the Midwest summer sun has pushed the temperature
well above 100. Inside Topeka’s Heritage Hall,
it’s standing room only, and there’s still half an
hour to go before Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius takes the stage
to introduce T. Boone Pickens at the very first Pickens Plan
town hall meeting. The fire marshal has already collared building
personnel and informed them that the capacity crowd of 500 exceeds
the city’s fire code. Over the next half hour, hundreds
more show up. All are barred from entering, yet not one of them
turns away. Instead, they choose to sit outside in the scorching
heat and listen in over the public address system.
Farmers in overalls and work boots, school kids in jeans, a Senate
candidate in the requisite blue blazer and repp tie—the Pickens
army is mustering for its first official review. The focus of its mission—to
develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and use
them along with other domestic fuels to curb America’s addiction
to foreign oil—is a natural fit for Kansas.
Crops, cattle, oil
and gas—the Sunshine State is a commodities-producing
powerhouse, and today’s gathering lures Republicans and Democrats, rural
folk and city slickers, entrepreneurs and environmentalists. Furthermore, the
state sits smack-dab in the middle of the nation’s Wind Belt, a 1,000-mile
corridor extending the length of the Great Plains from West Texas to the Canadian
border that according to Department of Energy estimates can produce 20 percent
of the country’s electrical needs.
This enormous untapped power plant is
one of the central pillars of the Pickens Plan, and its importance
is emphasized by Gov. Sebelius as she introduces Pickens. Confident
and easygoing with her constituents, she puts the “town” in
town hall meeting by setting a comfortable, conversational tone. The
governor points out that Kansas is one of the windiest states in the
when the legislature is not in session.”
After the laughter subsides,
Pickens accepts the microphone. He spends the next hour briefing his
troops: detailing the progress of the Pickens Plan, emphasizing how
he hopes the country’s energy plight will take center stage in
the presidential campaign, and encouraging the audience to monitor
developments in real time at www.PickensPlan.com.
acts anything but his 80 years, pacing back and forth on stage as he
cites an endless list of figures off the top of his head, ranging from
the demand for oil domestically and around the world to production
percentages for energy in the U.S. In his trademark whiteboard presentation,
he details the possibilities for reducing America’s dependence
on imported oil by more than 30 percent by the end of the next decade.
His solution? Use wind energy for power generation, and shift part
of the country’s natural gas production into transportation
for fleet operators and mass transit.
A good portion of the meeting
is reserved for questions from the audience. A wide array of topics
is broached. As the Q&A progresses, it becomes apparent
that the Pickens Plan is starting to take on a life of its own. The
idea of securing America’s energy security casts a wide net.
Trained as a geologist at Oklahoma State, Pickens has spent five decades
in the petrochemical industry. Now he’s
being asked to discuss a much broader range of topics: rechargeable
power cells, specific local utility regulations, and the possibility
of utilizing geothermal energy.
On several occasions, Pickens hammers
home a point by bringing up his wife, Madeleine, and the key role she
played in instigating the Pickens Plan. At home late at night or during
their travels, she was the one most likely to have to listen to his
insistent complaints about the country’s lack of an energy plan. “Why
are you always telling me about this?” he tells the crowd she
would ask him. “Why don’t you just do something about it
nod among the couples in the audience. The fact that the Texas billionaire
has a wife who tells him to put up or shut up wins big points.
applause line occurs when the career oil man is faced with a question
about fuel cells and alternative energies. Caught flat-footed, he admits
his ignorance and then quickly parries with a question of his own about
the energy source. “Is it American?” he asks. When informed
that it is, he responds, “Then
I’m for it. I’m for anything American.” The crowded
hall bursts into cheers.
Although a great deal of effort went into the
logistics and planning of the first Pickens Plan town meeting, in essence
it was a throwback to the sort of political barnstorming rarely seen
nowadays. Unscripted, deeply personal, and punctuated by quick wit
and pithy quips, it was as close to Harry Truman’s 1948 Whistle
Stop Tour as America is likely to see in this day and age. The populist
appeal of the messenger has proven to be a crucial factor in the success
of the Pickens Plan.
Backing it up, however, is a $58 million marketing
campaign funded by Pickens himself that is built around a barrage of
TV commercials and a full-out assault on the Internet. Pickens and
his plan can be accessed via his Facebook page, his MySpace profile,
LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. Newsweek has labeled the 80-year-old “the
Web’s first senior blog star,” and the success
of his website proves it. Since its launch in early July, www.PickensPlan.com has
become one of the most popular sites on the Internet. More than 250,000
have signed up as supporters; the number of visits has surpassed 6
million. According to Quantcast, it ranks as one of the top 1,000 worldwide.
increases the reach of his message with a torrent of media appearances.
