T. Boone Pickens has a new plan — but fewer allies — in his quest to curb America’s dependency on foreign oil.
With wind energy projects not proving as financially viable as he anticipated, Pickens has tabled the renewable energy portion of his acclaimed Pickens Plan for clean energy and turned his focus exclusively to increasing development of natural gas.
The shift has divided what was once a powerful alliance between environmentalists and industry groups and is raising questions about Pickens’ relevance to the energy debate in Washington, D.C.
The Sierra Club, whose former executive director once praised Pickens as a man “out to save America,” has openly criticized this new approach and questioned whether the 82-year-old billionaire stands to profit from natural gas.
In an interview with Roll Call, Pickens defended his new focus as the only practical way forward.
“Of course, I wish I had everybody with me. Does it hurt [not to]? Sure. It’s not going to help. But you can’t do wind because natural gas is too cheap,” Pickens said. “There is a huge opportunity to get natural gas into the market, so I would ask the Sierra Club, what can I be for?”
The Texas billionaire unveiled the Pickens Plan in 2008 as a rallying cry for a comprehensive energy strategy. The plan proposed a major investment in wind turbines as a way to generate power, freeing up domestic natural gas to be used as a substitute for foreign oil and diesel in commercial trucks. Pickens envisioned that wind and natural gas combined would free America from its dependency on foreign oil.
But Pickens has now canceled the bulk of a $1.5 billion wind turbine order that he placed with General Electric last year and says wind power will not be profitable until the cost of natural gas rises from $4 to $6 per million British thermal units. That, he estimates, will happen by 2016.
In the meantime, the turbines that he has already purchased are slated to go to Minnesota and Canada, far from the nation’s oil-dependent South that Pickens said could benefit from a shift in energy strategy.
“You have no way to force wind in unless it makes economic sense,” Pickens said, explaining why he is pushing for natural gas in the interim. “You’re sitting here on an abundance of the cleanest of all hydrocarbons. You’re a fool if you don’t use it. If you turn it down, it means you’re for foreign oil.”
So, Pickens has turned his focus to lobbying Congress for the NAT GAS Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in April by Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) to provide incentives for fleet vehicles to switch to natural gas. Pickens regularly fires up his private jet and makes the 1,000-mile journey between Dallas and Washington to push for the measure.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.