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The Rise of Natural Gas Populism

By Kate Galbraith
The New York Times
September 26, 2008


Watching Sunday Night Football last weekend, I was intrigued to see an ad
featuring Aubrey K. McClendon, the head of Chesapeake Energy, the largest
independent gas producer in the country, intoning on the virtues of natural
gas-fired cars.

Since the beginning of the month, readers may have also seen Mr. McClendon’s
face peering out from advertisements in this newspaper, as well as The
Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. “Let’s Rescue America’s
Economy,” the ad states. “Demand Natural Gas Now!”

If it seems like Pickens redux, it’s not an accident. That’s Mr. McClendon
below, in an ad posted at the Chesapeake-run Web site CNGnow.org, where the
Pickens Plan is roundly endorsed.

Back in August, I wrote about Mr. Pickens’s energy plan, which has itself been
accompanied by a slick advertising campaign. The Pickens Plan — or Pickenomics,
as I like to think of it — calls for a massive increase in the use of wind power
for electricity generation, and for moving our car and truck fleets off of
foreign oil and onto home-drilled natural gas.

Mr. Pickens’s $58 million campaign has included a Facebook presence, TV
commercials, and an e-mail list that has ignored repeated requests from me to
unsubscribe.

Mr. Pickens has a big stake in Clean Energy Fuels, the country’s largest
natural-gas fuels supplier, and it’s certainly no surprise that Chesapeake, a
natural gas producer, has hopped on the bandwagon.

While less than one percent of vehicles in this country run on natural gas,
Chesapeake would substantially pad its profits if it could persuade millions of
consumers to drive with the fuel — and persuade the government to subsidize
infrastructure investment to make that possible.

What is interesting about the Pickens/Chesapeake twin campaigns is their direct,
populist appeal. Most companies go to Washington to lobby for what they want,
and there’s no doubt Mr. Pickens and Chesapeake are doing their measure of that.

But they are also spending millions of dollars doing things the old-fashioned
way: taking their case over the heads of politicians and directly to the people
— or more specifically, to consumers.

“We’re a producer of this stuff. We’re not in the business of building
compressor units,” said Tom Price, a Chesapeake spokesman.

In other words, Chesapeake needs to find a way to reach ordinary Americans, who
do not usually come into contact with the company. Chesapeake’s goal, said Mr.
Price, is to “try to inspire the consumers themselves to make contact with their
legislators and say, ‘Help us!’”

 

 

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