T. Boone Pickens visits S.F.

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By Rebecca Bowe

T. Boone Pickens, 80, is a Republican billionaire living in Dallas whose spot-on predictions about the petroleum industry have earned him the nickname the “Oracle of Oil.” More recently, the founder and chairman of BP Capital Management has garnered media attention for reinventing himself as a proponent of clean energy. On March 25, hundreds of San Franciscans came out to the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel to listen to the former oilman discuss the Pickens Plan: a blueprint for curing America’s addiction to foreign oil.

Pickens launched his campaign last July with a slick Web site designed by one of the top brains behind Obama’s online presidential campaign. So far, some 2 million supporters have signed on, Pickens said. “I found out this,” he told a team of reporters shortly before his talk. “When I was a rich guy going to Washington trying to get something done, I got in to see everybody and they were all nice, but not much happened. Today, with 2 million people with me, I’m a hell of a lot more important when I go to Washington.”

A main component of his plan is the installation of thousands of wind turbines through the central corridor of the United States, harnessing what has been called the “Saudi Arabia of wind” to provide what Pickens estimates to be 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. To make it work, transmission lines must be constructed to move that power east and west. And according to his vision, domestic natural gas currently used to fire power plants can be utilized as a transportation fuel instead.

Pickens is a strong advocate for wind and solar, but he also trumpeted natural gas as being critical to ending the country’s reliance on foreign oil. “I feel like I have 52 cards and I have been allowed to pick out the winning hand," he said. "The trump card is a resource in America, and that is natural gas.”

Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, but it is neither renewable nor carbon neutral. When asked by a member of the audience if the switch to natural gas was a false solution, because it would merely transfer dependence from one finite fossil fuel to another, he acknowledged that it was a very good question. “It is a finite resource,” he said. “But it’s only a bridge fuel, until we get to the next transportation fuel, which I believe will be the battery.” Mesa Petroleum, the company he founded in 1956, produced more than 3 trillion cubic feet of gas from 1964 to 1996, according to his bio. He told the audience that has since moved on from that business.

Pickens said his effort has nothing to do with politics or personal financial gain, and that his main goal is to steer America toward a new age of energy independence. He opened his speech by saying, "The security of this country is at risk," and linked that risk to the country's reliance on foreign oil.

Pickens is in the process of constructing what will become the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, which began with a $2 billion purchase of 670 GE wind turbines that have the capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts of power. But since the problem of building the transmission lines hasn’t been worked out yet, the ambitious project is still a work in progress. “We have bought the turbines from GE, and we have leased the land, so we’re good to go,” he said. Except, “We need to have some way to move that power either east or west. And if we can’t, we’ve got to put the turbines someplace else.”

When pressed on where, Pickens replied, “I’m not going to end up with 687 turbines in my garage. They’re going to be sticking up spinning someplace.”

Pickens is a capitalist through and through, and there’s little surprise that he stands to make more green from the big idea he's putting forth. When some one from the audience asked whether his spiel was perhaps more for personal gain than the greater good, he responded, “Look, I’m 80 years old, I can make it to the finish line. We’re talking about America, not Boone Pickens’ pocketbook.”

Pickens' status as the nation’s largest private holder of groundwater rights has also generated controversy. He owns much of the groundwater rights to an enormous aquifer that stretches from Texas to the southern tip of South Dakota, and hopes to pump and sell billions of gallons a year to Dallas and other metropolitan areas in Texas.

Here are a few more quotes from yesterday's event, which was hosted by the Commonwealth Club and Climate One.

On his meetings with Obama and McCain during the presidential race:

“They would’ve both failed an energy test, but I didn’t give ‘em one.”

On the idea of taxing carbon emissions:

“I’m not big on taxing.”

On the nation's energy future:

“Can you imagine – a guy, 80 years old, shows up with the only energy plan America’s seen? That’s a little scary.”

On his own carbon footprint:

“The only carbon footprint I’ve got is my airplane. I planted 20,000 trees, so that gave me some help.”