Why T. Boone Pickens' 'Clean Energy' Plan Is a Ponzi Scheme
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"If you are going out of business, you don't go down with the ship, you get another ship. For us, it's natural gas." -- T. Boone Pickens, " Becoming a Billionaire"
You can't always get what you want, the Rolling Stones counseled. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need. Factor billions of dollars, questionable loyalties and a privatization rap sheet invested more in profit than people into the equation, and you usually can get both what you want and what you need. In the case of hyper-loaded oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, that means having your cake on climate crisis, fossil fuel addiction, eminent domain, water privatization and corporate earnings -- and eating it too.
In July, the oil magnate unveiled a well-publicized campaign, the Pickens Plan, which begins with an obvious premise: "America is addicted to foreign oil." Pickens' proposal to kick the habit is straightforward and simple: "Building new wind-generation facilities and better utilizing our natural gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years."
Sounds fair enough, especially given that Pickens and climate-crisis herald Al Gore have melded minds on the issue. But not hard enough, which is where the cracks in the Pickens Plan begin. "(Gore) asked if we could we join together and do something," Pickens explained to Bloomberg News. "I told him no, because global warming is on page two for me. Page one is foreign oil.''
That page seems to be recently written. As previously noted on either side of the red-blue divide, Pickens has funneled millions into 527s like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, helping derail John Kerry's bid for the White House in 2004. He simultaneously committed hundreds of thousands on top of that to the election and inauguration of both Bush administrations, both spearheaded by fossil fools whose kinship with foreign oil producers not only launched an invasion into an oil-rich but nevertheless sovereign nation, but also nearly tripled the price of oil in seven years and handed campaign contributors like Exxon the most bloated earnings in corporate history.
It gets worse. Pickens is currently the head of BP Capital Management, a secretive hedge fund (aren't they all?) that has extensive connections to the magnate's hated "foreign oil" interests. The most glaring example from its investment portfolio is Halliburton, which was once run by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, is currently headquartered not in America but Dubai, and whose main business segments and subsidiaries involve oil exploration, construction, production and refining. And that's not mentioning its resume on rampant fraud and corruption, especially in Iraq but also elsewhere, which has so far cost American taxpayers billions.
But Halliburton isn't the only BP Cap holding that stinks. Pickens is also heavily invested in Schlumberger, the world's largest oil services corporation; nuclear and conventional energy powerhouse Shaw Group; the embattled ex-Halliburton subsidiary Kellog Brown and Root and so on. For a very rich man who decries the influence foreign oil has on American life, Pickens sure hasn't put his money where his mouth is. He's put his money where the oil is.
"Even under the Pickens Plan," explains Treehugger's Matthew McDermott, "the U.S. will be importing a significant amount of oil. It's a step toward energy independence in that it expands renewable energy production, but I think framing this debate in terms of energy independence isn't the way to go. If you want to take a populist angle on this, pushing the very real benefits that wind power and renewables in general can have in local economies stands on much more solid ground."
If Pickens were a populist, that might be true. But he's not; he's a stone-cold capitalist whose taste for profit outweighs his desire for the common good. Pickens may have spent $3 billion on wind farms to generate enough electricity to take the load off natural gas, which is currently used to heat homes and more, but only so that it can be used for cars and trucks.
Those are the shells being moved around in this particular game. But shuffling responsibilities and resources will do nothing to forestall our dystopian environmental future, unless those resources burn clean. And what the Pickens Plan does not mention is that the oil tycoon has been deeply invested in natural gas for decades. If the entire American fleet were to switch over to natural gas, the air would possibly (but not probably) be around 30 percent cleaner in a decade, but Pickens would be richer in much higher percentages. And while the air would only stay cleaner for a short while, Pickens would stay loaded beyond the grave.
"Pickens has stated on numerous occasions that, of course, he's going to make money off the Pickens Plan," adds McDermott. "That's the nature of what he does and has done. But natural gas is probably better used to generate electricity than as a fuel source in cars. A better solution is electrically powered vehicles. While there are still technical issues, if our transportation fleet was all-electric, you could power it from whatever is the most regionally appropriate way of generating electricity cleanly and cheaply. As our ability to generate clean power improves, there would be theoretically no need to change the transportation fleet."
It's much simpler than that, argues Food and Water Watch's Wenonah Hauter. "Gas is not the solution for the future, no matter how the gas industry tries to portray it."
The biggest stain on the Pickens Plan is its architect's distasteful history of water privatization. According to Hauter, it is probably the biggest reason, more than all the aforementioned, not to trust him.
"With the water crisis looming in the future and his track record on selling water regardless of the environmental cost," she asserts, "Pickens will be viewed in the future as irresponsible. His background on promoting renewable energy can't erase his current disregard for the sustainable use of water. He recently supplemented his property holdings in Texas with 200,000 acres of land atop the Ogallala Aquifer. Under Texas law, this purchase entitles Mesa Water, Pickens' new company, to take more than 320,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to more than 104 million gallons, from the property. The Ogallala is already severely depleted, and it's outrageous that he can stick a pipe in the ground and suck this water out without any environmental impact assessment."
Pickens has used all manner of stratagems to obtain rights to what is not a recreational, but an essential, resource for supporting life on the planet. He has spent more than $100 million to acquire water from outlying areas in Texas to sell to its metropolitan hubs, and although he hasn't yet found a buyer, it's only a matter of time. Blue gold is the new black gold, and it won't be long until the world is thirsty from one end to the other. Using his wind investment to fuel his water privatization has only made things worse.
"Pickens used the enormous wind farm erected on his property as a means to lobby for the right to pipe the Ogallala water to a major metropolitan center," Hauter adds. "He successfully passed a bill through the Texas Legislature to allow a water-supply district to transport alternative energy and water in a single corridor. Pickens also successfully loosened the legal definitions of a water district, allowing him to invoke the right of eminent domain so that he could build the pipeline through the property of several neighboring landowners. We should be concerned with these types of underhanded business dealings."
We should be concerned everywhere they occur, one might add, not just in Texas. That means putting aside the media buzz and fawning articles and seeing the Pickens Plan for what it is: a resource power grab for a post-oil oil tycoon. Natural gas will not save us from environmental catastrophe, nor will it wean us off foreign oil. Wind farms are a great start, but they deserve to be more than leadoff pitchers for natural gas, whose implementation into our fleet will do nothing to kick-start the massive emissions reductions we are going to need. Everything from oceanic dead zones and bizarre storms to desertification and societal collapse are on the burner. And we need to cool it down, rather than heat it up.
In the end, the Pickens Plan will not make that happen, no matter what kind of deathbed conversion T. Boone Pickens is experiencing.