Don’t trust this Texas billionaire
by Ray Ring
See T. Boone Pickens. Run, T. Boone, run! Watch out for T. Boone Pickens. As funny as that sounds, in the sing-song style of the classic Dick and Jane kids' books, it's a smart warning.
Just as those books have used simple repetition to teach generations of kids to read since the 1930s, Texas billionaire Pickens speaks in the same style and treats his audience -- all of us -- as if we're kindergarten kids who can only focus on the moment.
Pickens has been a media darling for six months, since he launched his $58 million crusade to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil. He calls for a government and business alliance to ramp up wind-powered electricity, while converting U.S. vehicles to run on natural gas instead of oil-derived gasoline.
It sounds great: "Oilman converts to clean energy." It promises to be good for our politics, reducing our ties to corrupt countries, and good for the planet, because wind power and combusted natural gas emit fewer global-warming gases and other pollutants.
It's especially attractive in the West, because this region has the most potential for clean energy, from wind as well as solar, geothermal and ocean-wave resources.
Pickens' TV ads, in which he touts his plan in simple terms, serenade Western viewers. He's crusaded in person in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Lamar, Colo., (a wind-power hub) and at the Democratic Party convention in Denver. Two Western governors -- Montana's Brian Schweitzer and New Mexico's Bill Richardson -- endorse his plan. So do at least 50 members of Congress, including Idaho's Larry LaRocco, Colorado's Mark Udall, and Nevada's Dean Heller and Dina Titus. Among the 150 mayors who support it are San Francisco's Gavin Newsom, Phoenix's Phil Gordon, Colorado Springs' Lionel Rivera, Missoula's John Engen, and Las Vegas' Oscar Goodman.
Embracing a billionaire is a smart move for any politician. Beyond that, Pickens claims more than a million people have joined his "army," sending e-mails urging new President Barack Obama and Congress to take actions to cut our foreign-oil appetite by 30 percent. Pickens would profit, because he's into natural gas and wind development. When questioned, he glosses over the complications, which include the environmental impacts of drilling the heck out of the West for natural gas. Most of all, he doesn't want to talk about his history as a political power broker.
Until this crusade, Pickens pushed dirty energy in the political arena. He's reportedly donated more than $5 million to candidates and campaigns since 1980, often backing those who pass laws and subsidies for fossil fuels while snubbing clean energy. He helped elect Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a leading distorter of global-warming science, for instance, as well as President Ronald Reagan, who removed solar panels from the White House roof 28 years ago.
Pickens has been a key backer of the biggest fossil-fuel politician -- fellow Texas oilman George W. Bush. That began during Bush's campaigns for the Texas governorship and continued with Bush's presidential campaigns.
Bush's Democratic opponents in the presidential races -- Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 -- vowed to ramp up clean energy, fuel-efficiency in vehicles and energy conservation -- all goals the Bush administration scorned. But Pickens showed his true colors in 2004, when he bankrolled the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group, which attacked Kerry's strongest credential. Kerry had an advantage in his military background: He had served in Navy combat in the Vietnam War with noticeable distinction -- a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Bush spent the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard. With $3 million from Pickens, the Swift Boat group fired off attack ads that smoke-screened the differences. They claimed Kerry didn't deserve his medals. It seemed unfair, because most of Kerry's Navy crew said the attacks were false. But the smear was enough to throw that close race to Bush.
It's fine for clean-energy advocates to welcome Pickens, now that he's taken steps toward their position. But Pickens had a lot to do with creating the energy mess we're in, and he can't be trusted. He'll do what's right for his finances and his own sneaky politics. So don't view him the way he wishes, through the childlike eyes of Dick and Jane, without adding the conclusion: Watch out for T. Boone Pickens.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works in Bozeman, Montana, as the magazine’s senior editor.© High Country News