|Pickens Aims to Recruit McCain, Obama to Energy Army|
By Kent Bernhard, Jr.
National Green News
October 30, 2008
It's the end of a long Wednesday and T. Boone Pickens is in the Nashville studio
of the RFD Network, surrounded by young members of 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America.
It seems the 80-year-old billionaire has touched a nerve with these young
people. They chant, "Boone! Boone! Boone!" Maybe he's got a few new recruits
here to the 1.5-million-strong Pickens Plan Army of supporters he's built to
back his proposal to start weaning the U.S. off foreign oil. Pickens and his
army want wind farms across the Great Plains to generate electricity, and
natural gas to be used as a transportation fuel, reducing the need for foreign oil.
But even at such a triumphant moment as Wednesday night, T. Boone Pickens knows
he's got a long way to go. He wants his Pickens plan adopted in the first
hundred days of a new administration.
He's campaigning for it as hard as if he were running for office himself. But the two
men he most wants in his army, John McCain and Barack Obama, haven't signed on.
"This is about America," he says. "It's not just about party politics." And, he
says of the candidates, "They don't know anything about energy. The two
candidates that we have, neither one has a plan. We've got to put pressure on
these guys, whichever is elected president," Pickens says.
Pickens is campaigning hard.
On Wednesday, he spoke to 40 editors of American City Business Journals in
Charlotte, N.C., then hopped onto his private jet to fly to Nashville, where he
held a live town hall meeting broadcast on RFD, the rural network. The day for
Pickens started at 6 a.m. in Texas. He wasn't done with the town hall meeting in
Nashville until 8:30 p.m. and had a flight home to Dallas still ahead of him.
It's part of a grueling schedule the 80-year-old billionaire has set. He has met
with dozens of Congress people and governors, and with both presidential
candidates. He's held town hall meetings around the nation, appeared on
television programs as widely varied as 60 Minutes and the Tonight Show with Jay
Leno, and raised what he calls the Pickens Plan Army of 1.5 million who have
joined the Pickens Plan online community. The plan has drawn support from such
different quarters as the Sierra Club and Warren Buffett.
The Texas oilman turned wind farmer and hedge-fund manager believes so much in
his plan for weaning the United States off foreign oil that he's barnstorming
the country like a candidate in the final stretch of a campaign. He's already
spent $40 million on television commercials pitching his proposal.
But the pitch comes at a very tough economic time. The plan is expensive,
neither presidential candidate has committed to it, and private investment
dollars necessary for the wind farms Pickens envisions have dried up.
Still, Pickens argues that without a plan, the nation will dig itself into a
deeper hole than it's already in -- importing 70 percent of its oil from foreign
countries, many of them hostile to the United States. The nation was spending
$700 billion a year on foreign oil July 8, when Pickens launched his effort, and
it spends about $300 billion a year now that oil prices have been cut nearly in
half since their summer highs.
That price shock of the summer is just the beginning, though, says Pickens. He
predicts the price of oil will climb again, and he said it could reach $300 a
barrel, twice as high as it was this summer, within 10 years. That would wreak
havoc that makes the recent financial crisis seem minor by comparison, he says,
and it's why he's pushing so hard for his plan.
"We have gotten ourselves into such a hell of a mess," he says. "We don't have
oil, but we operate like we do. We Americans have got to solve the problem."
Pickens says he's drawn on his decades of experience in the energy field to come
up with what he calls, "the only" credible energy policy that moves the U.S.
away from importing so much oil. "I know what I'm talking about," he says.
He wants private industry to build wind farms from West Texas to North Dakota,
in one of the richest corridors for wind on earth. Solar farms could dot the
southwest as well, he points out. He wants the government to create easements
through eminent domain so transmission lines can take electricity generated by
wind and solar from the Great Plains to the nation's population centers. He
likens the effort of creating the easements to the effort put forth in the
creation of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s.
