July 30, 2008

Oil Seen As Slippery Slope

By Tim Carpenter

By Tim Carpenter


Entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens is dedicating his fabulous wealth and hard-charging personality to healing the country's addiction to foreign oil.

The Texas billionaire will host a town hall meeting today in Topeka to preach the gospel according to the "Pickens Plan," a blueprint for reforming U.S. energy policy that centers on unprecedented development of wind for electricity and reliance on natural gas as a transportation fuel. The 4 p.m. meeting at the Kansas Expocentre's Heritage Hall, S.W. 17th and Topeka Boulevard, is the first in a series regarding his energy proposal.

"I hate foreign oil," Pickens said in a telephone interview Tuesday with The Topeka Capital-Journal. "People ask me, 'Well, what exactly are you for?' I'm for everything that is America.' "

He seeks formulation of a domestic energy economy comprised of wind farms, solar power complexes, biofuel facilities, nuclear plants, and expanded drilling for oil and gas. Any source that shrinks the $700 billion spent annually on foreign oil should be part of the equation, he said.

Pickens said a key to change can be found in stiff south winds that rise up through Kansas. To prove the point, the businessman is pledging to build a $10 billion wind farm in the Texas Panhandle that would be the world's largest.

The math

Pickens gushed with statistics pointing to an unbalanced U.S. energy portfolio. The country imported 42 percent of its oil during the first Gulf War in 1991, but now pulls nearly 70 percent off the international market. The figure may rise to 80 percent without action to alter the pattern, he said.

"It is a security problem for us that is just unbelievably bad," the oil and gas mogul said. "Then you also have the economic problem."

The United States devours 21 million barrels of oil each day but supplies just one-third from internal sources. The peak of U.S. oil production was 1970, when 10 million barrels came out of the ground daily.

New drilling can't save the country from this emergency, he said.

"You can't find enough oil," Pickens said. "It isn't out there. It will help. You should go for everything you can by drilling, but there is no way we can drill our way out of the problem."

He said the goal should be to increase production of electricity from wind to 22 percent, from 1.5 percent, in a decade. That ambitious plan would allow redirection of natural gas now burned in power plants to a fuel for cars and trucks, he said. That would cut demand for oil from foreign countries by one-third and reduce the yearly balance of payments tied to foreign oil by $230 billion.

He offered one final number to convince skeptics his interest was good policy rather than personal profit. His net worth: $4 billion.

"I don't need to make any more money," he said.

Rural rebound

The model for Pickens' revolution is Sweetwater, Texas. The terrain has traditionally been ideal for cattle, mesquite trees, rattlesnakes and oil wells.

Wind turbines increasingly dot this West Texas landscape. If surrounding Nolan County were a country, it would rank sixth among wind energy-producing nations.

"Sweetwater was a town that had lost 25 percent of their population," Pickens said. "They're now above 12,000 again. The jobs that they have, 25 percent in that town, come from wind energy."

Pickens is convinced the pattern can be replicated throughout a wind corridor stretching from Texas to Canada. Wind farms can bring prosperity to rural communities desperate for an economic boost, he said.

"Wind energy isn't like an oil field. It doesn't peak, then decline and then deplete over 20 years," he said.

Pickens' $10 billion project near Pampa, Texas, is expected to employ 2,000 people. Manufacturing and construction jobs would be sustained as more efficient turbine hardware is developed, he said.

Harnessing wind also would produce more income for landowners, he said.

"All of this has an appeal to me," he said. "I've hated to see rural America go downhill like it has. A kid coming out of a rural community can go where they want to get an education, come back and have a career."

Mixed reception

Pickens said he was drawn to Kansas for the initial town hall meeting because the state has tremendous wind potential and was a host of the Hugoton natural gas field. His road show has been welcomed by representatives of the oil and gas industry, but some utility executives haven't warmed to the idea.

Polling and focus group research conducted at Pickens' behest revealed Americans sense a looming crisis on the energy front and suspect "they're not being told the truth" about the issue.

Voters gagging on high prices for gasoline won't let politicians off the hook easily, Pickens said.

Members of Congress, he said, have wasted time pointing a finger at executives of major oil companies and at energy speculators. Instead of the blame game, Pickens urged federal officials to require all new U.S. government vehicles be powered by natural gas. That would create enough demand for manufacturers to ramp up domestic production of natural gas vehicles, he said.

Additional incentive for weaning consumers off foreign oil is that U.S. dollars spent on the commodity often end up in countries disdainful of the United States, he said.

"That's a flow of $700 billion a year to a few friends and a hell of a lot of enemies," Pickens said. "We're paying for both sides of the war. That's stupid on our part."

Force for change

Pickens is dedicating $58 million to a public relations campaign to convincing Americans of the need to exploit a wind corridor running from Texas, through Kansas and into Canada. Timing of his initiative, with presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain bearing down on each other, was no accident.

"I want to elevate that question to the presidential debate, to make it the No. 1 issue of the campaign this year," he said.

Pickens expressed interest in a meeting with McCain and Obama to discuss options for reducing reliance on foreign oil.

"I would be the general in the room talking to the two commanders in chief," he said.

In the months ahead, Pickens will be a fixture in TV advertisements touting his plan.

"Everybody in the country that has an open mind knows we have to get off the foreign oil," he said. "If we can get this done, it's going to be fabulous for this country."

Tim Carpenter can be reached

at (785) 295-1158

or [email protected]

(c) 2008 Topeka Capital Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.