Fuel-subsidy fight pits Koch vs. Pickens

By |

T. Boone Pickens is a billionaire, in the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Why then, is Harry Reid trying to give him more of your money?

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Reid, who ceaselessly invokes class-warfare rhetoric to attack Republican opposition to tax increases and overregulation, proposed what could be called the T. Boone Pickens bill.

The New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011, or NATGAS Act, subsidizes cars running on natural gas. Proponents in the House and Senate want to stick the measure into a year-end, must-pass omnibus spending bill or tax-extender package.

Pickens is the bill's original author, chief lobbyist and prime beneficiary: He owns 41 percent of Clean Energy Fuels, which has the largest natural-gas truck-fueling station in the world and plans to set up a series of similar fueling stations around the country -- if it can get the subsidies.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Clean Energy Fuels admits it is subsidy-dependent: "Our business plan and the ability of our business to successfully grow depends in part on the extension of the federal fuel excise tax credit for natural gas vehicle fuel, the reinstatement and extension of the federal income tax credit for the purchase of natural gas vehicles and the passage of legislation providing for additional incentives for the sale and use of natural gas vehicles." That's all in the NATGAS Act.

While Pickens, a longtime oil and gas man, has been lobbying for natural gas subsidies for decades, his cause has become particularly urgent this month. Pickens owns options to buy 15 million shares of Clean Energy Fuels at $10 per share, according to SEC filings. Those options expire Dec. 28. If Congress could pass the NATGAS Act this month, shares of Clean Energy would skyrocket.

For instance, when Reid introduced the NATGAS bill in the Senate on Nov. 15, Clean Energy stock jumped from $11.73 a share to close that day at $13.50 a share, a rise of 15.4 percent. If the bill's mere proposal could spark a 15 percent surge for the company, what would happen to share prices if Reid could pass the bill in the coming end-of-year legislative flurry?

Conservatively, the NATGAS Act might drive Clean Energy shares to at least $17. Pickens, in that case, could exercise his 15 million options at $10 per share, and make more than $100 million risk-free on the options (plus another nine figures on the shares he already owns outright). If the bill doesn't pass this month, and share prices -- which have steadily dropped since their mid-November Reid rally - fell back down toward $10, Pickens' options might become worthless, or at least risky.

Reid has long courted Pickens, previously backing his more ambitious Pickens Plan, which involved wind subsidies and water rights. Reid invited Pickens to his 2009 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, are mostly Republican donors, but Mrs. Pickens in the last election gave Reid the maximum contribution and gave the Democratic Party of Nevada $12,000, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The NATGAS Act resurrects expired stimulus tax credits for cars powered by natural gas and creates new subsidies for natural-gas filling stations.

This is exactly the sort of "green-energy," "pro-business," "pro-infrastructure" subsidy measure that usually gains hearty bipartisan support and passes easily, over the objections of some principled cranks on the left and the right. But it's meeting resistance. Here's why: Unlike many subsidies, which tax everyone a few pennies to give millions to a few special interests, the Pickens bill would severely hurt some powerful players.

Pickens' gain would be at the expense of everyone who uses natural gas, which will spike in price thanks to increased demand. Primary among natural-gas users is the fertilizer industry. One of the world's largest fertilizer sellers is Koch Fertilizer, a subsidiary of the politically connected Koch Industries. Koch (owned by pro-free-market businessmen Charles and David Koch, who are in the top 1 percent of even the Forbes 400) has led the resistance to Pickens' bill. (Disclosure: Koch-affiliated nonprofits have paid me speaking fees and to mentor young writers.)

So in this age of multiplying bailouts and subsidies what does it take to thwart a billionaire seeking federal handouts? It might just be two multibillionaires not willing to pick up some other guy's tab.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

View article comments Leave a comment