T. Boone Pickens relishes role in push for alternative energy

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."

Then came the economic downturn and credit crisis. After plunking down $150 million toward the first 700 wind turbines, he's been unable to obtain financing for the rest of the wind project. "Now, the money isn't there," he says as he lunches on goat cheese salad and Diet Coke at the Ritz-Carlton. He adds, "I'd like to have my 150 million back," but, "I've got to carry it through."

Without capital to build a high-voltage line to transport his wind energy to East Texas population centers, Pickens is now looking to scuttle the giant wind farm. Instead, he'd like to team with other developers to disperse fewer total turbines among 10 or so smaller projects. "It's causing you to scramble, but hell, we've been there before," he says.

Another momentum-killer came when crude prices plunged from $147 last July to about $50, siphoning some of the public's anger about imported oil. "People are not outraged," Pickens says, though "they understand the price is going back up."

The value of his energy hedge fund, BP Capital Management, fell 97%, or more than $1 billion, during the last three months of 2008, Bloomberg News reported.

Meantime, Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, whose fleet includes 80,000 cars and trucks, has extolled the virtues of hybrids, saying it would be too difficult to build a vast distribution infrastructure for natural gas vehicles.

Pickens now has a more modest goal: converting 350,000 of the nation's 6 million heavy-duty, diesel-power trucks to natural gas. Batteries aren't viable options for big 18-wheelers.

"I haven't changed anything," Pickens insists. "You don't shoot for the moon from the start."

Winning some, losing some

He has notched some victories. When AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson trumpeted plans last month to spend $350 million to buy about 8,000 compressed natural gas fleet vehicles, he gave a nod to Pickens. So did Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, which is testing four liquefied natural gas trucks at its Apple Valley, Calif., distribution center. At a recent Washington, D.C., conference, Scott credited Pickens' "ability to twist an arm," adding, "Boone, so please don't call me anymore."

Pickens' hardball tactics fell flat when he tried to convince Bill Graves, CEO of the American Trucking Association, that all new long-haul trucks should run on natural gas. Graves says natural gas trucks are at least $40,000 more costly than diesel models. They have more limited range. And there's no national network of fueling stations.

When Graves resisted, according to The Wall Street Journal, Pickens leaped: "Bill, I just want to warn you on this. I'm going to make you look unpatriotic for supporting foreign oil."

Says Graves: "I thought it was a little outrageous. … I think Boone has kind of an idea that it's one size fits all."

Pickens says his warning "was a joke." Yet, he adds that Graves eventually will "come with me, because truckers are like Marines. They're Americans."

The oil magnate has faced similar headwinds as he seeks to turn his ideas into law. A California referendum to spend $5 billion promoting natural gas, sponsored and funded heavily by Clean Energy Fuels — which kicked in $19 million — was soundly defeated last November.

He also wanted to include a raft of natural gas incentives in the economic stimulus bill, but most didn't make the cut. Pickens takes some credit for provisions promoting wind and solar energy, as well as a smart electric grid. But Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy committee, notes that President Obama touted those initiatives during his campaign.

Lawmakers say Pickens' real impact lies in his ability to draw both Democrats and Republicans into the clean-energy fold. Reid says Pickens was a big reason he was able to corral three Republican votes for the $787 billion stimulus package. That paved the way for passage by overcoming a big procedural hurdle.

"I never thought I'd grow to like the guy, he's such a Republican rat," Reid says of Pickens, who helped fund the Swift boat ads that helped doom Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. "But he's a good person, and he's really helped us with Republicans."

Sierra Club chief Carl Pope says Pickens "has changed the political conversation."

Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., author of the natural gas bill, says the energy mogul didn't spark the legislation, but "it would not pass without" him. "People of all sorts of political stripes can be on board."

The measure would mark the biggest step so far toward Pickens' vision. It includes fresh incentives for manufacturers to make gas-powered vehicles, companies to buy them and fueling stations to install pumps.

Pickens has little patience for skeptics who believe his campaign was built to feed a robust ego. "(Expletive) ego," he says. "Really, the way I saw myself is, 'You're the only one that understands the problem, and you're the only one that has a solution.' "

"It's all about America," he adds. "If you're a good American, you accept the mission and go out and do it. It's the biggest thing I ever worked on in my career."

That doesn't mean Pickens isn't enjoying the limelight. At the Capitol Hill news conference, as the cameras flashed, someone called him a rock star. "An 80-year-old rock star," he responded with a half smile.