The Last Pickens Show

When T. Boone Pickens launched his Pickens Plan last summer, crude oil was at $136 a barrel. Now, with crude at or below $40, does anyone care anymore about what Pickens has to say?

February 2009By Comments

Remember T. Boone Pickens? In September, I wrote a flattering cover story (“There Will Be Boone“) on the Dallas billionaire and his plan to break America’s dependence off foreign oil. Basically, I gushed—and gushed.

Actually, back then, just about everyone in the media was gushing over Boone. With his newly published memoir and his $65 million advertising campaign to promote wind energy and natural-gas fueled automobiles, he was a genuine media sensation. On top of that, his energy-oriented hedge fund was raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, leading some Wall Street experts to call him a financial genius. At the age of eighty, he was on top of his game.

Uh-oh. Since my article was published, Boone has been taking a shellacking. To begin with, he has taken a huge financial hit as the price of oil has collapsed. Since its peak in June, Pickens’s hedge fund has lost $2 billion, about sixty percent of its value, leading half of the funds’ investors to withdraw their money.

In fairness to Boone, he did voluntarily change his fund’s rules so that investors could make the withdrawals whenever they wanted, knowing they were in a financial crunch. Still, the fund only has an estimated $400 million to $500 million left—a paltry number by Pickens standards. And some of the Wall Street experts who once praised Boone as a wizard now say Boone has lost his credibility because he foolishly remained too bullish on oil, even as the market continued to slide.

But that’s not all. When I first wrote about the Pickens Plan, as it now known, he was putting his money where his mouth was, declaring that he was going to build a giant 2,700-turbine wind farm in West Texas costing upward of $10 billion. The nation’s credit crunch has gutted the wind project’s financing, putting the whole project temporarily on hold. (Boone insists he’s not giving up on it.) He’s also delayed work on a state permit to build 170 miles of transmission lines from West Texas that would carry enough wind energy to power 300,000 homes. “For now,” Boone told one reporter, “the wind stuff is deader than hell.”

In fact, the whole Pickens Plan has lost some of its initial traction. In November, California voters resoundingly defeated a ballot measure he supported to put $5 billion in bond money into promoting natural-gas vehicles in the Golden State. (Pickens’s own company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the country’s largest owner of natural-gas filling stations, sponsored the plan and put up $19 million to back it.) What’s more, automakers have simply refused to embrace the idea of natural gas-powered cars. They are focused on building cars that run on electric power. Meanwhile, more skeptics have emerged to blast away at Pickens’ wind energy proposal. They insist, for instance, that the cost of transmitting electricity from Boone’s proposed windmill farms in the Midwest to the current power grid would be ridiculously prohibitive.

What has taken most of the steam out of the Pickens Plan, of course, is the simple fact that a lot of people have stopped caring. When Boone launched the Pickens Plan in July, crude oil was at $136 a barrel and rising. Now, with crude at or below $40 a barrel, the last thing the public is concerned about is alternative energy.

Boone’s people tell me I’m completely wrong. They say that more than a million citizens have joined the “Pickens Army” on the Pickens Plan website, and they boast that they have garnered the support of thirteen governors, 53 congressmen and 180 mayors. They also insist that while mainstream America isn’t hearing as much from Boone like it once did, he’s still hard at work on the Pickens Plan, aiming most of his focus on the politicians in Washington D.C. That’s where the battle for the Pickens Plan is going to be won or lost.

Just the other day, in fact, Boone fired up his G-5 Gulfstream and zipped into Washington DC to lobby lawmakers (including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and members of the Obama administration. He hit them with some new wrinkles on the old plan. He proposed, for instance, that Congress pass legislation mandate that all new fleet vehicles run on natural gas. He also had the balls—and I’m sorry, but there there’s no better word to describe it—to suggest that Congress use as much as $28 billion of its $800 billion economic stimulus plan on incentives to convert heavy-duty trucks from diesel to natural gas engines. (Pickens wants to see a pilot program that would convert about 350,000 heavy-duty trucks from diesel to natural gas engines. According to his experts, the effort would cost $75,000 per vehicle.)

While Boone was in Washington, he held a public briefing at the Capitol with environmental advocate Robert F.  Kennedy, III. “I can’t say enough about the Pickens Plan and what T. Boone has done,” Kennedy proclaimed—which isn’t bad praise from such a famous environmental advocate. Ironically, Boone found himself being attacked by business leaders. An executive of FedEx Corp., which has a massive fleet of more than 80,000 motorized vehicles, pooh-poohed the idea of natural gas-powered fleet vehicles as did group of corporate CEOs who have banded together to form a group called Securing America’s Energy Future.

Nor was the American Trucking Association cheering Boone’s proposal to put long-haul trucks on natural gas. The Wall Street Journal reported a remarkable back-and-forth between Boone and former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, who now heads the American Trucking Association. During a breakfast in Pickens’ suite, Graves, the son of a truck operator, laid out his objections to Pickens’ latest proposal, noting that many companies were already turning to diesel hybrid trucks and that natural gas-run trucks cost about a third more than traditional diesel trucks. On top of that, a gigantic network of natural gas filling stations would have to be built for long-haul trucks. Graves asked Pickens, “How do you just airlift in the infrastructure to make this happen?”

Pickens, displaying a flash of legendary temper, put down his fork and said, “Bill, I just want to warn you on this. I’m going to make you look unpatriotic for supporting foreign oil. I just want to make sure you understand that.”

Graves just pointed to the raspberries and croissants arrayed before them. The foreign oil helped deliver the food, he noted. “We wouldn’t have any of this here if our trucks hadn’t delivered it,” he added. “So what’s more patriotic, Boone?”

According to some Washington insiders, it’s hard to imagine that Pickens will get legislation passed anytime soon to force a major wind energy program or natural gas-fueled transportation. (He has vowed to get the legislation through within the first 100 days of the new administration.) In this economic environment, the insiders claim, Congress will probably do nothing more than pass some tax incentives to get companies to reduce their oil consumption.

Yet Boone’s spokesman Jay Rosser tells me those insiders have got it all wrong. He says the Obama administration, due in part to Pickens’s lobbying, is pushing for such programs as tax credits for companies that invest in solar or wind energy, along with the funding for a new transmission grid to make everything work. What’s more, he said, Obama’s stimulus plan is going to include incentives to get natural-gas vehicles on the road.

In his latest marketing wrinkle, Boone has just released a new television commercial, which is now running mostly in Washington, that claims that the implementation of the Pickens Plan would significantly affect the country’s spiking unemployment rates, creating 3.4 million jobs in the next decade (138,000 next year alone). Boone also has begun producing monthly updates on his website to remind Americans how much money they’re paying for foreign oil. He says the updates will act as a yardstick for measuring President Obama’s goal of eliminating Middle East oil imports within a decade. “Regardless what the price of oil is, the big problems here is that we still remain dependent on foreign oil,” Rosser said, “and Boone is not about to let that go.”

When I saw Boone not long ago at a party, he openly admitted that he’s “a lot broker than I used to be.” He also acknowledged that the momentum for the Pickens Plan had slowed. “But I’ve lost money before and gained it back, and I’ve been in battles before where it looked like I was losing, a lot of them,” he said. “Trust me, we’ve just begun to fight. And if I have to keep fighting the rest of my life for this, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The Pickens Plan is that important.”

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