But that's not all. The wind power would replace natural gas as a fuel for
electricity generation. About 22 percent of the nation's electricity is
generated using natural gas. Natural gas could then be used to power
transportation, first heavy trucks, but ultimately cars as well.
Using natural gas as a transportation fuel would allow the nation to cut its
foreign oil consumption by 38 percent within 10 years, Pickens says. He
advocates focusing the natural gas conversion on the heavy trucks that ply the
nation's highways, burning huge amounts of diesel fuel now. The government would
offer credits for buying new natural gas powered trucks. Focusing on trucks
allows the biggest bang for the buck, he argues.
"Natural gas is the only one that will do," he says. "A battery won't move an
18-wheeler. (Natural gas) is cleaner (than gasoline and diesel), it's cheaper,
it's abundant, and it's ours."
Pickens has a long history in the energy business. Trained as a geologist, he
founded Mesa Energy in 1954 and built it into one of the most important
independent oil and natural gas players in the country. Along the way, he earned
a reputation in the 1980s as a corporate raider, after he launched several
takeover attempts in the energy field.
Pickens argues in his recent book "The First Billion is the Hardest" that his
takeover attempts launched a change in the corporate world toward companies
treating shareholder value with more respect. He shook up a complacent corporate America.
Now, he's trying to do the same thing with his energy plan, except it's not just
corporate America T. Boone Pickens wants to shake up. He's aiming to shake up
the whole country and change the way the economy is run.
He's pitching a policy. And it doesn't matter whether Barack Obama or John
McCain is elected president. Pickens wants either man to buy into the plan he's
pitching, and the sooner the better. But they haven't yet.
When he met with Obama, he says, the Senator from Illinois was focused on hybrid
plug-in cars. Pickens says he's all for that. "I'm for anything American," he
says. But he points out that there won't be enough such cars to make much of a
dent in America's total transportation fleet; and batteries aren't powerful
enough to move a big truck. Pickens says he's also for McCain's plan to build 40
nuclear power plants in 30 years. But, he points out, that plan won't impact
America's addiction to oil, since we don't use oil in the electric power mix.
Pickens is staking his own business on renewable power and natural gas as well.
He's building the world's biggest wind farm in West Texas. At a projected 4,000
megawatts, the wind farm will be five times the size of any existing wind
project. Pickens' Clean Energy division is also the largest domestic distributor
of natural gas for transportation.
When Pickens first unveiled his energy plan this summer, things looked more
promising. The nation was in the middle of a gas price shock. And the full
extant of the credit meltdown and accompanying recession weren't yet as apparent
as they are today.
Pickens himself hasn't been immune to the troubles in the economy and attendant
drops in the price of energy. His investment firm, BP Capital, and Pickens
himself have lost $2 billion since peaking in June, the former oilman told CBS'
60 Minutes this week. He told the Nashville audience he's lost about half his
money since this summer. And the wind farm project in Texas won't work without
higher energy prices, he acknowledges.
The Wall Street Journal reports about half the investors are pulling out from
Pickens' BP Capital energy-focused equity hedge fund.
The state of the economy gives Pickens' argument about the destructiveness of
the nation's dependence on foreign oil more weight.
At the same time, though, it throws into question the massive investments it
will take to make his plan happen. And project financing for giant wind projects
or much of anything else is tight.
Pickens acknowledges the difficulty, but says the only other alternative is the
debilitating addiction to foreign oil. "We have to start using our own wind,
solar and natural gas. And we need to start paying for it by keeping the money
here at home instead of sending it to the Middle East and Africa," Pickens
writes in a recent email to supporters of the plan.
And at 80 years old, the corporate giant is thinking about his legacy. He told
the audience in the Nashville studio that now that he is doing what he can to
reduce foreign oil dependence, it's up to others as well.
"What I want to do tonight is impart some of the responsibility," he told that
group of young people gathered in the television studio, and by extension, the
hundreds of thousands of people watching at home.