Pickens is a billionaire oil investor who still travels, talks markets and tapes podcasts. He has bought and built companies, but he's still seeing new things.
Since 1980, he recalled in an interview, he has watched oil prices plunge five times worldwide. Four of those times, he said, Saudi Arabia stepped in to cut its oil production, balance the market and bring prices up again. The fifth time — this time — the Saudis kept pumping away, prices stayed low, and American companies let their drilling grind to a near-stop. Pickens doesn't expect them to resume anytime soon, even if prices come up a bit.
"It'll be hard to start the United States back up," he said.
He was more blunt over dinner. "The industry," he said, "is dead in the water."
Pickens took questions during a crowded meal with the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a group founded by four devotees of supply-side economics: Arthur Laffer, Steve Forbes, Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow. The attendees included Wall Street fund managers, conservative commentators and former federal economic officials.
They pressed Pickens on how high prices would need to rise to bring U.S. oil rigs back online en masse; he said higher than $40 or $50 a barrel - probably closer to $60.
They asked whether presidential candidates should be promising to open more public land to drilling. "No, hell no," he said, "we don't need public land."
They asked about the pending initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, the kingdom's state-run oil business: "It's a joke," he said, because stockholders would stakes in a company still very much subject to Saudi politics. "Who the hell would want to own Saudi Aramco."
Pickens shrugged off questions about the validity of science that shows fossil fuel emissions are warming the planet, which he has embraced, though he criticized environmentalists for attempting to stop hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas.
Mostly, he was grim about the U.S. oil sector. But in the interview he also said cheap gasoline is buoying activity outside the industry. "I think we got a pretty good economy," he said. "It's horrible for the oil business, but the rest of America is there doing great off ... $2 a gallon gasoline."