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T. Boone Pickens looks tired. Standing in the sunken pit of a packed lecture hall at Rice University, he's hawking his Pickens Plan for energy independence, saying we need to use more wind power and natural gas. The 80-year-old, with flesh-colored hearing aids set deep inside his ears and tanned bags drooping under his eyes, looks confused and momentarily loses track of what he's saying. He pauses, takes his gold Rolex off, slumps down on a stool and announces in his trademark drawl, "I'm runnin' out of money." (Which, for Pickens, means he's still got untold millions, possibly billions, in the bank.)
This visit to Rice in early January is just another stop for the long-running Pickens Road Show. He's been zigzagging across the country like a presidential candidate for eight months, spending more than $60 million of his own oil fortune on TV ads and lectures promoting greener, American energy, in which he is heavily invested. His companies have plans to erect the world's largest wind farm in west Texas and have a significant stake in natural gas.
When he launched the Pickens Plan on July 8, 2008, gas prices at the pump had hit $4 a gallon and Americans were demanding a wallet-friendly energy policy that included long-term planning and alternative fuels. Leftist green-power organizations finally had a public relations darling in Pickens — a Republican who famously funded the Swift Boat attack ads that all but killed John Kerry's 2004 presidential dreams — with the money, power and clout to get taken seriously on Capitol Hill and advance their renewable energy agenda in the business world.
It was as if the stars had once again aligned for the former wildcatter and corporate-takeover tycoon.
Since then, however, Pickens's precious winds have been blowing in fits and starts.
Over the past several months, drivers filling up at Houston gas stations have been happy paying less than a buck-eighty a gallon, and with the mortgage crisis, homeowners are more concerned with keeping their homes than with what powers them. Add the banking troubles and frozen credit markets to the mix, thanks to the worst U.S. economy in decades, and Pickens's task of getting his plan off the ground appears to be getting tougher and tougher.
Pickens makes no bones that global warming is not his main concern. For him it's all about importing less oil from "our enemies," becoming energy independent and thereby shoring up national security. The thrust of the Pickens Plan calls for the building of wind farms that will generate up to 22 percent of the nation's energy, the creation of a more efficient and expansive electrical grid and the use of domestic natural gas instead of imported oil as a transportation fuel, focusing on fleet vehicles and 18-wheelers. In ten years, says Pickens, the combination can reduce oil imports by a third.
At the moment, though, the much-heralded $10 billion wind farm in the Texas Panhandle is on hold until at least 2011 because Pickens can't get the financing together in the tightened credit market. Plus, Pickens's vision for natural gas, despite a recent bump in public support from lawmakers, still has at least as many opponents as allies and was nearly all but left out of the $787 billion stimulus package President Obama signed into law in mid-February.
Financially, 2008 was not kind to Pickens. His Dallas-based energy hedge fund, BP Capital Management, has been criticized by many on Wall Street for maintaining a bullish view on the price of oil throughout the year. Bloomberg reported in February that the fund lost some 97 percent of its value during the last three months of 2008 and sold off its positions in all but nine of its previously held 26 energy companies. The fund was worth just $40 million, down from nearly $1.3 billion at the end of September. Even by Pickens's standards, that's a lot of green.
Critics say that the entire Pickens Plan is nothing more than a public-relations campaign driven by Pickens's ego and warn that the veteran oilman should not be mistaken for a tree-hugger. They say the fortune this Neo-Greenie stands to make if he can get his wind farms and natural gas interests up and running could earn him the kind of money traditionally seen only when an oil well explodes in a geyser of black gold. Pickens dismisses this by saying that at 80, he's got enough money and just wants to leave a positive, lasting energy legacy for America. Unlike in the past, Pickens, a longtime free-market man, is counting on the federal government, tax incentives and subsidies to help make his dreams come true.
Despite the economic crisis, cheap gas and political bickering between Democrats and Republicans over the best energy policy, slowly but surely Pickens appears to be succeeding.
He's crept into the nation's conscience, claiming that more than 1.5 million people have drafted themselves into Pickens's New Energy Army, a virtual and online militia of supporters who interface and spread the Pickens gospel on Pickens's social networking Web site, modeled after MySpace and Facebook. Pickens uses these masses to lobby politicians, and he has received vital government help for wind farms and appears to be gaining ground with his idea of using natural gas to fuel trucks. The fate of Pickens's massive lobbying effort rests with the likes of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both of whom Pickens has been palling around with at every turn and referring to as his new, dear friends.