Botnick: Don’t pick Pickens

T. Boone Pickens gave a talk Wednesday night called “Solving America’s Energy Crisis.” It had a lofty title, but the content did not live up to it.

The “Pickens Plan” is an ambitious plan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yes, this dependence is a national security threat and the “270 million vehicles” currently running on oil in this country represent an enormous failure in innovation. Yes, his plan would reduce the amount of oil we import and consume. But at what cost?

Mr. Pickens repeatedly touted natural gas as “clean, affordable, abundant and ours.” How? It’s extracted by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), which involves digging wells into shale beds with natural gas reserves and using a mixture of water and chemicals to put so much pressure on the rock bed that it fractures. Gas reserves are brought to the surface along with the “flowback,” the recovered fracturing fluids, which is then discharged into surface water or injected underground. Does this sound “clean”?

When I asked Mr. Pickens about the environmental risks of extraction, and whether decreasing our foreign oil dependence in favor of natural gas would be a fair trade-off environmentally, he gave the very political answer that he did not know of any risks. I made the mistake of backing down too soon. As a geologist, how is he not aware that our drinking water aquifers can be polluted by both surface and underground contaminants? That toxic chemicals released into the ground eventually end up seeping into the water table? That the fracturing of bedrock thousands of feet underground is not an exact science — that breaks cannot be controlled, and gas leaks inevitably occur in this process? These are all obvious risks of fracking, supported by the hundreds of cases of well pollution, livestock epidemics and environmental degradation brought against natural gas companies. It’s even the subject of a congressionally mandated E.P.A. investigation. If he “doesn’t know,” Pickens is either exhibiting a lack of knowledge about his own plan, which shouldn’t inspire confidence, or simply giving a canned answer that won’t hurt its image.

There is an extreme lack of up-to-date information and research on the subject. Halliburton, for example, was subpoenaed by the E.P.A. just last November for information on the chemicals it uses in injecting fluids. This brings me to the other problem with the Pickens Plan: it is just as shortsighted as our current thinking. He said that we have about a 200-year supply of natural gas under current demand, which would realistically translate to about 50 years under his plan — does this sound abundant? We are sacrificing the millions of gallons of water it takes to extract natural gas (“negligible”, he said), the drinking water for those living above shale gas reserves, including residents of New York City and Philadelphia, and the millions of trees that will need to be deforested to build gas wells. All this for a plan which would optimistically get us through the next 50-100 years. The plan says nothing about reducing fossil fuel consumption; it talks about wind only briefly, but doesn’t give it priority, let alone other renewable energies such as solar, geothermal and biodiesel. It relies on immediate fear of OPEC rather than true thought about the effects of our shortsighted actions.

Mr. Pickens warned that if we don’t adopt his plan now, we will be remembered as the generation that failed to exploit an abundant natural resource right under our feet. But wouldn’t that be better than becoming the generation who caused the misguided destruction of the water supply and lands of whole regions of our country? Haven’t we learned by now not to fall for shortsighted fixes? Let’s not make the same mistakes again. Don’t be blinded by Mr. Pickens’ lofty rhetoric — think about who his proposals would really benefit. Don’t pick his plan.

Julie Botnick is a freshman in Branford College.


  • coldy

    Well-written! Well-said!

  • coldy

    No pun intended :)

  • The Anti-Yale

    We have made a devil’s bargain with the planet: We kill it in order to live. Greed and population expansion are irreversible—–except by viruses.

  • Madas

    Ms. Botnick, I’m not sure how I feel about hydrofracking as I have not studied it extensively, but I have to question whether you understand it yourself? IF it is such a disasterous process, why could you not cite some evidence to support your claim? I grow tired of readnig hysterical pieces like yours which warn the sky is fallign, but offer no solutions and don’t fully substantiate their claims.

    What should we switch to? Solar? You realize that the rear earth metals required for solar panels are extracted at great expense and with great environmental impact. More frustratingly, they are in short supply. Organic solar cells? You’re ready to cover the planet in solar cells then… (and don’t forget the substrate manufacturing is going to require either petrochemicals or refined silicon.

    Shall we switch to wind? Where will the rare earth metals for the high-efficiency generators come from? Do you know most supplies are controlled by China? Those that are in the “developed” world no one wants to develop because of the incredible environmental cost of refining them. Let’s not forget, turbines are big, ungly, and take up a ton of space. The increased need for transmission line also carries monetary, environmental, and human costs. At least a natural gas or nuclear power plant is ugly only within a five mile radius. Wind spreads out the eyesores over whole states. Yay!

    What about nuclear? I doubt you’d support that…


    Unicorn power?

    The simple fact is, living the modern lifestyle is damaging to the environment. We have two choices. One is to settle for less-than-perfect technologes for now. All energy technologies are envirionmentally damaging right now. Some more so, some less. Some have more promise, some have less. Nevertheless, we need to use the best we have right now, and Pickens is right that that is natural gas.In the mean time, we do need to develop new energy, but restrincting that to wind and solar is just stupid.

