The T. Boone Pickens Road Show

A former wildcatter and corporate-takeover tycoon preaches alternative energy across America.

When Rubenstein heard about the reported incident between Pickens and Graves, he said, "The first thing Boone went for was calling him un-American. That's Boone himself, that's his personality, not some paid hack, that's Boone in the moment, that's where he goes."

Other critics, such as Robert Bradley of Houston's Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit organization that analyzes global energy markets, accuse Pickens of creating the Pickens Plan simply to satisfy his vanity.

"What's at work," he says, "is his gargantuan ego and this is how he gets in the news."

Pickens preaches about the perils of importing foreign oil.
Daniel Kramer
Pickens preaches about the perils of importing foreign oil.
The Texas Panhandle city of Pampa is hoping Pickens's wind farm gets running soon.
Chris Vogel
The Texas Panhandle city of Pampa is hoping Pickens's wind farm gets running soon.

Rubenstein believes the Pickens Plan is nothing more than the invention of some of the best public relations minds in the country.

"What the Pickens Plan is," he says, "is a political campaign to exact from the government taxpayer moneys to favor his investments. It's a PR plan to wrap himself in a halo of patriotism and philanthropy to make himself unassailable, so that anyone who criticizes him is now subject to vicious ad hominem attacks."

A large part of the Pickens Plan involves the Pickens New Energy Army. Member Mickey Hayes, who works in construction in Houston, says at first he felt exploited by Pickens.

"Pickens's army is not quite the same as the Green Berets," he laughs. "It's very decentralized and it's all an illusion, to me. There's no marching orders, per se. He's doing his thing and he's created this forum for the rest of us to do ours."

Hayes, however, does thank Pickens "for getting the debate going" and creating a social networking Web site connecting like-minded people.

Even supporters, such as Dave Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club, have noticed that the Pickens Plan is an ever-changing, organic idea. Hamilton says that the latest incarnation departs from the original plan, which advocated using natural gas in all vehicles, not just in trucks and fleets. Pickens is also touting natural gas not as a permanent solution but rather only as a bridge to the future until a better domestic technology is developed, and ever since the economy turned south he's been increasingly pitching his plan based on the number of jobs it would create.

Pickens denies that the Pickens Plan has been a movable feast of ideas.

"If somebody says that," Pickens says, "they're being pretty critical because I have not changed. If you pinned me down six months ago, I would've said the same thing I'm saying now. I don't think it has changed. I think the way it's interpreted may have."

The truth is, just like his beloved former President Ronald Reagan, Pickens seems to be made of Teflon. Nothing sticks. Part of the reason is that he fully admits to many criticisms, leaving nowhere for his detractors to go.

When asked about using fear and patriotism as a sword, Pickens says, "That's probably true. I think we do have something to be afraid of here and yeah, it's patriotic to be for our own resources instead of foreign oil from the enemy."

Unlikely allies have Pickens's back when it comes to using patriotism to drive his message home.

"I've been talking like that for 20 years," says Hamilton. "Reducing our dependency on foreign oil and giving money back to consumers through energy efficiency are and should be core American values. Mr. Pickens is not the only one who's been doing this, he just has a bigger microphone than most."

Criticisms also don't appear to have hurt Pickens's popularity much, particularly with his base.

"I'm really inspired by him," says Jordan Birden, the New Energy Army's student representative at Texas A&M University. "I really feel it's awesome that somebody at his age is able to have such power and so much energy for a cause."

Even Pickens's adversaries can't help but tip their hat to the aging oilman.

"I've always admired Pickens's gall," says Tom "Smitty" Smith. "He has the capacity to figure out enough things and, like a well-trained quarterback, run through all the holes."

Says Rubenstein, "Objectively, he is a genius. I think there's probably some Ph.D. student out there in communications who should write a thesis about what he's doing, because it is genius."
_____________________

With his wind farm stuck in irons, Pickens is putting the pedal to the metal on his plan for natural gas. Since January, he's made scores of appearances alongside auto industry executives and other businessmen, reciting the same basic mantra: Natural gas is clean, it's abundant, it's American and it's the only domestic fuel with the power to move an 18-wheeler.

Pickens's idea of using natural gas to fuel passenger cars took a knife in the side when California residents rejected Proposition 10. Voters decided there are just too many problems with converting over to natural gas. Starting with cost.

Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, says the real "inconvenient truth" is that gas prices dictate what kind of cars drivers buy and how they use them. When prices spike, hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles are in demand; when gas prices sink, all anybody wants are trucks and SUVs. With gas costing less than $2 a gallon, Jackson says, "Every day I start my morning at 7 a.m. pulling my hair out, saying how are we going to sell all these [more expensive] fuel-efficient cars that nobody wants?"

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