July 19, 2008

Pickens, Democrats Agree in Calling for Alternative Fuels

By Dave Michaels, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 19--WASHINGTON -- T. Boone Pickens says he's ready to give up partisan politics if it means weaning the country off foreign oil.

Mr. Pickens once gave millions to a group that undermined U.S. Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War service and offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that the Swift Boat group's charges against the presidential candidate were false.

Now he's stopped donating to such groups as he preaches a clean-energy gospel that's won over Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Mr. Pickens, 80, will meet Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats about his plan to replace oil with wind power and natural gas.

As Democrats struggle to address high gasoline prices without opening more wilderness and coastlines to oil companies, Mr. Pickens offers a valuable partnership: a certified oil industry icon who says the country can't drill its way out of the energy crisis.

"I can be most effective as a nonpartisan, and I think the Democrats know me to be an honorable person," Mr. Pickens said Friday, adding that he's talked to Al Gore and the two agreed on "95 percent of what we talked about."

Mr. Pickens is financing a $50 million advertising campaign aimed at reducing oil imports by building massive wind farms and using natural gas to fuel cars.

The ideas align perfectly with his business ventures, which appears to make Democrats enthusiastic -- not cynical -- about his pitch.

"If Pickens can show it's very profitable, that's a very important point," said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

"That will help steer investors toward those kinds of investments."

In addition to cooperating with Democrats, Mr. Pickens is offering other surprises.

He suggests that the country "probably needs" a national electricity grid to take advantage of all the wind power that would come from the middle of the country, including West Texas. The idea is radical for Texas, whose independent grid gives it freedom from federal regulation.

"What Pickens wants to do is go beyond that, and make sure the grid not only goes from the Panhandle to Dallas or Houston but to Albuquerque or Los Angeles," Mr. Weiss said.

"It's a way to expand the market for clean electricity."

Mr. Pickens is already the country's most famous advocate of wind power.

His company, Mesa Power LLP, announced in May that it would spend $2 billion on enormous turbines to harness the wind of West Texas.

The state boosted his plan this week by authorizing an almost $5 billion plan to build transmission lines to carry the electricity to Texas cities.

Count Mr. Reid, the Senate majority leader, as one of his newest fans.

The Nevada Democrat said Thursday that although Mr. Pickens was once "my mortal enemy," he is "putting his money where his mouth is" when it comes to clean energy.

Mr. Pickens will appear next month in Las Vegas with several famous Democrats, including former President Clinton and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, at an energy summit hosted by Mr. Reid and the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

But how Mr. Pickens' big ideas translate in Washington is uncertain.

Energy politics have become thorny as Democrats resist President Bush's call to allow exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS.

If there's no immediate compromise on new drilling, Mr. Pickens' emphasis on natural gas could have appeal.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a leading House Democrat, announced legislation this week to force automakers to make 10 percent of their cars run on natural gas by 2018.

The bill would provide $2.6 billion in bonding authority for low-interest loans for natural-gas fueling stations.

Mr. Emanuel has been working on the proposal for a year and spoke to Mr. Pickens about it, an aide said.

Mr. Pickens said he didn't think he influenced the bill but said the two had "a good conversation" about it.

But Mr. Pickens doesn't agree with all the Democrats' energy priorities.

Bills to limit speculation on energy prices are "wasting time" and ignore the cause of high prices -- not enough oil, he said.

"Go ahead and drill on the OCS," said Mr. Pickens, who also plans to meet with House Republican leaders next week.

"I'm not against anything except for foreign oil."

The United States imports about 65 percent of its oil, costing the country about $700 billion a year, Mr. Pickens says.

By comparison, most of its natural gas comes from North American sources.

Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat who supports new domestic drilling, said Mr. Pickens' plan is "a great idea" but could be ensnared in partisan politics.

Hundreds of House Republicans and energy-state Democrats would probably insist that legislation such as Mr. Emanuel's include authorization for new domestic drilling.

"Natural gas is at historically high [price] levels, and if we're going to create another big user of it, we're going to have to have more production," Mr. Green said.

Mr. Pickens supports new exploration but says Mr. Green has it wrong.

Wind power could replace natural gas for power plants.

The country has been woefully slow to adopt natural gas as a fuel for vehicles, even though the idea is gaining ground overseas, he noted.

The world has 8 million vehicles running on natural gas, but only 142,000 in the United States, he said.

"We have ample natural gas to do this," he said. "So how did we get ourselves in this spot?

"We got ourselves here because the oil was cheap. And they kept feeding us rope, and we hung ourselves."

Even former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who's running a low-profile independent campaign this year, thinks Mr. Pickens' platform could make a difference in the energy debate.

"I'm very alert to the way things move in Washington, and very often they move in unconventional manners," Mr. Nader said.

"They don't move because the president moves or because the Congress moves. They move because some one person or persons take a dramatic detour.

"It's like [Ross] Perot."

Staff writer Elizabeth Souder contributed to this report.


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