‘Crude’ Alternative

Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens presents his plan to reduce petroleum use

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.

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The face of energy use in the region surrounding Pennsylvania College of Technology is quickly changing, and legendary oil magnate T. Boone Pickens sees it as a step in the right direction for the environment, the economy and national security. A wind farm is set to be operational by September along a seven-mile stretch of mountain in northern Lycoming County. Moxie Energy is pursuing permits for two natural gas-powered energy plants, one in Bradford County and one in Lycoming.

"It's so important to all of us to understand that we are going through, every day in the world, 90 million barrels."

And Greater Williamsport's public transportation system, River Valley Transit, received state and federal grants to add a compressed natural gas fueling station at its hub on West Third Street. The transit company plans to convert all 30 of its buses to natural gas over the next five to 10 years, displacing an estimated 45,000 gallons of fuel per year and eliminating nearly 504 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The fuel would also be available to county and city vehicles and Williamsport Area School District buses, which already use the facility, as well as to the public and to private fleets.

Greater use of domestic energy sources like wind and natural gas, according to Pickens, who visited the city in September, is not only viable in Pennsylvania and the heart of Marcellus Shale natural gas production, but is a key step to weaning the entire nation from its heavy use of imported oil.

The 83-year-old billionaire, who began his career in oil as a geologist in 1951 and became known for steadily growing his own Mesa Petroleum while acquiring other companies, was hosted by the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce and the Community Arts Center, a wholly owned subsidiary of Penn College.

Pickens has been campaigning for natural gas for three years, "The fuel's cleaner, it's cheaper, and it's ours," he told his audience at the Community Arts Center.

The United States uses 20 million barrels of oil every day, according to Pickens, who says 7 million are produced domestically, 13 million are imported, and of that, 5 million are imported from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Those 5 million barrels are of grave concern to Pickens. He has developed the "Pickens Plan" to help reduce the need for that oil. "Seventy percent of all the oil used every day in the world is used for transportation," he said. "It's so important to all of us to understand that we are going through, every day in the world, 90 million barrels – 90 million. And we're using 20 million of them in the United States."

His plan starts with converting heavy-duty truck fleets to natural gas. He has proposed legislation – which has been endorsed by President Obama and introduced in both houses of Congress – that would provide a five-year tax incentive to companies that convert their diesel trucks to natural gas.

He says there are 8 million heavy-duty trucks in the United States.

"If we can do 8 million 18-wheelers in five years, you will cut OPEC in half," Pickens said. "We import 5 million barrels of oil a day; that's 2.5 million barrels right there, and you've changed the dynamics of our world when you do that, just with 8 million trucks."

On the economic front, Pickens reminded audiences in Williamsport that the first industrial revolution was funded "on the back of cheap energy," and lower-cost energy sources can again help to reinvigorate the U.S. economy.

The onset of Marcellus Shale drilling has brought new jobs to Pennsylvania already. An economic impact study by the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center – a partnership of Penn College and Penn State Cooperative Extension – estimates that each new Marcellus well generated 30 jobs – both direct and indirect – in Pennsylvania in 2009 and around $4 million in total output within the state's economy.

During a panel discussion that was part of Pickens' visit, Rob Broen, president of natural gas drilling company Talisman Energy, said that 70 percent of his company's employees in Pennsylvania are local.

"We want it to be 100 percent," he said, listing benefits to his company's bottom line of hiring skilled employees from the area where drilling is taking place.“

Gov. Tom Corbett, also part of the panel, said the job potential is a boon for Pennsylvania.

"We have the responsibility of educating our citizens and our workforce," he said, noting the work Penn College is already doing in preparing workers for the natural gas industry.

The college has incorporated industry-specific needs into existing curriculum for such majors as welding, electronics and heavy construction equipment, and the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center provided training for more than 2,600 people in natural gas-related topics in 2010-11.

Doug Miller, president of Exco Resources Inc., said drilling will continue for 50 years, adding that companies have had to go more slowly than anticipated. Pickens estimates those wells will produce natural gas for 100 years.

