It was July 8 in New York City and eighty-year-old T. Boone Pickens was, once again, the toast of the town. Wearing wraparound Ray-Bans and a gray pin-striped oxford suit, he strolled into the ornate Palace Hotel, stopped to shake hands with some well-wishers in the lobby—“Hey, Mr. Pickens, what an honor!” bellowed one businessman, his eyes widening as if he were meeting a head of state—and bounded upstairs to a banquet room, where a couple dozen journalists and photographers were gathered to hear his plan to save America from its addiction to foreign oil. Boone had spent more than an hour that morning chatting about the plan on CNBC, and he had also appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and NPR’s Morning Edition . Later that day, he was scheduled to meet with CNN, Fox, and the BBC, followed by visits to the offices of the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal , and the CBS Evening News , where Katie Couric herself had decided to interview him for that night’s newscast.
“Now, listen to me, we’re in a ditch,” Boone told the reporters in his slow, gravelly drawl. “We’ve got all these politicians talking about better health care and what all, but believe me, we’re not going to have the money to take care of sick people—or anyone else as far as I’m concerned—if we don’t fix our energy problem right now. I’ve got an idea what to do. It might not be a perfect idea, but hell, none of my best ideas have been perfect.”
The reporters started grinning. Sitting in the back of the room, I couldn’t help but grin too. I found myself thinking about another occasion more than a decade ago when I had watched Boone. He was eating dinner with some business associates at the popular Dallas restaurant Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and his trademark boyish smile was wiped from his face. Just a few months earlier, he had been forced out of Mesa Petroleum, the oil and gas exploration company he had started in 1964. He had formed BP Capital, a hedge fund that specialized in oil and natural gas commodities, shortly after his Mesa exit, but it was already on the rocks. Younger investors considered him a has-been. Even Bea, his wife of 24 years, had given up on Boone. She had launched a full-scale assault on his $78 million fortune in divorce court, going so far as to demand full custody of their dog, a brown-eyed papillon named Winston. That night, as I watched Boone walk out of the restaurant carrying a little bag containing his half-eaten steak, I found myself shaking my head, actually feeling sorry for him. I leaned over to a friend and said, “The great titan has fallen.”
Boy, did I get it wrong. Just about all of us did. Due largely to some audacious bets he started making in 2000 with his hedge fund, throwing almost all of his and his clients’ money into long-term oil and gas futures contracts well before energy prices began to take off, Boone is now wealthier than perhaps even he thought possible, his net worth at a stunning $4 billion. He is also, in the words of one of his colleagues, “back to making more deals than there are days of the week.” Besides his usual oil and gas plays, he’s bought nearly 400,000 acres of water rights in the Panhandle, giving him control of billions of gallons of water, which he hopes to sell to Dallas and Fort Worth and their surrounding suburbs at a profit of tens of millions of dollars a year. What’s more, he’s started work on what he calls “the biggest deal” of his career: the construction of the world’s largest wind-energy farm, containing as many as two thousand turbines spread over five Panhandle counties that will generate enough electricity to power more than 1.3 million homes.
And now there is his $58 million national advertising campaign to promote his energy policy, which he is calling the Pickens Plan. You’ve no doubt seen Boone’s full-page newspaper advertisements or watched his television commercials in which he states, “I’ve been an oilman my whole life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of.” You probably have seen him on his Web site or on television shows, standing before a whiteboard, scribbling all over it like a mad professor as he declares that the United States is spending $700 billion a year on foreign oil—“the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind,” he always points out. And if nothing is done, the country could very well be spending $10 trillion on foreign oil within a decade.
You’ve also heard about his solution, in which he wants other entrepreneurs and energy companies to build wind farms like the one he’s constructing in the Wind Belt: the vast corridor that extends the length of the Great Plains, from Texas to the Canadian border. He wants the power that will come from those wind farms to replace the natural gas that we now use to make electricity. (About 22 percent of America’s electricity comes from natural gas, 50 percent from coal, 20 percent from nuclear power, and the rest from other sources.) In turn, he wants to use that natural gas as fuel for automobiles—all of which, he says, will lead to a significant drop in gasoline use and a 30 to 40 percent reduction in our oil imports, saving close to $300 billion a year.
For a man who’s known for his right-wing leanings—he is the guy, after all, who in 2004 helped fund the campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to discredit John Kerry—Boone is suddenly acting like the greenest of Democrats. What’s more, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. In addition to his wind farm, which will cost $10 billion to build, he’s also the founder and majority stockholder of California-based Clean Energy Fuels, which markets