Wolf Blitzer, Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs, Don Imus, Larry King—he’s
appeared on all of their shows as well as ABC’s Nightline, CNN’s
American Morning, NBC’s Squawk Box, NPR’s Morning
and CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. The day of the Topeka town
hall meeting his first stop was in Wichita, where he sat down for an
hour-long meeting with the Op-Ed board of the Wichita Eagle, a process
he has repeated with The New York Times, The
Wall Street Journal, The
Washington Post, The Washington Times, The
Los Angeles Times, The San
Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
his career, Pickens has developed a repertoire of sayings he calls
Booneisms. I got to hear many of them firsthand earlier this year when
I assisted him by editing his memoir The First
Billion is the Hardest (Crown), which has just arrived in bookstores and has already made
The New York Times bestseller list. Many of them are straightforward,
including this favorite of mine: “As
my father used to say, ‘There are three reasons we can’t
do it. First, we don’t have the money, and it doesn’t make
a damn about the other two.’” Other Booneisms are character
builders more in the tradition of Ben Franklin: “Show up early.
Work hard. Stay late. Work eight hours and sleep eight hours, and make
sure that they are not the same eight hours.”
The one he uses
to describe his energy plan goes right to the point: “A
fool with a plan can outsmart a genius with no plan any day.” Pickens
initially outlined his ideas for reducing the country’s dependency
on foreign oil in the final chapter of The First Billion, which he
titled “The Big Idea:
An Energy Plan for America.” It’s an audacious proposal
that relies as much on forward thinking as it does his decades of experience.
the next fifty years the United States is going to need much more wind,
solar, and other alternative energies. We have to get into these businesses.
There’s no way we can generate the energy we need the way we’re
doing things today. The future is in renewables. We need a visionary
step forward. We need leadership to say, ‘This is what we must
do to win the war against foreign oil and end our dangerous and fatal
addiction. Here’s a new idea.
A bold idea,’” he writes.
This bold idea came to Pickens
on his Mesa Vista ranch in Roberts County, Texas. “It’s
where I call home,” he writes. “I honestly cannot tell
you how much I enjoy being on my ranch. I’ve given serious thought
to living in Roberts County and commuting to Dallas.”
first set eyes on the Panhandle property in the early 1960s while quail
hunting. In 1971 he acquired his initial tract, a 2,940-acre parcel
along the Canadian River. Since then the Mesa Vista has grown to more
than 68,000 acres with 24 miles of frontage along the Canadian. (Follow
the river 300 miles downstream and one arrives at Pickens’ hometown
of Holdenville, Oklahoma.)
Pickens has spent millions improving the
ranch, putting in more than 50 miles of water lines and planting more
than 10,000 mature sycamores, cottonwoods, pines, pears, and lilacs.
To accommodate his Gulfstream 550, he installed a 6,000-foot concrete
runway complete with adjacent hangar. The Mesa Vista’s two magnificent
residences redefine the term “home on the range.”
long believed that the Mesa Vista’s most important resource
was its wildlife: Pronghorn antelope, whitetailed and mule deer, turkey,
pheasant, and blue and bobwhite quail. In the eastern reaches of the
Texas Panhandle, the demand for outstanding recreational properties
is far greater than cattle ranches. Thanks to the rugged terrain, irrigated
farming is rarely an option. There was the one critical aspect to the
Mesa Vista that the lifelong oil man couldn’t
get over. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been where
drill a dry hole,” he says. Beneath his 100-section ranch, the
same Ogallala Aquifer that waters huge commercial farming operations
farther west can be found. Only no one was using it.
this water as “stranded and surplus.” He became
so intrigued by the possibilities that he formed Mesa Water to market
his holdings and those of other Panhandle landowners. According to
the Pickens Plan website, he is now the largest private holder of permitted
groundwater rights in the country. Although his water project has become
a $3 billion deal, to Pickens its true importance is that it led him
to the Big Kahuna. “Wind is a $10 billion
deal. It’s easier than water. It’s bigger than water. Best
of all, it complements water,” he writes in The
willingness to embrace the possibilities of wind power as a hugely
profitable renewable energy offers telling insight into the mindset
of the legendary entrepreneur who turned Wall Street on its ear in
the 1980s when he began drilling for oil on the floor of the New York
Stock Exchange. In his New York Times column, Pulitzer Prize winner
Thomas Friedman recently described Pickens as “the green billionaire
Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power.” Pickens lives up
to that billing when he extols wind as practical. With or without production
tax credits, it’s
profitable. Unlike oil and gas, it has no decline curve. There’s
also a huge patriotic component, which Pickens makes clear when he
seizes on the fact that America is enriching its enemies by spending
four times the cost of the Iraqi war to buy imported oil.
