T. Boone Pickens has worn many hats in his 82 years: oilman; corporate raider; benefactor to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University; and cheerleader-in-chief for a plan to free the country from its dependence on foreign oil. These days, he frequently wears another: oil spill talking head.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Pickens maintained that the BP disaster notwithstanding, the oil industry in the Gulf "hasn't had many problems" over the years. The last spills that blew out seabed wells near the U.S., he said, date back to 1969 (off the coast of Santa Barbara) and 1979 (off the coast of Mexico). Since the BP spill, the Obama administration has imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling, but Pickens insists that offshore work must continue: "You know, we can drill those wells in the deep water. I don't think there's any question about that."
Asked whether he had lost money by holding shares of companies involved in the Gulf disaster, Pickens said that if he did have investments in some of the companies involved, it "would be insignificant."
Pickens emphasized that a long-term solution will not be found until the two relief wells are drilled (BP says they should be ready in August). "I think that it hasn't been made clear to the public that the way you're going to fix this is with a relief well," he said. The cap currently in place is far from a permanent fix — though he didn't expect it to work as well as it did. "I was a little bit surprised that they were able to tie back to that blow-out preventer and get 11,000 barrels a day," he said.
Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, has come under pressure for saying that the spill wasn't causing much environmental damage and that he wanted his "life back." Pickens agrees that Hayward "made some boo-boos on some of the things he said." But he also thinks Hayward has gotten something of a bad rap. "I don't think there was any orders given by Hayward that were faulty," he said.
Pickens also expressed concern that the 11 workers who died in the rig explosion had received only "page two" media coverage, as well as little attention from the federal government, in contrast to the "page one" coverage for 29 miners who died in a West Virginia mine disaster this spring.
A growing chorus of environmentalists sees the oil spill as a chance to motivate the country to move off of oil and toward renewable sources of energy, like wind power. Pickens notes that wind — which feeds the electricity grid, not our cars, not to mention the fact that it doesn't blow all the time — is not a straight substitute for oil. Wind also has another big problem right now, Pickens said: low natural gas prices, which essentially dictate how much other forms of electricity, like wind, can be sold for. "When natural gas is $4.50 [per thousand cubic feet], it's hard to finance a wind deal. Natural gas has got to be $6," Pickens said.
Pickens has dramatically scaled back his own plans to generate wind power. A few years ago, he grandly announced plans to build the largest wind farm in the world in the Texas Panhandle, on land he leased in the Pampa area. He no longer plans to put a wind farm in Texas — deterred, he says, by the lack of transmission lines to carry the power out of West Texas (the Texas government is spending $5 billion to try to fix this problem). Pickens said he has given up the lease on his Pampa land but could conceivably re-lease it. He renegotiated a $2 billion order for turbines from General Electric down to $1 billion and insists he hasn't abandoned the wind game. "You'll see some action on that pretty quick," he said. It bears noting, however, that back in March, he promised an announcement in 30 days about where the turbines would go — and nothing has happened yet.
Wind and natural gas were the two founding legs of the Pickens Plan, a plan to move the country off of foreign oil that he launched with much fanfare two years ago. The wind component — the vision of moving the country to 20 percent wind power by 2030 — clearly is struggling. So Pickens spends much of his time on natural gas, which he thinks should be used far more extensively in vehicles to move the country off of foreign oil. (Large shale-gas reserves, including the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth area, can be accessed with new technology, and have recently boosted U.S. supply estimates.) So Pickens is in and out of Washington these days, as ever peddling the Pickens Plan. President Obama promised when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 to "finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East" in 10 years. But with the country still as dependent as ever, Pickens would like to see the president sign an executive order saying that all federal vehicles will run on domestic fuel.
Pickens is also working with lawmakers, as he has for the last few years, to boost the use of natural gas in vehicles. He has even allied with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. — an improbable partnership, reportedly initiated by Kerry, given that Pickens helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that helped foil Kerry's bid for the presidency in 2004. The Kerry-Lieberman bill would offer tax incentives for heavy-duty vehicles that use natural gas as fuel. A House bill to aid natural-gas vehicles has 143 co-sponsors, drawn from both parties, according to Pickens.
"Nothing has moved on energy in Washington," he says, "and now they're getting ready to address it. And I think you'll have legislation before the year's out."