    If you impeded natural gas, you’re looking at coal power. That’s what happened in the eighties. Everyone shut down nuclear development, and we got a bunch of new coal plants. Big win, that one.

    Our other choice is to move back up to the trees. Shut off your computer, stop using any mechanized transport, throw away your iPhone and iPod, and head for the woods. I’ll join you if you do.

    But ladies first.

  • jmb

    Madas: thanks for reading. I have a few responses to some of your main concerns.
    1. I am not advocating to switching to any one sort of energy source, especially not “unicorn power”. That should be our last approach to the problem; the first is a massive reduction in energy consumption, which is not presented in Pickens’ plan at all. Instead of replacing foreign oil, we should first look at how to reduce its consumption.
    2. This was not a technical paper. The lack of information on the subject is something I address in the piece–the congressionally mandated E.P.A. report on fracking is due out at the end of next year. We shouldn’t rush into natural gas extraction without full knowledge of its associated environmental risks. I don’t claim to have all the answers; but fracturing rock thousands of feet below the ground is an inherently imprecise practice. We need clear research on the subject before risking our water table.
    3. My main problem with Pickens’ plan is its shortsightedness. It is, using his given number, a 50-year plan, at the most. He is leaving me and other people of my generation to deal with any consequences later, relying on the belief that we will be able to solve those problems when they become dire. We have repeatedly learned that this is a faulty way of thinking.

    Our “other choice” is not to “move back up to the trees”. That’s exactly the narrow-minded thinking that the Pickens’ Plan reinforces and that I’m arguing we need to avoid. It’s not natural gas OR hunter-gathering. It’s about reducing our consumption and investing in innovation, not a limited, risky natural resource.

    For the record, I don’t have an iPhone.

  • Madas

    Ah, I agree, it IS shortsighted. But everything else is even more shortsighted because there are really no other plans other than think about it until we come up with something. What do we use until we figure it out? At least pickens gives us more time than oil. We’re literally running out of energy, and, if you havent’ noticed, we’re still using oil AND it’s funding people who want to kill us. Can you name another solution?

    Reducing our energy footprint is not a solution. It’s part of a solution, but it isn’t a solution in and of itself. It costs a lot of money and, in many cases, consumes resources that otherwise wouldn’t have been consumed (all that material for semiconductors and rare earth metals for higher efficiency products). Even reducing energy per person, we’re still going to need more. There’s only so much efficiency you can actually achieve. Eventually, you squeeze every drop out of the orange, and you’re going to need another orange.

    Finally, I think its intellectually dishonest to make claims about hydrofracking without specific proof. It’s one thing to say we should do more research, but you said:

    “That toxic chemicals released into the ground eventually end up seeping into the water table? … These are all obvious risks of fracking, supported by the hundreds of cases of well pollution, livestock epidemics and environmental degradation brought against natural gas companies.”

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask for something more concrete to back up what was a very aggressive claim. It would be easy for me to claim we should stop alternative energy because there are thousands of claims of qualtiy of life degredation, environmental destruction, and pollution from the manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget all the lawsuits (and there are plenty). What you did was very unfair. Cite sources, my dear. Cite fact. Vague appeals to emotion should be illegal in a rational discussion.

  • Jaymin

    Not to mention, Pickens has a thoroughly antiquated 20th century nation-state view on how the world works – “Arabs are evil, so we can’t buy oil from them”. That’s really his only premise. He has no sincere concern for environmental or trade imbalance issues – in fact, his talk seemed to imply that he’d be fine if our oil consumption remained the same as long as none of it was imported from the Arabs.

    Also, his “plan” is kinda BS. He says we should “educate” the population so that they use more natural gas. Educate all you want, but people are going to do what is market friendly. At this point in time, considering the infrastructure costs of retooling engines and creating hundreds of natural gas stations, it’s not worth the switch. Apart from government incentives to artificially lower price (which he completely opposes) I don’t understand how he thinks this changeover will happen anytime soon.

  • jmb

    Madas: First of all, did you attend his talk? You might be asking him about citing claims if that’s a big concern for you.

    I will reply quickly to your latest comment: I would never advocate, for example, for all cars to be switched to solar power. That’s the wrong way of thinking; the thinking should be, how do we get more of these cars off the road? Reduction is the first step, and the most important.

    Next, I wrote, “It’s extracted by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), which involves digging wells into shale beds with natural gas reserves and using a mixture of water and chemicals to put so much pressure on the rock bed that it fractures. Gas reserves are brought to the surface along with the “flowback,” the recovered fracturing fluids, which is then discharged into surface water or injected underground.” Could you please tell me which part of this is false claim, or an emotional appeal? This is the process for extraction. You can see, inherently, that it involves mixing toxic chemicals into water and discharging that polluted water back into the earth; I could’ve ended the piece right there! Basic science education says that the watershed is a dynamic force; what you put in one place ends up in another. See for more information, look at the NYT articles, scientific articles, and best of all, watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated muckraking documentary about natural gas.