are the Saudi Arabia of wind. Look at this here,” he says. It’s
the day after his Topeka town hall meeting, and Pickens is pointing
to a map of the United States. Although he’s back in Dallas at
the corporate headquarters of his investment firm, BP Capital, he’s
still pitching the Pickens Plan. This time it’s to America’s
largest landowner. Ted Turner is one of many individuals that Pickens
has stress-tested his plan with, including Warren Buffett, New York
City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, GE’s Jeff Immelt, Carl
Pope of the Sierra Club, Presidents Bush and Clinton, Speaker of the
House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Vice
President Al Gore. But as the owner of 15 ranches in seven states and
approximately 2 million acres of land, he is uniquely capable of profiting
from the Pickens Plan.
“Boone,” Turner says, shaking his
head in disbelief. “You are
the map king. I’ve never seen so many maps in my life.” The
two are standing in the main conference room at BP Capital. Hydrographic
tables, global wind diagrams, solar radiation charts, elevation data,
topographic maps, ranch surveys—every inch of wall space is plastered
with different schematics. “That’s
where my 500,000 acres is, right around there in the reddest part,” Turner
says. He’s pointing to a section of a solar map that details
western New Mexico, site of his Armendaris and Ladder ranches. “We
could take 100,000 acres of it and cover them with solar panels, and
I wouldn’t even know
it because I hunt on the other 400,000 acres. I’ve already got
ready to go,” he says.
A buffet lunch follows. In addition to
Pickens and Turner, seated at the table are two members of the BP Capital
team: Bobby Stillwell, Pickens’ longtime
lawyer, as well as Chris Busbee, who specializes in renewable energies.
not the first time Pickens and Stillwell have met with Turner. In the
mid 1980s, both MESA and Turner Broadcasting were considering a run
at RCA. Several meetings took place. Nothing much came of the endeavor,
a point they all laugh off.
In presenting his plan, Pickens recites
many of the same reasons he mentioned at the town hall meeting the
day before. With Turner, however, he adds an extra consideration, one
of great personal significance.
“Revitalizing rural America is
very, very important,” he says. “I
came from a small town in Oklahoma. I’ve seen everything just
go downhill, downhill, downhill, year after year after year. And I’m
convinced that half the kids that come from small towns don’t
ever adjust to the big city. They really would like to go back home,
but they have no opportunity. There are no careers for them,” he
Pickens singles out the economic impact of wind energy on Sweetwater,
the county seat of Nolan County, Texas. A ranching and farming community,
population peaked in the 1950s before beginning a precipitous decline.
High school graduating classes, which once numbered as many as 200,
fell to a low of 90. Beginning in 2000, however, wind farms capable
of producing more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity have been constructed
by Florida Power & Light, Babcock & Brown,
and AES Wind Generation. The economic impact has been astonishing.
year alone more than 1,100 jobs with a payroll of $45 million were
directly related to wind energy. School district property taxes paid
by wind energy projects exceeded $12 million, and from 2004 through 2010 a total
of $24 million will go into new school construction. Pickens’ own wind
project will be substantially larger than Sweetwater’s, and the revitalization
of Pampa has already begun. Pickens sees this economic upturn extending
the length of Wind Belt from Sweetwater through Pampa and north to Goodland,
Kan., Hastings, Neb., and beyond.
Pickens singles out another big winner: landowners.
According to a study prepared for the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium,
royalties paid to landowners in the Sweetwater/Nolan County region
will total more than $12 million in 2008. Turner jumps on the figure
and begins to quiz Pickens and Busbee on the number of turbines per
section, the amount of electricity generated, its market value, and
the royalty structure. Natural gas, timber, livestock, ecotourism — his 2
million acres enjoy numerous revenue streams, but none with the potential
of renewable energy.
“I love your attitude. By God, it’s my chance to be Boone
after 30 years of hiatus,” Turner says, before adding, “There
has never been such a win-win situation. And we’d have cleaner
also combat global warming. There’s no downside to this. There
is not any downside for America to do this. Right, Boone?”
right,” Pickens says.
By the end of lunch, Pickens has added one
more name to the growing list of supporters of the Pickens Plan. As
the two get ready to leave BP Capital and fly out to the Mesa Vista
Ranch, Pickens points out that some people take umbrage at the thought
of putting up 40-story turbines the length of the Great Plains. Turner
“I think they look great, and I’m not talking
about money. I think they look great because they look clean, and they
make my country free.”