|The Pickens Profile You Haven’t Read|
By Karen Breslau
August 9, 2008
T. Boone Pickens can't read his lines. Squinting at his teleprompter, he is
posing in front of a mile-long ribbon of wind turbines, churning against an
endless Texas sky. Pickens is in Sweetwater, a town of 12,000 that bills itself
as the nation's wind-energy capital, to shoot a commercial urging Americans to
put themselves on a new energy diet: cutting out imported oil—which costs $700
billion a year—in favor of domestically produced sources such as wind and
natural gas. "Our dependence on foreign oil means that we are buying from our
enemies," he drawls into the camera, veering from the script. At this, the
director walks onto the set, frowning his disapproval. "Don't want me to say
'enemies', huh?" Pickens deadpans as he drops his head in mock shame and scuffs
his cowboy boot in the dirt. "How 'bout 'Some friends and a few a––holes?' That better?"
With that kind of blunt talk—and an estimated $3 billion fortune to back it up
with action—Pickens, who last made headlines for funding the Swift Boat attack
ads against John Kerry in 2004, has put himself back in the spotlight in time
for the 2008 presidential election. It's an audacious act of rebranding: the
flamboyant 80-year-old oilman and onetime corporate raider reborn as green
wildcatter and the Web's first senior blog star. Since it was launched a month
ago, www.pickensplan.com has cracked the top-1,000 list of most heavily
trafficked sites worldwide, according to the Internet marketing firm Quantcast.
If you haven't yet heard of the Pickens Plan, then you've no doubt been on
vacation: he has flooded TV and radio with thousands of ads urging viewers to
log on to his Web site and demand that Washington overhaul the country's energy
infrastructure. "The American people know something is wrong as far as energy is
concerned," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They don't think they are being told the truth."
Just don't mistake Pickens for a tree-hugger. While he says he'd probably "pass
a cheek-swab test" for his environmental credentials, and he believes climate
change is real, Pickens favors drilling offshore and in Alaska, and more nuclear
power if it will mean importing less oil. "I'm pro-everything," he says. To sell
his plan, Pickens has enlisted an unlikely supporting cast of environmental
leaders and top Democrats who for years loathed everything he stands for. Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid, who once said he considered Pickens his "mortal
enemy," will host him this month at a clean-energy summit in Las Vegas, along
with Bill Clinton. Even Al Gore, who has his own proposal to wean the U.S. power
grid from fossil fuels within a decade, pronounced the Pickens Plan
"respectable" last month.
Can Pickens finish the job that Gore started? With Americans desperate for
relief from $4-a-gallon gasoline, the irreverent capitalist seems to have
captured public attention with an ease and flair that eluded the earnest, Nobel
Prize-winning environmentalist. Forget about drowning polar bears and compact
fluorescent light bulbs; Pickens is peddling pure old star-spangled
self-interest. His ads feature grainy images of burning oilfields and U.S.
soldiers standing watch in the desert, with an ominous soundtrack worthy of a
horror film. The roiling clouds part and majestic wind turbines pop against a
heartland sky. "We can take back our energy future," says the oilman.
Environmentalists seem grateful for the cross-cultural messenger. "I hope he
grabs that part of Middle America that we failed to reach," says Sierra Club
president Carl Pope, whose endorsement is posted on Pickens's Web site.
What's in it for Pickens? He is investing $10 billion to build the world's
largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. Through another venture, Clean Energy
Fuels Corp., he is the country's largest private owner of natural-gas fueling
stations. If demand for these sources soars, as his plan envisions, he is
positioned to win big. Pickens, who claims he's worth $4 billion (Fortune says
$3 billion), scoffs at the notion that he's driven by profit. "I don't need to
make any more money," he says, laughing. In fact, Pickens says he doesn't even
plan to erect turbines on his own 120,000-acre ranch in the panhandle, because
he thinks they are "ugly." Converts to Pickens's cause don't mind if he cashes
in. "I want him to make more money in wind than he did in oil," says the Sierra
Club's Pope. "It has a huge impact on the conversation."
Having a huge impact is a recurring theme in Pickens's life. As a paperboy in
tiny Holdenville, Okla., a plucky young Boone persuaded his boss to let him
invade the routes of other boys by selling more papers. "It was my first
experience in the takeover field: expansion by acquisition," he writes in his
forthcoming memoir, "The First Billion Is the Hardest," to be published early
next month. In it, T. (for Thomas) Boone traces his rise from boy capitalist,
trained by his father, an oil-company land man, his rectitudinous mother and his
stern grandmother Nellie (who once talked him into a bad lawn-mowing deal in
order to teach him a lesson). Despite his success, the striving paperboy remains
at his core. Over the past several years, Pickens donated $165 million to the
athletics department at Oklahoma State University, his alma mater, in large part
because he was tired of seeing his beloved Cowboys lose. During halftime at a
game at Boone Pickens stadium, OSU athletic director Mike Holder was stunned to
find the benefactor cleaning up the restroom. "People had splashed water all
over the counters, thrown paper towels on the floor and Boone Pickens couldn't
stand to see his investment in disarray. So without a word, he started picking
up the paper towels and wiping down the counters himself," Holder told NEWSWEEK.
