Get ready, America, T. Boone Pickens is coming to your living room.
The legendary Texas oilman, corporate raider, shareholder-rights crusader, philanthropist and deep-pocketed moneyman for conservative politicians and causes, wants to drive the USA's political and economic agenda.
"We're paying $700 billion a year for foreign oil. It's breaking us as a nation, and I want to elevate that question to the presidential debate, to make it the No. 1 issue of the campaign this year," Pickens says.
Today, Pickens will take the wraps off what he's calling the Pickens Plan for cutting the USA's demand for foreign oil by more than a third in less than a decade. To promote it, he is bankrolling what his aides say will be the biggest public policy ad campaign ever. The website, pickensplan.com, goes live today.
Jay Rosser, Pickens' ever-present public relations man, promises that Pickens' face will be seen on Americans' televisions this fall almost as frequently as John McCain's and Barack Obama's.
"Neither presidential candidate is talking about solving the oil problem. So we're going to make 'em talk about it," Pickens says.
"Nixon said in 1970 that we were importing 20% of our oil and that by 1980 it would be 0%. That didn't happen," Pickens says. "It went to 42% in 1991 with the Gulf War. It's just under 70% now. Where do you think we're going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we're importing 80% of our oil?"
Finding solutions to other major issues, including health care, are important, he concedes. But "If you don't solve the energy problem, it's going to break us before we even get to solving health care and some of these other important issues." And it has to be done with the same sense of urgency that President Eisenhower had when he pushed the rapid development of the interstate highway system during the Cold War.
Of course, Pickens also has a particular solution in mind.
Wind. And natural gas.
Last week, Pickens loaded up his $60 million, top-of-the-line Gulfstream G550 corporate jet with reporters and a few associates from his Dallas-based BP Capital energy hedge fund and related companies and flew here to illustrate just how big — and achievable — his vision is.
There's not much to Sweetwater except for wild grasses, scraggy mesquite trees and rattlesnakes (Sweetwater hosts its famous Rattlesnake Roundup each spring). The gently rolling terrain and vegetation make it ideal for raising cattle, which is what its first settlers did in the 19th century, and what their descendants do today. A regional oil boom in the 1950s and 1960s poured money into the area's economy, as have two oil revivals since: one in the 1980s and one now.
But the exciting new industry in town is wind energy. You can drive for 150 miles along Interstate 20 and never be out of sight of a giant wind turbine, claims Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham, who does double duty as executive director of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium.