Author Tom Wolfe said that a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. In the case of the political evolution of Texas oil and finance magnate T. Boone Pickens, a liberal on energy policy is a conservative who has crunched the numbers. Pickens has done the math on America's energy future, and it doesn't work. Oil dependency is America's ticking time bomb. He says we need to think about wind, solar, nuclear, "anything American," but particularly natural gas.
Pickens is not someone I'm predisposed to liking. He was a supporter of fellow Texas oilman George W. Bush and pumped millions of dollars into the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that smeared the military record of Sen. John Kerry. He has been a major money giver and raiser for Republican candidates and causes, including funding the Karl Rove-linked Progress for America to the tune of $2.5 million.
This doesn't seem like someone concerned with weaning America off its addiction to oil. Just the opposite. Had the man been a couple of generations younger he might have tattooed "Drill Baby Drill" across his pecs. But as the maxim goes, there is no zeal like that of the converted, and now at 82 years old Pickens is hobnobbing with noted green activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and winning kudos from the Sierra Club. "I can pass the saliva test for an environmentalist," he joked to a group of editorial writers and columnists convened in Dallas.
Pickens is still not opposed to domestic drilling — although he acknowledges it's no answer — but he says we have to get off foreign oil for the sake of our economic future and national security, and "The Pickens Plan" moves the country in that direction. Initially the plan envisioned thousands of wind turbines, but financing such a project isn't feasible in this time of inexpensive gas and a credit crunch.
Pickens is instead pushing natural gas. He wants Congress to pass the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act, or NAT GAS Act. It would require the federal fleet of vehicles to convert to natural gas-powered engines and offer large tax credits to companies that use and produce vehicles that run on natural gas. Pickens says that 70 percent of the 4.3 billion barrels of oil the country imported last year was used as transportation fuel, either gasoline or diesel, and this is where we can start to turn things around.
"You've got to get an oar in the water. All we do is drift, drift, drift."
If America's fleet of 18-wheel semitrailer trucks, trash trucks and buses were replaced with vehicles that run on domestic natural gas, within seven years we'd "reduce our need for OPEC oil by half," Pickens says. Otherwise, we'll "continue to use expensive, dirty oil from the enemy rather than use a cleaner resource that's here."
Only when pressed does he fess up to being a stockholder "in several companies in the natural gas business."
But Pickens characterizes what he's doing as a cause, not a business. He has invested $70 million toward his campaign for energy independence over the last two years, including a television commercial barrage. "This is my mission and I'm willing to pay for it," he says.
You do get the feeling that he's sincerely trying to move us toward a more sustainable energy future. From Pickens' perch he sees better than most the proverbial and literal barrel that OPEC nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have us over with their continual manipulation of price and supply. He notes that OPEC includes Iran and Venezuela, unfriendly countries getting rich off the world's addiction, and that some of our oil money inevitably ends up funding terror groups.
In Pickens' straightforward style he puts out a challenge: For 40 years, we have had no energy plan for America. A fool with a plan can a beat a genius with no plan. Anyone who doesn't like my plan needs to offer up one of their own.
He's right. We need a plan, and had Pickens and people like him been more politically responsible in past years —- supporting candidates like Al Gore rather than Republican oil boosters — we would have had one already.