support from both President Barack Obama and Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and Tea Party favorite.
“These credits reduce taxes for the production or purchase of vehicles that run on American-made natural gas,” Paul said in a statement released June 27. “These credits are not subsidies.”
Obama called similar legislation to provide incentives for the purchase of natural gas vehicles “a big deal” in a March 30 speech at Georgetown University.
“Congress cannot manage but one bill at a time,” Pickens said on Bloomberg TV, predicting anew that the Nat Gas Act will pass this year. “So you’re either hung up on health care or you’re hung up on the debt or you’re hung up on the budget.”
The bill is H.R. 1380.