Pickens Primes Pump for a Mighty Wind

OKLAHOMA CITY -- T. Boone Pickens keeps hoping that Barack Obama or John McCain will surprise him with a last-minute endorsement of his plan for the U.S. to slash dependence on foreign oil by embracing its own natural resources instead.

If the country uses more wind to fuel its power plants and more natural gas to power its vehicles, the legendary oilman says, it could cut its use of foreign oil by one-third over the next decade alone.

It could also help big American companies, including hard-hit car makers such as Ford ( F) and General Motors ( GM), in the process.

"I have been disappointed in both candidates," Pickens told TheStreet.com earlier this month. "They didn't accept my plan -- and neither one of them has a plan."

But they did seem to listen. Since meeting with Pickens this summer, both candidates have stepped up their discussions of energy independence on the campaign trail. Moreover, during their televised debates, they specifically included wind and natural gas in their alternative energy plans.

With the country's annual tab for foreign oil approaching $700 billion, however, Pickens wants some action. He has called for the next President to adopt a national energy policy, which can meet the aggressive targets set forth in his own plan, within 100 days of taking office.

As a powerful billionaire who made his fortune in the oil patch, Pickens knows how to bend some ears. He has convinced dozens of federal lawmakers to sign the "Pickens Pledge," promising to break America's addiction to foreign oil, while persuading at least 10 state governors to do the same. He has even won over some big-name environmentalists - such as Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope -- with his planet-friendly vision.

"We've had almost 10 million people visit our web site, and We're in good communication with more than 1.25 million of them," Pickens says. "We've had a response that's been way beyond our expectations."

Going forward, Pickens hopes to add the next President - and the rest of the country - to his growing fan club. He knows that he'll encounter some challenges, however, with skeptics already questioning key portions of his plan. In a recent interview with TheStreet.com, he tried to reach out to believers and doubters alike.

That exchange, summarized below, kicks off a special pre-election series on "The Pickens Plan."

TheStreet.com: Since you first presented your plan, oil prices have cratered along with the worldwide economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has funded a huge financial bailout that could limit the resources available for costly energy reforms. Do you think the Pickens Plan will suffer as a result?

T. Boone Pickens: I started talking on July 8, and oil prices started coming down. I don't know whether I had an influence on that or not, but there is no question that oil prices have come down since then. That's good for us; I hope the prices stay down. But we're still importing the same amount of oil, and that is a security problem. This time next year, the prices could be right back up to $150 a barrel -- and we would be facing the same consequences all over again. I don't think the financial crisis impacts this. Everybody sees that we have a dependency problem.

You have already made a big name for yourself in the energy world. Why did you decide to do more?

I like new ideas. I thought about it and decided I could help people right here in my backyard and make some money at the same time. It took about a year to come up with the whole plan.

You have promised to build the world's largest wind farm in your home state of Texas. Tell us more about that project.

We bought turbines for our first 1,000 megawatts from General Electric ( GE), and we have 3,000 more megawatts we want to add. We don't get our wind turbines until 2010, but it should be ready by the end of 2011 and fully operational by 2018. We're building it in Pampa Texas . My ranch is just 30 miles north of there. The people love it. They all want wind turbines . It's like having oil wells on your property -- except they don't ever deplete.

Critics see a possible shortcoming in your plan. You want to build big wind farms in the windy, but sparsely populated, states that run through the nation's rural heartland. While this "wind corridor" could generate enough electricity to light up much of the country, that power would have to travel huge distances to reach the crowded states that need it most. How would you address this problem?

You'll have to transmit electricity to the east and west coasts, so you'll want a national grid. It would be 20% more efficient than what we have now, which is pieced together and pitiful.

Since that grid would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, some experts feel that you should expand your plan to include "offshore wind farms" to serve the country's coasts. Europe has built some offshore wind farms already, despite their high costs, and the U.S. now has plans to build one of its own. Do you think this is a good idea?

If somebody wants offshore wind farms, they should do them. I'm for everything that's American. We're not in competition in the U.S. We're only in competition with foreign oil.

Right now, the U.S. relies on natural gas to generate about 22% of its electricity. You would like to see the U.S. use wind to generate that power and free up its natural gas for use in heavy-duty vehicles instead. Ultimately, what percentage of these vehicles could run on natural gas?

I would like to see it at 50% within 10 years. In Argentina, it's like 80% or 90%. The Russians are building natural gas stations all over the country. And the Iranians are switching all of their vehicles to natural gas. They're going to do that and sell us their oil, I guess.

If ordinary Americans want to buy a natural gas car, they have one choice: the Honda (HMC) Civic GX. Going forward, do you expect that to change?

GM makes 19 natural gas vehicles for other countries . They know how to do it. So they'll come around. They all will.

Some critics view natural gas as a temporary solution, at best, and insist that the country should move toward electric cars instead. How do you feel about this proposal?

This could be a bridge to the electric car. I drive a Honda Civic GX -- but I'm for plug-ins, too. I'm for anything that's American. I think it's going to take a mix of all the different kinds of fuel we can get.

As a transportation fuel, does natural gas offer any advantages over electricity?

A battery won't move an 18-wheeler. The only things that will are heavy-duty diesel, gasoline and natural gas. Thirty percent of our transportation fuel goes into those vehicles for the movement of goods.

Americans have grown accustomed to traveling long distances on a single tank of fuel. How far can they travel on a tank of natural gas?

You can go 200 miles. Look at electric cars: They can only go 40 miles before they need recharging . But I'm not focused on passenger cars, even though I drive one. I'm focused on heavy-duty vehicles. You can get across the U.S. in an 18-wheeler with just 10 fueling stops.

As an energy expert who now manages a big investment fund, how would you tell investors to play the Pickens Plan in the stock market?

Chesapeake ( CHK) and Devon ( DVN) are good natural gas companies. But I think this will take a while to affect their sales, maybe two years or so. I have Chesapeake. It's down so low, it would probably be a good buy. If you're looking at natural gas, there is Clean Energy Fuels ( CLNE). (Note: Pickens ranks as the largest shareholder of Clean Energy Fuels, a leading operator of natural gas refueling stations, and sits on the company's board of directors as well.) There's another company, called Westport ( WPRT), that makes engines. It's Canadian, but it trades on the Nasdaq. On the wind side, there's a big wind turbine manufacturer called Vesta. It's Dutch. And there is GE.

You're building the world's largest wind farm. You're driving a natural gas car. You're holding onto Chesapeake's stock. You seem pretty confident in the Pickens Plan. Why have ordinary Americans embraced that plan, too?

People are concerned about the energy problem in America. Over a 40-year period, they have been told a lot of things by Washington -- most of it incorrect -- and they are skeptical. We did some polling. They said, "Yes, you understand" -- and they signed up. We've got a pretty tight group, and we've got a pretty good feel for what the grassroots of America thinks about energy right now.

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