July 16, 2008 -- One of the nation's most successful oil tycoons believes the answer to the current energy crisis is just a gust away — literally.
Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens is building the world's largest wind farm in Texas, where windswept, wide-open spaces are an untapped, powerful resource.
"I don't see it as that complicated," said Pickens, who's been in the oil business his whole life. "The way I feel about the oil business, there's no question, we're in decline in the United States."
It's a decline on which he's placing a large bet. He said with $10 billion, he can help turn it around. The new farm will cover 400,000 acres and provide power for as many as 1.2 million homes.
He considers himself an environmentalist, though on that day, he traveled on a private jet.
"I'm accountable for what I do," he said. "And I feel like also on the environmental issue that I do many things for the environment. So I have an airplane, but I'm 80 years old, and that's a good excuse too if you want to have an excuse."
When the plane landed, Pickens was treated like royalty. In Sweetwater wind has changed the future, and led to an economic turnaround in a place once best known for its annual rattlesnake roundup.
"This could be the greatest boons to the rural America that you could ever imagine," said Pickens. "People have jobs, make money, do well. I'm glad I'm a part of it."
Five miles out of town is the wind farm, a vast array of giant windmills stretching across the barren landscape as far as the eye can see.
Standing beneath one of the giant mills are three blades, each longer than a semi-truck, and weighing more than 7 tons. An eerie, otherworldly low frequency sound permeates the farmland.
"We have to change in this country as far as energy is concerned, because $700 billion a year to purchase foreign oil is going to bring us to our knees," said Pickens. "So … we'll see how it goes, but I think that we'll win. But I always think I'm going to win."
Oil's Odd Couple
And to win, he's made some strange bedfellows. Accompanying Pickens to Sweetwater that day was Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest environmental group.
Some might call the oilman and Sierra Club representative an interesting alignment, to say the least. But you'd think the two had been making deals all their lives as they plot out the wind revolution.
"I'll tell you," Pickens explained, "when you're talking about the country, you line up with anybody that can help. The Sierra Club. They know what's going on."
The Natural Gas Solution
The plan is to use the one plentiful resource in America, natural gas, to power nearly a quarter of our vehicles rather than continuing to use it for electricity. Wind would be used to create electrical power.
Of course, critics will be quick to point out that Pickens owns the country's largest natural gas company.
"What I want to do," said Pickens, "is I want to develop the attitude in this country that we hate foreign oil. That's it. And we've got to get it cut off."
"This is the real deal," said Pope. "But it's going to take cooperation from a lot of other players to make it happen. We need the auto industry at the table, we need electrical utilities at the table, we need state government at the table. And above all, we need leadership in Washington. I won't say we need new leadership in Washington, because the phrase 'new leadership' implies you already have some leadership. And frankly, on energy, we don't."
"We Don't Have a Plan"
"We don't have a plan," said Pickens of the current government energy plan. "That's the old deal about a fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan. And we've almost been a fool without a plan. We haven't done anything really to solve our problem except send us more oil, and they did."
A skeptic might say Pickens, an extremely savvy businessman who made a fortune in oil, sees that oil's going away and is looking for the next big opportunity to make money, rather than this being an evolution of Boone Pickens philosophically.
"I see making money being good," says Pickens. "I see it creating jobs and paying taxes. That's good. That makes the economy go. Sure, if I'm going to put $10 billion into a wind farm, I expect to make money. I sure don't want to lose money."
And history has shown that when Boone Pickens likes something, it often succeeds.