The texan oil baron and the winds of change
T Boone Pickens was the ultimate Texan oil tycoon. Then he saw the light: the green light. Now he's at the forefront of a revolution that has turned the Lone Star state into the US's biggest producer of wind power. And, he says, that's just the start
Saturday 12 July 2008
Everything is bigger in Texas, even the wind turbines. They stand twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, with blades as wide as the wings on a jumbo jet. Each one can earn hundreds of dollars every year for landowners, a whole wind farm can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's hardly a surprise then that new turbines are popping at a rate of three to four a day. Texas and oil go together like hound dogs and huntin', as the saying goes, but the black stuff that made George Bush and many other oil men rich is now running out and something else is needed to keep the lights on. The state is already facing a shortfall in electrical power generation. From sneering at the country's green movement, (Mr Bush called Al Gore "Ozone Man" when he defeated him in 2000), pragmatic Texans have suddenly embraced wind power as the answer to their prayers.
Once known as America's oil patch, Texas now calls itself the nation's wind-power capital. Big Oil is turning into Big Wind.
For Sweetwater, known for its annual spring rattlesnake round-up, the wind-power bonanza produces enough energy to power a large city. Today you can drive for 150 miles either side of it without losing sight of a wind turbine.
Sweetwater is also home to T Boone Pickens, 80, a legendary Texas oil wild-catter, corporate raider, philanthropist and Republican hit man, whose personal worth has reached $2.7bn (£1.4bn).
He was one of the inspirations for the rapacious capitalist Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street and in 2004 he was the bagman behind the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign which helped destroy John Kerry's presidential ambitions.
From the prairie town of Holdenville, Oklahoma, his father made his fortune gambling on oil leases. As a child, Pickens had a paper round, which is where he says he learnt the aggressive approach to work that would make him infamous on Wall Street in the 1980s. He started the oil company, Mesa Petroleum, in 1956, with $2,500, turning it into one of the most feared companies in the US.
Fortune called him "the most hated man in corporate America" at a time when he was making a fortune using Mesa to make hostile takeover bids for other companies. His efforts made Pickens fabulously rich.
A hate figure of the liberal left, many blame him for George Bush's do-nothing legacy on the environment. Although he lives smack in the middle of one of the windiest places in America, as recently as 2005 he dismissed the idea of wind energy out of hand: "I was in wind energy for a minute ... I hate it. And when I got to looking at those damn things I said, I don't want to be a part of putting that on the horizon. We took a loss and got out of it and I'm glad I did."
Spool forward three years to find a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown with oil heading towards $200 a barrel. Americans do not worry much about global warming, but they care a lot about filling up their gas-guzzling pick-up SUVs and worry more and more about how they are going to get to work and back. The "Pickens Plan" is suddenly on everyone's minds in America, especially those pulling up to their local petrol station where filling up costs twice as much as it did last year.
Mr Pickens believes in the peak oil theory that world production cannot grow beyond 85 million barrels a day even with lots of new drilling and production. Demand is already at 86 million barrels a day and growing. For Americans who squander so much petrol plying the freeways in their air-conditioned behemoths, the crisis is no longer theoretical.
And over the coming months Mr Pickens is spending enough to ensure that his face will be seen on American television screens as much as either John McCain's and Barack Obama's as he bankrolls what he says is the most expensive public policy advertising campaign ever.
Environmentalists are cheering wildly, but the Pickens Plan has little to do with their worries about the catastrophic dangers of global warming. Mr Pickens has a plan that everyone can get their heads around: He simply wants to end America's addiction to imported oil and use the country's abundant wind power and natural gas resources to keep the country rolling.
"We're paying $700bn a year for foreign oil," he said. "It's breaking us as a nation, and I want to elevate that question to the presidential debate, to make it the number one issue of the campaign this year.
"Neither presidential candidate is talking about solving the oil problem. So we're going to make 'em talk about it. Nixon said in 1970 that we were importing 20 per cent of our oil and that by 1980 it would be 0 per cent. That didn't happen. It went to 42 per cent in 1991 with the Gulf War. It's just under 70 per cent now. Where do you think we're going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we're importing 80 per cent of our oil?"
Windy as Sweetwater is, there are places further north in the Great Plains which are more suitable for wind farming. Some 250 miles away, Mr Pickens is building what is described as the world's largest wind farm.
He has pumped $2bn into the project so far, buying nearly 700 wind turbines from General Electric (GE) and he will spend another $10bn on the project before it starts generating electricity sometime in 2011.
Filling the Great Plains with wind turbines to produce electricity is only half of the Pickens Plan. He wants to see America's petrol imports cut back as well by converting cars to run on natural gas. At present most of America's natural gas is used to produce electricity. Generate electricity from the wind and that can be diverted so that as many as a third of the vehicles will be running on natural gas within only a few years, he says.
America's big environmental organisations have become huge supporters of the Pickens Plan. "I will be in the front row of the chorus cheering him on," said Carl Pope, executive director of the environmental group, the Sierra Club.
Wind currently provides only about 1 per cent of America's electricity, but by 2020 that figure is expected to rise to 15 per cent or higher with environmental organisations pushing hard for government investment in a new electricity grid to take the energy from the sparsely populated plains to the large urban areas. The sanctimonious preaching of the green movement has been embraced as a real business opportunity, with GE alone expected to sell $6bn-worth of turbines this year in America.
As the world burns through some 31 billion barrels of oil, six billion tons of coal and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas this year, producing around 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, the concerns about climate change are having an impact even in Texas.
A farmer who gives up a quarter of an acre to a wind farm can earn $10,000 a year from it – some 3 per cent of the value of the electricity it produces. If he planted corn for ethanol he would earn $300.
The oil men-turned-wind farmers see the consequences of climate change on their televisions like anyone else and the alarm has already gone out about declining yields of crops such as wheat and corn as water supplies needed for irrigation dwindle.
Mr Pickens is now setting about getting support from people who may despise his conservative political views. As a lifelong Republican, he says he will vote for John McCain. But he is staying at arm's length from Mr McCain's campaign, to avoid having his plan dismissed as so much campaign rhetoric.
"This has to be a bipartisan effort," said the man who offered $1m to anyone who could prove that the Swift Boat charges made against John Kerry were false. When Mr Kerry himself stepped up to disprove the charges, Mr Pickens quickly changed the offer and never signed the cheque.
"This is not about Republicans versus Democrats," he said. "This is about saving our country from the ruination of spending $700bn a year on oil imports. Ninety days after the oil hits our shores, it's all burnt up, and we've got nothing to show for it. But they [foreign oil producers] still have our money. It's killing our economy."
Mr Pickens considered running for governor of Texas twice but says he is unsuited for political leadership. But he has emerged as one of the country's leading philanthropists in recent years and made one of the largest individual donations to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
One a recent tour of his Mesa Vista Ranch for journalists, Mr Pickens was dressed in an army-green hunting jacket with fluorescent orange patches. He raised a shotgun to his shoulder and blasted a clay pigeon as it shot skyward. He then gave a gave a tour of his spread with its seven miles of lakes and artificial streams. There is a mansion and an equally big hunting lodge, two gyms (he is a fitness freak) and rare deer, quail, elk, turkeys and antelope roam the land.
And as he led his guests from room to room on his vast estate, his main preoccupation was turning out the lights.
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