T. Boone Pickens Unleashed

18 Sep

imagesT. Boone Pickens, former oil magnate, super rich guy, and renewable energy guru/activist/promoter, just gave a talk at Indiana University.  I watched it on a live webcast (despite the fact that the talk took place less than a mile away from where I was watching on my computer–pathetic).

Now, for about the past year I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about Pickens.  You’ve probably seen his TV commercials about the need to wean the US off of foreign oil and develop other energy sources.  (You can watch here.)  And maybe, like me, you were a little surprised.  I mean, before last year I sort of recognized the guy’s name, but if I had to guess I may have said that T. Boone Pickens was a country singer or something.  And in any case, Pickens was a prominent oil man, having spent the bulk of his professional life building his company, Mesa Petrolium, into an oil empire .  During the “greed is good” 1980s he was known as a feared and fearsome corporate buccaneer, attempting dozens of hostile takeovers of other oil companies.  He also helped finance the “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” group that plagued John Kerry during his run for president in 2004.

And then, suddenly, last year, Pickens suddenly appeared as a leading proponent for wind power and natural gas.  What was going on?

It’s a story worth further investigation, but for now I just want to report on Pickens’ talk at IU.  He’s an old man now, in his early 80s, but he looked pretty robust as he strode confidently onto the IU auditorium stage in front of a packed house.  Pickens’ message was the same one he’s been peddling for the past year: 1) the US currently imports around 70% of its oil, and half of that comes from unfriendly nations, 2) this is bad for the economy and for national security because it funds our enemies and puts the US at the mercy of production glitches and shortages and price hikes, 3) so we have to do something about it–namely, make a serious push for transitioning to natural gas and also wind and solar and other renewable sources.

And that’s it.  Pickens didn’t say anything about climate change or about peak oil.  He’s not an environmentalist; he supports offshore drilling and drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.  He portrays himself simply as a patriot, a non-partisan guy who’s promoting an idea, the Pickens’ Plan, that he believes is in the best interest of the country.

Is it? After all, this is the same guy who believed in the swift boat nonsense.  But still, the actual plan seems to have merit.  Here it is, in a nutshell, copied directly from Pickens’ website:

  • Create millions of new jobs by building out the capacity to generate up to 22 percent of our electricity from wind. And adding to that with additional solar generation capacity;
  • Building a 21st century backbone electrical transmission grid;
  • Providing incentives for homeowners and the owners of commercial buildings to upgrade their insulation and other energy saving options; and
  • Using America’s natural gas to replace imported oil as a transportation fuel in addition to its other uses in power generation, chemicals, etc

Is the plan feasible?  I found an analysis that concludes, basically, no, at least not within the next 20 years (as called for by the Pickens Plan.)

But I’m not sure that matters.  Based on everything I’ve read about the guy, Pickens seems genuine in his desire to solve the U.S.’s energy problems.  That’s the gist of this NY Times editorial.  And John Stewart, who’s take on these things I usually trust, is a Pickens fan (watch his interview with T Boone). I see no reason to disagree.  Nothing he said in his talk today convinced me otherwise.  In fact, coming from a former oil man, Pickens’ message is all the more persuasive.  If there are good reasons to doubt Pickens’ ideas or motives, I’d like to hear them.

One thing from the talk that made me blink: Pickens predicted that by 2020, oil will be selling at $300 a barrel.  I’m not sure how he can know this, but I sort of hope he’s right.  The only way renewable energy will really take off is if oil becomes unaffordable.

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