Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens' TV commercials blasted the airwaves in 2008 with his big idea to get America off foreign oil imports: natural gas and wind energy.
Two years later, let’s just make that natural gas.
Since the billionaire’s plans for the world’s largest wind farm fell apart in the Texas Panhandle, Pickens has edited his much-hyped “Pickens Plan” to focus primarily on his other big business interest: natural gas.
Touting 1.7 million Pickens Plan supporters, he’s now pushing Congress to pass legislation that would offer incentives to convert 18-wheelers and fleet vehicles to run on compressed natural gas, or CNG, rather than diesel. He said if just 8 million of those trucks switch to the domestic-produced fuel, it could cut in half the amount of foreign oil imported by the United States.
“I’m all American,” Pickens said on Friday. “Any energy in America beats importing.”
The businessman said he is now looking to Canada as a place to build his 500-megawatt wind farm, because he couldn’t get a deal done in Texas.
Pickens has spent more than two years and $80 million promoting the Pickens Plan, mostly in 2008 with TV spots and social media and traversing the country for town hall meetings, lobbying Congress and visiting the White House.
But critics say Pickens is no passive policy advocate and his agenda reflects his own financial interests.
“He stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “He doesn’t see wind personally as a lucrative investment anymore.”
Pickens owns 45 percent of Clean Energy Fuels, a Seal Beach, Calif., company that builds natural gas filling stations for buses and fleet vehicles. CNG industry executives say natural gas is cleaner, abundant and cheaper than gasoline — as much as 60 cents to $1 less per gallon.
Pickens admits that he may benefit financially but that’s not his main goal. “If that was the case, I shouldn’t have spent $80 million,” he said. He says that if America is going to stop importing foreign oil, we must focus on transportation.
Much of Pickens’ early media blitz plugged wind. In one 2008 YouTube video, Pickens sketched out a plan on a whiteboard to increase wind energy for power companies, which would then free up natural gas for transportation and reduce overseas oil imports. In another video, he advocated for more wind energy, which would create jobs, finance schools and revitalize rural America.
“It can be done, and it will be done because it has to be done,” he said in the video.
Pickens said he ordered $1.5 billion worth of wind turbines to build the wind farm in Pampa, Texas, but he later abandoned the project because the state didn’t have local transmission lines needed to distribute the energy. Texas should start construction on those local lines next year.
“There’s a certain amount of disappointment,” said Lonny Robbins, Pampa’s mayor. The town of 17,000 had bustled with anticipation following Pickens’ announcement. No other wind project has been built in the town so far.
“That’s the way some things happen sometimes,” said Robbins.
Pickens now says Canada is more appealing because the country has renewable energy standards that require energy companies to buy certain amounts of wind power. Because natural gas prices have dropped, wind looks too expensive for U.S. power companies.
“You’re going to get natural gas prices up, or wind — it just isn’t gonna happen,” Pickens said on Friday.
Even without Pickens’ project, the U.S. wind industry should be just fine. Projects by fellow billionaires Phil Anschutz and Warren Buffett are still moving forward in Wyoming and Iowa. And the overall wind industry had its biggest year in 2009, due in part to new federal cash grants for investments.
In Texas, if you drive four hours south of Pampa to Sweetwater, you will see seven of the top 10 largest wind projects underway, said Greg Wortham, Sweetwater mayor and director of the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse. The state is also spending $5 billion on transmission lines.
“You can go 150 miles without losing site of a wind turbine,” said Wortham. “There are lines of blades parked along the highway waiting to go into a wind site under construction.”
The big worry for the industry is Congress, not Pickens, said Wortham. The industry would get a boost if Congress approves President Barack Obama's bi-partisan tax plan now set for a vote in the Senate. That plan includes energy tax credits to encourage more wind investments, yet industry officials say a more consistent policy is still needed to encourage more long-term investment in the industry.
Pickens is equally frustrated with Washington. He pointed to President Obama’s post-election pledge to end U.S. dependence on imports of Middle East oil within 10 years.
“Two and a half years,” Pickens said. “And there’s no plan.”
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