Oilman T. Boone Pickens is riding the wave of a clean-energy rock star.
At a Capitol Hill news conference earlier this month to announce a bill promoting natural-gas-fueled vehicles, lawmakers hailed him as an "American icon" and "great legend."
A few members of "Pickens' Army" — the 1.5 million volunteers who toil for his energy agenda — clamored to take photos with the agile 80-year-old oil tycoon-turned-renewable energy advocate.
As he ambled down the halls of a House office building, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., head of a key energy committee, whizzed by and beamed as he interlocked the fingers of his hands, indicating the Democrat and the lifelong Republican are working nicely together — at least on energy issues.
Nine months after unwrapping his "Pickens Plan" with a barrage of TV ads that made him a household brand, the hard-boiled billionaire has enjoyed mixed success turning his blueprint for weaning the nation off imported oil into concrete action or legislation.
But that may be beside the point. As the nation sketches out a road map to combat global warming and foster energy independence, Pickens has a seat at the head table with luminaries such as former vice president Al Gore and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"I feel great," he says in his familiar, matter-of-fact drawl when asked if he's frustrated by some of the bumps. "I'm there with Reid, and he's saying, 'Boone says this, Boone believes this, we agree on that.' "
Don't mistake Pickens for a conservationist. His "mission," wrapped snugly within the American flag, is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil for 67% of its motor fuel. Pickens opposes the global warming bill in Congress because it would burden consumers with higher energy costs. His newfound bond with environmentalists — whom he absently called "greenies" before quickly noting he means nothing derogatory by it — is a happy intersection of disparate agendas, one that both sides are eager to exploit. "What I propose gets you to exactly what they want," Pickens says.
The proposal, unveiled last July in the run-up to the election, was for the nation to build enough wind energy to meet 20% of its electricity needs in 10 years. That, in turn, would allow natural gas — plentiful in the USA and now burned mostly to generate power — to fuel as much as a third of the nation's trucks and cars. Natural gas also emits 15% to 20% less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based fuels.
Money where his mouth is
Pickens pumped $60 million of his own cash into a homespun nationwide TV ad campaign in which he upbraids politicians for their decades-long inaction and casts natural gas as a "bridge fuel" until renewable energy such as biofuels are ready.
Critics point out that Pickens would benefit handsomely if his idea takes off. He planned to spend $10 billion on a mammoth, 2,700-turbine wind farm in the Texas Panhandle. And his company, Clean Energy Fuels, is the nation's largest owner of natural gas fueling stations. Says Pickens: "I've got enough money. If I was after the money, I wouldn't put up $60 million. Will I ever get it back? I get it back if we get an energy plan."