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Pickens’ green drive hits a roadblock

After spending millions on TV commercials and a public relations tour, T. Boone Pickens' energy plan has run into some big hurdles, most notably a crash in energy prices.
Pickens Year
As prices plunged, T. Boone Pickens' hedge funds lost billions of dollars. He also scrapped plans for the world's biggest wind farm, and California voters rejected a natural gas initiative he backed.Mark Lennihan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The past year has been tough on T. Boone Pickens and his $60 million mission to wean America off of foreign oil.

Over the past 12 months, Pickens pressed the public to rethink its use of energy. His "Pickens Plan" called for a number of changes such as investing in wind and solar energy, rebuilding the country's electrical grid and replacing gasoline with natural gas in cars and trucks.

Pickens says he was influential in starting a national dialog on energy and helped draft legislation that would give tax incentives for natural gas-burning vehicles.

But after spending millions on television commercials and a public relations tour that took him to 74 cities and 22 town halls, his plan has run into some sizeable hurdles, most notably a crash in energy prices. As prices plunged, the Texas billionaire's hedge funds lost billions of dollars. Pickens also scrapped plans for the world's biggest wind farm, and California voters rejected a natural gas initiative he backed.

"I do wonder how long that I can continue at the pace," Pickens, 81, said Tuesday in an interview with Associated Press reporters and editors. "I know my time is limited. I'm in a hurry. I want to get this done."

During the past year, Congress has approved incentive programs that will funnel billions of dollars to solar, wind and other renewable energy programs. The House of Representatives passed an energy bill that would create a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions.

"I think we should be given credit for some part of that," he said.

When Pickens announced his plan last year at this time, oil cost more than $130 a barrel and gasoline went for more than $4 per gallon. Crude has since fallen as low as $32.70 and now trades at $62.34.

Gasoline costs about $2.61 at the peak of the driving season.

While slumping energy prices have been a silver lining during the recession, there are some fears that the urgency to build solar, and for Pickens, wind power, is now diminished. For example, the natural gas that power companies use now costs less than half of what it did last year, making it harder for wind to compete.

The Texas oil man made a big splash last year by leasing about 200,000 acres in West Texas for a massive 1000 megawatt wind farm. But he said Tuesday that the plan has fallen apart because of technical problems concerning transmission.

"We're not going to be able to do them (in Texas), at this point," he said.

Pickens said he already has 687 wind turbines on order from General Electric, and he'll probably spread them among other projects.

The Pickens Plan also calls for building fleets of cars and trucks to burn natural gas.

But so far efforts have failed to create incentives for natural gas vehicles.

Last year, Pickens' Clean Energy Fuels Corp. pumped $19 million into a California bond initiative that would have handed rebates to people who bought natural gas and other alternative-fuel vehicles. But critics said the measure would have steered taxpayer dollars to Pickens, who is the majority shareholder of a company that supplies natural gas for transportation, and voters rejected it.

He's now pushing for a similar measure in Congress.

On Wednesday, Pickens will release a new ad promoting natural gas as an alternative fuel for cars and trucks. He said he will also be in Washington standing next to Sens. Robert Menendez, and Harry Reid when a natural gas bill is announced.

He's also embarking on another tour around the country to remind the public that even though oil prices are lower than last year, the world still faces an energy crisis.

People are driving more cars every year, and OPEC revenues keep increasing.

Without an energy plan that cuts the country's dependency on oil, "I'll tell you where you're going to be. You're going to be importing 75 percent of your oil, and you'll be paying $300 a barrel for it," he said.

Pickens said that federal support for natural gas vehicles would give his energy plan a true victory. So would energy legislation that installs a cap-and-trade system. That bill passed the House this summer and is waiting to be taken up by the Senate, he said.

"That would be the most far reaching legislation on energy in the history of America," he said. "If that happens, then I'll know I'll be successful."

Pickens said he might be able to go back to his day job if those bills pass. Until then, he'll keep pushing the issue any way he can.

"This is going to work," Pickens said, pointing his finger at reporters as the elevator doors closed and his entourage headed down to the street.