    The main problem, like I said, is that his plan is shortsighted and calls for immediate action–talk about making an emotional appeal!–before we really know the risks of extraction (the congressionally mandated E.P.A. study is due out at the end of next year). I did not make make false claims (the 50-year max life span of the plan was something he said in the talk).

    Think about the recent disaster in the Gulf. We were using risky technology in order to extract fuel that could also be (falsely) described as clean, abundant, cheap, and ours, right? It is not an exaggerated claim to say that the disaster impacted millions of people (and countless species of animals) around the world economically and socially. I don’t think we should be so quick to risk our environment that way over and over again, which is why I ended my piece the way I did–how have we not learned by now that the time to deal with an ecological disaster is not after it happens?

  • etcgreen

    Ms. Botnick has it right. Over the past 10 years, the price of natural gas has been the most volatile energy source at a factor of 7.2 low to high. This is not scalable and we cannot risk our economy to this volatile commodity. Natural gas is fossil fuel and is not sustainable. The energy density of compressed natural gas is extremely low which makes it an extremely inefficient fuel. Natural gas is also the most hazardous fuel currently being used as a transportation fuel to handle and process.

    The one good thing that people can extract from T Boone Pickens’ lectures is that this wildly successful petroleum tycoon, is not promoting “drill baby drill” philosophies. He knows it would be a waste of time – the only petroleum they would bring up from 6 miles down would be $100+ barrel – already far more expensive than the 2nd generation feedstock alternatives.

  • tsbshb

    I would like to address the one argument Botnick relies on heavily, fracking. Fracking has been used for many years and is still used in the oil industry and further more for drinking water wells. The oil industry has not hidden this fact. Any five year old who has been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Geovator, an oil drilling simulator, will know that oil drilling uses fracking. This exhibit is even sponsored by Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, demonstrating that oil companies are not hiding the use of fracking. Also if you have a well anywhere in a semiarid environment in the US, you can expect to frack as needed maintenance. Using this argument does not make sense when our current sources of energy use the exact same process.
    Furthermore, I see that Mr Pickens’s argument for domestic energy as inherently more ethical and environmentally effective. You can totally disregard the political instability argument and from an ethical and environmental viewpoint still see it as the best option.
    Currently both the oil and electric car industry pushes the burden of production onto under-developed countries that then suffer from the effects of our own energy consumption. Drilling for oil in countries that have little to no regulations has led to many countries to poison their own land for our greed.
    Why shouldn’t the most energy wasteful country take responsibility for our own actions? If we do drill for natural gas on our own land then you, Mr. Botnick, will have direct control over the laws that regulate its production, instead of allowing other countries to pollute more in the production of our energy outside of our regulations.
    Even those that promote electric cars are not actually lessening the global environmental impact but instead just displacing the smog from our cities and transferring an equally, or arguably more, damaging effect on to the South Asian countries where the components are built. If we produce our own energy we can be sure that the production is done in the most environmentally responsible way possible.
    Currently Americans don’t see the lead mines in South Asia created for their hybrid cars’ batteries, the technological waste sites in India where children “recycle” electric components by hand, nor the thousands or oil derricks out at sea. Keeping the harvesting of our energy in our own boarders will make us see the direct effects of our own use.
    If you do not want a natural gas plant near your house or water supply then just stop wasting. Why do we insist on putting the equally damaging plants in communities whose sewage and untreated drinking water come from the same source? If we had to live where we are constantly and directly remind of our own wasteful habits, it would cause the fastest drop in energy production possible.
    The Pickens plan would allow Americans to directly regulate the environmental impact of our energy and most importantly take responsibility for our own waste.

  • locnessy81

    I think this is a great article, and certainly an important discussion that both our government and our citizens are having right now in the states. We need to balance our consumption with our resources, and a fear of foreign oil is only part of it. Frankly, I believe oil is oil, and it doesn’t matter much to me where it came from, however there are many people who do care where it care from, so we let them work towards how we can get rid of it. Obviously, natural gas is neither a sustainable option, nor a safe one, as just like oil, it is dirty, even if comes out of our cars cleaner, and just like oil, it is a natural resources which is non-renewable, and will eventually run out.
    Although I think T. Boone had some good points, in that he is pushing wind and solar energy, and pushing to increase the availability and efficiency of these current technologies, and also to explore new ones (geothermal, methane). I think it’s equally important to answer with conversation, and decreasing the pressure on the grid to produce so much more energy. Until we have exhausted our conservation front, I don’t believe we need to make sacrifices of our water and our health. To Julie, I don’t think you backed off too soon. I think you were poignant yet polite, and I believe the audience observed just as you did that the question of fracking is still not finished.

    Additionally, if anyone wants more information on fracking and drinking water, see below YouTube video:

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