By Albert Eisele - 03/24/10 10:00 AM EDT
“The key message I’m trying to get across in Washington is that we’ve got to get off OPEC oil,” the 81-year-old former Texas wildcatter-turned-hedge fund tycoon and born-again environmentalist said in a recent interview. “We’re paying for both sides of the war [in Iraq and Afghanistan], and we’re going to go down in history as the dumbest crowd that ever showed up, because we had a resource that would replace OPEC oil, and we didn’t use it.”
Ironically, one of the only people who hears that message is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), whose patriotism and courage Pickens challenged as he helped finance the brutal “Swift Boat” attacks against Kerry’s Vietnam war record, which contributed to his defeat by Pickens’s fellow Texan, George W. Bush, in the 2004 presidential election.
“Sen. Kerry called me and said, ‘The 2004 election is history and I’d like to keep it that way,’ ” Pickens told The Hill when asked why he decided to come to Washington on Feb. 9 to meet with Kerry and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to talk about their alternative energy and climate legislation, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While Pickens wouldn’t go into detail about his hourlong meeting with Kerry and his two colleagues, other than to describe it as “productive,” he made it clear during a 90-minute interview that he considers it a way to advance his plan to develop wind power and increase the use of natural gas, in which he has a major stake, in the nation’s transportation system.
“I tell you, we’ve got a plan and this country desperately needs an energy plan, and I know what I’m talking about,” said Pickens, who points out that he drives a Honda GX Civic, the only natural gas-powered car made in America. “But they don’t get it in D.C.; it’s too big for them. In Washington, you can’t sit down for a 30-minute discussion on energy. Nobody’s willing to talk about the fact that foreign oil is costing us $500 billion a year.”
Nevertheless, Pickens is confident the House will soon pass H.R. 1835, the Natural Gas Act of 2009, and its Senate counterpart, S. 1408, to provide tax incentives to make natural gas a viable transportation fuel. A central part of the Pickens Plan, he said, calls for switching the nation’s 8 million 18-wheeler trucks from gasoline to natural gas, which he said will displace about half the oil we import from foreign sources, an amount he claims has reached crisis proportions: “In 1970, we imported 24 percent of our oil. Today, it’s more than 65 percent and growing.”
Pickens, who’s ranked by Forbes magazine as the 117th richest person in America, maintains that the last seven presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, have failed to carry out their pledge to make America less dependent on foreign energy. And he said he isn’t very hopeful that President Barack Obama will reverse that pattern, even though he urged him to do so when they met in Reno, Nev., last August.
“I really thought he was going to lay out a plan to get us off OPEC oil in his State of the Union speech, but it got knocked out,” Pickens said. “I wanted him to say, by executive order, that all U.S. government vehicles should use domestic fuel.” Pickens also said he favors raising gasoline taxes by as much as a dollar a gallon to reduce demand.
Sitting in the Dallas office of BP Capital, the fossil fuel hedge fund he founded in 1996, Pickens described the plan he announced with great fanfare in 2008 as a two-part approach aimed at exploiting alternative energy sources and mandating greater use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. “Right now, we’ve got a 300-year supply of natural gas,” an amount that’s more than twice that of domestic oil reserves.
But he conceded that the second part of his plan, calling for building a series of giant wind farms, including the world’s biggest, a $10 billion project in the Texas panhandle, is on hold because of transmission costs and other problems, including finding rights of way. However, he indicated that he hasn’t given up on wind energy, and has plans for building as many as five more wind farms, calling America “the Saudi Arabia of wind power.”
Pickens, whose office is festooned with photos of him with world leaders, including both President Bushes and President Reagan, paintings of Western landscapes and more than a dozen framed magazine cover stories about him, said he is supporting efforts by the liberal Center for American Progress to increase the use of natural gas in transportation.
Asked if he believes the threat of climate change is real, he said, “It’s hard to sell a geologist like me on climate change. But I will say this: We have introduced a lot of stuff into the atmosphere, and I don’t want us to wait 20 years to confirm that we have climate change, because the problem will have gone too far.”