By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
T. Boone Pickens has played a lot of odd roles over the years.
There was the geologist who made most of his early money by snapping up the stock of big, undervalued oil and gas companies, a practice known as "drilling on Wall Street." The wealthy corporate raider who said he was defending the rights of ordinary shareholders. And, recently, the influential TV commentator on oil prices who places enormous and mostly lucrative bets on where those prices are going.
But perhaps the strangest role the 80-year-old, Oklahoma-born Pickens has fashioned for himself is his current one: the billionaire speculator as energy wise man, an oil-and-gas magnate as champion of wind power, and a lifetime Republican who has become a fellow traveler among environmentally minded Democrats -- even though he helped finance the "Swift boat" ads that savaged the campaign of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.)
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a vociferous critic of speculators, who he says are inflating the price of oil, last week called Pickens "my political friend." The Sierra Club's executive director recently flew in Pickens's private plane. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) invited him to speak to the Democratic caucus tonight.
Pickens has lubricated his latest transformation with a $58 million ad campaign to rally support for building enough wind turbines to provide 20 percent of America's energy. He says that would free up enough natural gas to replace most of the oil imports that Pickens says will otherwise "break" the U.S. economy, while endangering national security.
"I feel like I'm in the Niagara River in a boat and I don't have a motor and I don't have an oar and I'm getting pretty close to the falls," Pickens said yesterday during a visit to The Washington Post. "I'm drifting, drifting, drifting, and it's gone on for 40 years as far as energy is concerned. . . . We're dead in the water if we don't do anything."
Pickens said he launched his campaign, known as "the Pickens plan," because "this is the last chance for me. I'm 80, and I have the money to do this." He said: "It's not anything for Boone Pickens to make money. I got plenty of money." Besides, he said, his estate will go to charity. Instead, he said, he wants to "elevate the debate" because the presidential candidates "do not have much of an energy plan for the short term, and the short term has to be addressed."
In the ads, Pickens says: "I've been an oilman my whole life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of. And I have a plan. In the coming weeks, I'm going to share the details of that plan to use American technology and alternative energy to slash our dependency and break foreign oil's stranglehold on us."
This isn't the ad campaign some GOP operatives wanted Pickens to underwrite. Republicans were counting on him to play a central role in the presidential campaign, hoping he would pour millions of dollars into ads attacking Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
Instead, as Pickens recalled, he was sitting in a Dallas conference room in May with other wealthy Republicans discussing plans for financing an ad campaign to support Arizona Sen. John McCain's bid for president, when it hit him -- ending the nation's dependence on foreign oil was more important than who reaches the White House in 2008.
Now that he is running a different kind of ad campaign, he has received some kind words from Democrats. "He's making us think different about an energy policy that's been stuck in neutral for seven years," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is introducing a bill with tax credits for natural gas fuel pumps and cars.
"We need good ideas, like those offered by T. Boone Pickens and others," Reid said at a meeting last week. "As most know, T. Boone Pickens is an oilman and a staunch conservative. But T. Boone Pickens realizes the enormity of our energy crisis. That is a pretty good model for the kind of bipartisanship it will take to solve this problem."
On Sunday's "Meet the Press," Al Gore drew some distinctions between his plan and Pickens's vision for U.S. energy but added: "I don't see him as a competitor on this. There are really a lot of common features in what he's saying."
McCain, by contrast, made a slightly sulky reference to the oil magnate while talking about the importance of renewable energy during a town-hall meeting last week in Warren, Mich. "I'm glad Mr. Pickens is spending some of his money to advertise and have his face on television here," McCain said. "Good."
Pickens wouldn't be Pickens if he didn't have some money at stake. He has plans for a $10 billion, 4,000-megawatt wind farm that would be the world's biggest. He has contracted to buy $2 billion in wind turbines from General Electric. Acquaintances disagree about whether it's a case of Pickens putting his money where his mouth is or putting his mouth where his money is.
He said he will go ahead with or without government help, but the government could certainly help. If Congress extends the production tax credit for wind, that would be worth hundreds of millions or more to his project over a period of years. Pickens also said he is planning to buy right of way for a 250-mile power line to carry half of the wind farm's power to the Texas electricity grid. There, it would meet a new line financed by Texas. He would still need an interstate line to carry the rest of the wind farm's power to other markets.
In addition, Pickens has long advocated natural gas vehicles. He invested in a company that went public as Clean Energy, a firm that provides the fuel for natural-gas-fired vehicle fleets. There are only 142,000 natural-gas-fueled vehicles in the United States.
But Pickens insisted, "I'm not here trying to get anything for myself." He runs a hedge fund, BP Capital, that has made far more money than anything he did as an oil executive. It manages $7 billion in assets, about half or more of which is his own. He has already given away $700 million, he said, including $165 million to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University and $50 million to each of two Texas medical centers.
Instead, he said, this is about the nation's interest. "If $7 trillion go out of this country in 10 years, you can quit talking about health care," he said. "You're going to be broke."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.