The idea was nothing short of revolutionary: Convert the nation's millions of trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles to run on natural gas instead of gasoline and diesel.
Back in 2008, the proposal by energy magnate T. Boone Pickens had some appeal. U.S. oil production was plunging, and the world's biggest fuel-consuming country was becoming ever more dependent on foreign crude. Oil jumped to a record near $150 a barrel, while natural gasoline was comparatively cheap. Pickens co-founded Clean Energy Fuels Corp. to profit from the switch. The maker of natural gas filling stations was once valued at about $1.8 billion.
But there was a different kind of revolution. New drilling techniques led to a boom in oil supplies from the U.S., and electric cars gained traction. Tesla Inc., which had yet to deliver its first electric car a decade ago, now has 455,000 reservations for its Model 3 -- almost 20 times the number of natural-gas vehicles on U.S. roads as of 2015. Shares of Clean Energy Fuels are down 90 percent from a 2012 peak, and the company concedes that natural gas may only be a niche market as a transportation fuel.
"I'm not sure America is set up" for widespread use of passenger natural gas vehicles given all the infrastructure needed to get supplies to customers, Andrew Littlefair, Clean Energy Fuels' chief executive officer, said by phone. "There are a lot of reasons it would make sense to look at that again, but I don't know that I'm ready to say that's going to happen."
Pickens, who made his first fortune as an oil wildcatter five decades ago, had high hopes for natural gas because he believed crude supplies were peaking. In op-eds, media interviews and meetings with politicians including then-President Barack Obama, Pickens said the nation's heavy-duty trucks and fleet vehicles should run on natural gas. The U.S. could reduce its reliance on oil imports and use more wind and solar power, he said.
Pickens, 89, wasn't able to comment, according to Jay Rosser, a spokesman for BP Capital, the energy hedge fund Pickens founded.