One of the pleasures of covering a national convention is that you run into all sorts of interesting people, some of them not politicians, and you can ask them anything you want. I remember at the 1988 Democratic National Convention running into a man who was on the Forbes 400. I asked him what he was doing there; he wasn't even a Democrat. "Oh," he said, "I just take a suite at the Ritz Carlton and meet with people from around the country. It's amazing how many important people are here."
Heading toward the perimeter of the convention area early this afternoon, I ran into T. Boone Pickens. I introduced myself (we've met before, at the American Spectator dinner) and asked him about his energy plan, which he's been hawking through television and radio ads and trying to sell to politicians. He's met with both Barack Obama and John McCain, for example. And the Democrats have been welcoming him, even though he was one of the financiers of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 campaign. He told me that as he was talking to a group of Democrats, he mentioned the Swift Trucking Company, and John Podesta, Bill Clinton's second-term chief of staff, quickly interjected, "That's not swift boats."
In listening to Pickens I got a different impression of his program than I've gotten from his ads. He sees natural gas, more than the wind energy he's been touting, as the fuel that can bridge us from today's dependence on foreign oil to the development of new technologies. He pointed out that 30 percent of motor fuel is used by trucks, and that big truck fleets turn over every two-and-a-half years. A mandate—"I hate that word," he said—could mean that all big trucks could be using natural gas in a short time. And he's also for a mandate for gas stations to install natural gas pumps at $400,000 each.
In contrast, he said the Democrats' (and Obama's) call for 1 million plug-in hybrids would reduce gas usage much less. Big trucks use a huge amount of gas, and they can't be run on electric motors. I asked about whether General Motors had made progress on the batteries for the Chevrolet Volt it promises to unveil by 2010. He said he was fine with the Volt, but that it's a small car. The battery would not work in a truck.
Pickens points out that Southern California cleaned its air primarily by substituting natural gas for other fuels. It certainly has made great progress. I remember visiting Los Angeles in 1969, when you couldn't see the mountains and the air looked a sullen green color. Today you can see the mountains almost every day. Southern California slapped mandates on gas for (good) environmental reasons. Pickens argues for mandates for national security reasons (and says they'd be good for the environment too). He's not much interested in eliminating the 54 cent tariff on Brazilian sugar ethanol; he says he wants to develop American sources of energy.
So here is his big point: requiring trucks to use domestic natural gas could reduce our dependence on foreign oil enormously. That certainly strikes me as plausible.