The 84-year-old billionaire met with AOL Autos not long ago at his BP Capital offices near Dallas, Texas to discuss his "Pickens Plan," rally against OPEC and outline the concrete steps toward achieving his alternative energy goals--all with that famous, salty sense of humor.
The Pickens Plan
The U.S. spends roughly $400 billion annually on foreign oil. Gas has risen to over $4.00 a gallon in many parts of the country this year. Though prices have fallen back to an average of around $3.70, many consumers--and the government leaders who represent them--believe something has to change to keep oil-supplier countries like Iran and Venezuela from holding economies hostage to rapid price hikes.
"If you don't like $4 gasoline, let me tell you...you're going to see 5,6,7," Pickens said.
His Pickens Plan prescribes a basic two-pronged antidote: wind and natural gas.
Wind energy, says Pickens, should provide a larger portion of the nation's electricity, such that the natural gas currently fueling power plants could be diverted to fuel heavy trucks. Thus, by placing an emphasis on natural gas burning trucks and buses (and eventually passenger cars), the U.S. could reduce its reliance on foreign oil.
Despite this clean logic, there's a lot of resistance to his plan from an array of constituencies, and especially in Washington. Pickens casts that as mere obstinacy or special interests.
"What it is is about America, very simply," he told AOL Autos of his plan. "It doesn't have anything to do with politics or making money or anything else. It's about our country is what I'm talking about. I'm just trying to get the country on our own resources, and we can't get them to get off their butt in Washington and do that."
This resistance to change, Pickens feels, contributes to a vicious circle.
The Arguments Against CNG
Some environmentalists and concerned citizens criticize hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique known as fracking, the most common way to tap into natural gas wells. After horizontal drilling, water and toxic chemicals are injected into the earth to release gas. Drillers insist that the chemicals go thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers, but that hasn't stopped some water supplies from being affected anyway. And environmentalists are against ramming chemicals into the ground to release natural gas on principle.
Over 800,000 wells have been fracked in the U.S. since 1950, and Pickens claims he's never experienced a contamination problem in the 3,000 that his companies have fracked.
He also down-plays the gravity of potential consequences of methane in water.
"It's a water well," he said. "It's not a water well that supplies New York City."
But not everyone takes the potential dangers of fracking so lightly. "There is a lot we don't know about the impact of fracking on the geology of the U.S., as well as ground water," notes AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley. "I believe we absolutely need to explore putting more natural gas vehicles on the road--they perform great--but I can never understand why we can't at the same time dig into understanding better the downside of how we are getting the gas out of the earth." Adds Kiley, "You have to wonder why the nat-gas industry doesn't want anyone exploring this, and why they roadblock having their methods and chemicals known by regulators."
Pickens pays it no mind. Instead, he believes relying on OPEC is the greater danger.
"Do you want to take that risk, or would you rather listen to some guy who found a water well that had some gas in it?" he said.
His logic comes down to resource supply and controlling foreign threats: the U.S. uses 25% of the oil consumed everyday with just 4% of the population, but U.S. has two-times the natural gas of what the Saudis have in barrels of oil equivalent.
But it's not so easy to do away with oil. Infrastructure aside, there's the incredible lobby of the American Petroleum Institute, which is using special interest groups in Washington to put the kibosh on his CNG push. The lobby is using its throw-weight to preserve its hefty profits.
The chemical industry is also against the Pickens Plan.
The chemical industry is getting cheap natural gas which provides huge margins on fertilizer. As one of his major antagonists, Pickens named Coke Industries, which imports 61,000 barrels of OPEC crude a day and gets a subsidy on ethanol. The Pickens Plan would be detrimental to Coke, because if there's demand for natural gas, the price of it could rise. Natural gas in the U.S. is the cheapest in the world--at $2.30 per MMBtu, and a spike would cut down on profit margins.
But Pickens is unyielding in his belief that he is correct and on higher ground.
"Coke Industries is not a transparent company," he said. "It's an independent company. Is there anything wrong with them? They're people that are working for themselves. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not...It's just that they're working for Coke Industries. And I'm working for America."
The Advantages Of Using Domestic Resources
Pickens promotes a proactive approach for the U.S., before oil get prices become even more unwieldy. He wants just 8 million trucks to run on CNG. There are 250 million vehicles in America, and his demands, as he sees them, are modest.
"CNG is cleaner than diesel by 30%, it's abundant, and it's ours," he said.
CNG is also cheaper than diesel. He recommends shipping the diesel trucks out of the country to be sold on the foreign market and replaced domestically with CNG trucks. The cost difference between a diesel truck and a CNG truck is narrowing; $50,000 five years ago, it is now nary $10,000. At scale, the price comes down still further.
Natural gas is gaining traction. Today over 50% of the trash trucks purchased in the United States are CNG, the LA MTA has been on natural gas for 20 years and Beijing Transit has 5,600 buses all on natural gas.
For Pickens, his plan is inexorable, but there's a major catch.
There is a caricature, one of the many "Boone Toons" hanging in his office from editorial artists, that presents Pickens on a horse with a lance. He's a modern day Don Quixote, tilting at wind turbines.
This is to say: some think he's crazy.
The wind part of strategy is full of hot air at the moment, and unfortunately it's the linchpin in his plan. It could also be called a contingency or a big "if."
As much thermal agitation as there is in North Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, the power infrastructure is not enough to generate 22% of the country's electricity: the government would have to shell out big time to pay for the electric power transmission lines to connect turbine farms to the power grid. And it would run a pretty penny.
Pickens's Great Plains Wind Turbine program lacks a benefactor. The big question mark is how much the government would spend to pay for the electric power transmission lines.
Selfless or Self-Serving?
With his interest in natural gas, Pickens stands to win big, and a major impediment to the acceptance of his plan revolves around other people's suspicions of his motivation. He says his stake in the sector is but a vindication of his confidence in it.
"The only thing I know is energy, so I'm going to invest there or retire," he said. "And retirement is not an option. If I'm selling you an idea, you want me to sell you an idea that I'm willing to put my money in. Criticize me if I'm out here talking my own book. Trying to sell this deal so I can make a lot of money out of it? Get out of here."
Boiled down, he sees himself as "a patriotic old man with a good idea." He impresses his motto on repeat: "Get on your own resources. Get off of OPEC oil."
He explains away any self-interest by pointing to his philanthropy.
"I'm in the Buffett, Bill Gates crowd as far as giving half of your estate to charity."
He's given over $700 million to charity and has the goal to give a billion before he dies.
For Pickens, it all boils down to logic.
"To stay on OPEC oil is stupid. If we pour out another 10 years, $2.2 trillion...we're gonna go down as the dumbest crowd that ever came to town."