Still, the resource is nonrenewable and will run out. But Pickens sees natural gas as an essential "bridge fuel," allowing an immediate reduction in oil imports while buying time to develop new technologies that would make other transportation fuels – such as electric and hydrogen – more viable and to upgrade the nation's power transmission grid to take advantage of wind energy in the Central Plains.

And it finally provides a plan to accomplish what Pickens says every presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has promised – to end the United States' dependence on oil from the Middle East.

"None of them has had a plan," Pickens said.

Pickens has spent $82 million promoting his plan and "telling the energy story to America." And he has invested heavily in both wind and natural gas energy. He is the founder and largest shareholder in Clean Energy Fuels, which supplies natural gas for transportation, and owns mineral rights on 156,000 acres in Pennsylvania.

While he stands to gain financially, he says his concern is national security.

"This is God-sent," he said during a talk with a group of Pennsylvania legislators in Williamsport. "This is divine intervention for the United States to show up with this resource. ... I know this has happened to our country at the right time."

More photos from Pickens' visit to Williamsport

Gas Industry Provides Hands-On Experience Close to Home
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue

Pennsylvania College of Technology student Zachary A. Blumenauer is but one example of the benefits T. Boone Pickens believes natural gas can provide to Pennsylvania.

Blumenauer, pursuing a degree in computer aided drafting technology, found an opportunity to use his degree in industry before even graduating. And better yet, he was able to gain the hands-on experience in his field without having to leave his hometown of Towanda.

It's the kind of opportunity Pickens extolled during a chat with Pennsylvania legislators. The talk was part of his visit to Williamsport in September.

"(When) you educate kids in certain parts of the United States, it means they leave and never come back," he said. "This is going to create opportunities (for educated young people)."

With a population just under 3,000, you might not expect Blumenauer to say that "job opportunities are everywhere" in Towanda and its rural surroundings. But that is exactly the case as the borough has become a hub of activity for natural-gas drilling in Pennsylvania's Northern Tier.

During summer work for Elite Energy Services, Blumenauer teamed up with his older brother Don, who graduated from Penn College in 2008 with a degree in computer aided drafting technology, to produce drawings that map out pipes surrounding natural-gas well pads.

Elite Energy Services installs closed-loop production systems at well sites. The systems are designed to keep waste at a well pad, rather than being shipped elsewhere.

When natural gas comes out of well heads, it goes through a production unit that separates gas and wastewater. Clean gas goes into the natural gas "sales" pipeline, while the waste goes to a containment unit. Most of the plumbing that carries the natural gas and waste fluid to their destinations is built underground.

"The drawings are to keep people safe. ... All the plumbing has to be accounted for," Blumenauer said. That requires that the as-built drawings he and his brother created be both precise and easy to read.

"We did everything as accurately as we could," he said, to avoid any potential for future accidents.

Blumenauer, who continues to work part time for Elite Energy Services while classes are in session, took to the field to measure dimensions and collect GPS coordinates, then shared his notes with his brother, who works full time for the company and used the notes to create drawings.

Blumenauer began his work with the company as a welder's apprentice. After watching his mentor repeatedly perform similar welds, he took the initiative to use his computer aided drafting skills – and a recent fixture-design class – to build a jig that made the welder's work more efficient. It's one of many opportunities he had to see the classes he was taking – in math, in civil and structural drawing, and more – come to life.

"I did welding drawings, and I can actually see those drawings being put in action. ... What I took from it and learned from (my courses) helped me out while I was out working," he said. "When you get out into the real world, all this stuff you thought there was no use for in school, you come to find out it makes your job a lot easier."

In 14 months with Elite Energy Services he was promoted twice – first to operator, now designer.

"There are a lot of jobs for engineers and designers out there," he said. "This is just one of them."

According to a Workforce Needs Assessment of central and northcentral Pennsylvania, conducted by the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center, by 2013, gas drilling in the Northern Tier is expected to be the source of 4,375 to 5,468 full-time equivalent jobs in drilling and predrilling work and 225 long-term jobs in gas-well production, depending on the number of wells drilled. Engineers represent 3 percent of the workforce needed.

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