"I think the rest of us were so embarrassed, we started to clean up quietly
As the millions turned into billions, Pickens also confronted failure and loss,
all in one annus horribilis in 1996. He got a divorce, lost his best friends in
a car crash, and received a taste of his own medicine when he was forced out as
CEO of Mesa Petroleum, the oil company he built into one of the world's largest
independents. That year, he fell into clinical depression: "My dauber was down,
as the saying goes." The ruthless raider writes about the heartache of having to
share custody of his beloved Papillon spaniel with his ex-wife. "When I first
went to pick him up, old Winston started growling at me in the front seat," he
writes. "I decided it wasn't fair to Winston … so for his benefit, I just
stopped." (Pickens, who today cuts a jaunty, vigorous figure, remarried in
2005—and has a new Papillon.)
Pickens likes to portray his years as a corporate buccaneer during the 1980s as
"shareholder activism." When Mesa fell into a cash crisis in the mid '90s after
the price of natural gas collapsed, there was no mercy for him on Wall Street.
Pickens called in Texas financier Richard Rainwater, and his wife and business
partner, Darla Moore, to help raise capital. (Rainwater helped another oilman,
George W. Bush, escape his money problems by making him co-owner of the Texas
Rangers, a deal that eventually made Bush a multimillionaire.)
Moore, a leveraged-buyout specialist dubbed "the Toughest Babe in the Business"
by Fortune, tried to raise $1 billion on Wall Street for Mesa. "I found out
there wasn't a bank in the country that would touch the deal if Boone was CEO,"
Moore told NEWSWEEK. "I tried to soften the message [but] he was really
surprised. 'But I get along with all those guys,' is what he said." The
Rainwaters worked out a deal for Pickens to retire as CEO, and bought him out, a
deal that still rankles the billionaire. Moore whooped with surprise when told
by a NEWSWEEK reporter that Pickens had compared her in his book to a "wolverine
that pisses on everything it doesn't eat." Moore responds, "I think what people
don't know about Boone is that deep down he is actually—I hate to say this—a
nice man. And he knows more about energy than anybody in the world."
It's not as though Pickens doesn't have a few crafty deals on his own ledger.
Five years ago he launched a controversial scheme to buy water rights around
Roberts County, Texas, the same region of the panhandle where he plans to build
his wind farm—and where he owns a 68,000-acre ranch. The idea was to pump water
from the Ogallala aquifer to cities downstate. Though he never found a buyer for
the water, Pickens did win the right of eminent domain for his pipeline. His
attorneys applied to create an entity known as a groundwater-supply district,
which was gerrymandered to include only two voters: his two ranch hands. The
measure passed, to no one's surprise. Though Pickens says he has abandoned the
water project, his lawyers want to use the water corridor to site a private
transmission line from his panhandle wind farm to power-hungry cities. "You have
to admire his guts and his gall," says Thomas (Smitty) Smith, director of Public
Citizen, an advocacy group that opposed Pickens's water business.
Despite tangling with Pickens earlier, Smith supports his vision of transforming
the great plains into the "Saudi Arabia of wind energy." Pickens says private
investors will provide the $1 trillion or so to erect thousands of turbines
through the wind corridor stretching from the panhandle to Canada. But it will
take Congress and a new president to build a national power grid connecting the
wind corridor—as well as the emerging solar corridor across the desert
Southwest—to the nation's population centers. It's a challenge Pickens likens to
creating the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. The grid could cost about
$200 billion, but compared with the $700 billion exported each year to pay the
country's oil tab, says Pickens, "it's a bargain."
Whether the Pickens Plan is feasible—or affordable—is an open question. But his
shrewd sense of timing is beyond doubt. Last year he correctly predicted that
oil would reach $100 a barrel by mid-2008, a threshold it has hovered over since
May. Months before that, Pickens was plotting his $58 million media blitz to
push energy independence as a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign. His
needling seems to be working. In new ads promoting their own remedies, Barack
Obama, John McCain—and even Paris Hilton in her spoof—dutifully echo Pickens's
message about energy security. "T. Boone Pickens is right," said Obama, who also
wants the country to invest heavily in renewables and al-low "limited" offshore
drilling. McCain, for his part, announced an "all of the above" approach, saying
he supports offshore drilling, more nuclear power plants and the development of
alternative energies such as wind, solar and biofuels.
When it comes to energy, Pickens bills himself as "bipartisan." He's
disappointed that Republicans whose careers he's financed, including George W.
Bush, have done little in his view to guarantee energy security (a supporter of
Rudy Giuliani's during this year's GOP primary season, Pickens says, "I doubt we
spent five minutes talking about energy"). He says he has no plans to donate to
McCain, in order to avoid confusion about his motives.
And what, exactly are those motives? This being Pickens, they are complex. He
says rebuilding the American energy system "is the most important work I've ever
done." It's a message even his former opponents seem to buy. "He said, 'I'm 80
years old and I want to die recognizing that I've done something for my country
rather than make a lot of money for myself,'" says Senator Reid, who admitted to
NEWSWEEK he found the Swift Boat ads "repulsive" and was initially suspicious of
Pickens's motives now. "To be a convert on energy at the age of 80? That's
pretty good." Pickens says he's always been captivated by the imaginary headline
THE OLD MAN MAKES A COMEBACK. If he pulls it off, Pickens's legacy play will be
the biggest deal of his career.