Friday, October 31, 2008

T. Boone Still Fighting for America & Natural Gas Supremacy

It’s the end of a long Wednesday and T. Boone Pickens is in the Nashville studio of the RFD Network, surrounded by young members of 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America.

It seems the 80-year-old billionaire has touched a nerve with these young people. They chant, “Boone! Boone! Boone!” Maybe he’s got a few new recruits here to the Pickens Plan Army of supporters he’s built to back his proposal to start weaning the United States off foreign oil. Pickens and his army want wind farms across the Great Plains to generate electricity, and natural gas to be used as a transportation fuel, reducing the need for foreign oil.

But even at such a triumphant moment as Wednesday night, T. Boone Pickens knows he’s got a long way to go. He wants his Pickens plan adopted in the first hundred days of a new administration. (To see video of Pickens, click here.) He’s campaigning for it as hard as if he were running for office himself. But the two men he most wants in his army, John McCain and Barack Obama, haven’t signed on.

“This is about America,” he said. “It’s not just about party politics.” And, he said of the candidates, “They don’t know anything about energy. The two candidates that we have, neither one has a plan. We’ve got to put pressure on these guys, whichever is elected president,” Pickens said.

Pickens is campaigning hard.

On Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C., he spoke to 40 editors of American City Business Journals, publisher of the Philadelphia Business Journal, then hopped onto his private jet to fly to Nashville, where he held a live town hall meeting broadcast on RFD, the rural network. The day for Pickens started at 6 a.m. in Texas. He wasn’t done with the town hall meeting in Nashville until 8:30 p.m. and had a flight home to Dallas still ahead of him.

It’s part of a grueling schedule. He has met with dozens of Congress people and governors, and with both presidential candidates. He’s held town hall meetings around the nation, appeared on television programs as widely varied as 60 Minutes and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and raised what he calls the Pickens Plan Army of 1.5 million who have joined the Pickens Plan online community. The plan has drawn support from such different quarters as the Sierra Club and Warren Buffett.

The Texas oilman turned wind farmer and hedge-fund manager believes so much in his plan for weaning the United States off foreign oil that he’s barnstorming the country like a candidate in the final stretch of a campaign. He’s already spent $40 million on television commercials pitching his proposal.

But the pitch comes at a very tough economic time. The plan is expensive, neither presidential candidate has committed to it, and private investment dollars necessary for the wind farms Pickens envisions have dried up.

Still, Pickens argues that without a plan, the nation will dig itself into a deeper hole than it’s already in — importing 70 percent of its oil from foreign countries, many of them hostile to the United States. The nation was spending $700 billion a year on foreign oil July 8, when Pickens launched his effort, and it spends about $300 billion a year now that oil prices have been cut nearly in half since their summer highs.

That price shock of the summer is just the beginning, though, said Pickens. He predicts the price of oil will climb again, and he said it could reach $300 a barrel, twice as high as it was this summer, within 10 years. That would wreak havoc that makes the recent financial crisis seem minor by comparison, he said, and it’s why he’s pushing so hard for his plan.

“We have gotten ourselves into such a hell of a mess,” he said. “We don’t have oil, but we operate like we do. We Americans have got to solve the problem.”

Pickens said he’s drawn on his decades of experience in the energy field to come up with what he calls, “the only” credible energy policy that moves the U.S. away from importing so much oil. “I know what I’m talking about,” he said.

He wants private industry to build wind farms from West Texas to North Dakota, in one of the richest corridors for wind on earth. Solar farms could dot the Southwest as well, he points out. He wants the government to create easements through eminent domain so transmission lines can take electricity generated by wind and solar from the Great Plains to the nation’s population centers. He likens the effort of creating the easements to the effort put forth in the creation of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s.

But that’s not all. The wind power would replace natural gas as a fuel for electricity generation. About 22 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated using natural gas. Natural gas could then be used to power transportation, first heavy trucks, but ultimately cars as well.

Using natural gas as a transportation fuel would allow the nation to cut its foreign oil consumption by 38 percent within 10 years, Pickens said. He advocates focusing the natural gas conversion on the heavy trucks that ply the nation’s highways, burning huge amounts of diesel fuel now. The government would offer credits for buying new natural gas powered trucks. Focusing on trucks allows the biggest bang for the buck, he argues.

“Natural gas is the only one that will do,” he said. “A battery won’t move an 18-wheeler. (Natural gas) is cleaner (than gasoline and diesel), it’s cheaper, it’s abundant, and it’s ours.”

Pickens has a long history in the energy business. Trained as a geologist, he founded Mesa Energy in 1954 and built it into one of the most important independent oil and natural gas players in the country. Along the way, he earned a reputation in the 1980s as a corporate raider, after he launched several takeover attempts in the energy field.

Pickens argues in his recent book “The First Billion is the Hardest” that his takeover attempts launched a change in the corporate world toward companies treating shareholder value with more respect. He shook up a complacent corporate America.

Now, he’s trying to do the same thing with his energy plan, except it’s not just corporate America T. Boone Pickens wants to shake up. He’s aiming to shake up the whole country and change the way the economy is run.

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