T. Boone Pickens Adjusts His Famous Plan

Last Updated Jan 20, 2010 7:21 AM EST

NEW YORK--T. Boone Pickens says that, at 81, he's impatient to give something back to the country that allowed him to become a billionaire. And thus was born the Pickens Plan, which when launched in 2008 had two key provisions: Launch a crash program to generate clean electricity with large-scale wind farms (of the type he himself proposed for the Texas panhandle) and get the U.S. on to domestic fuel by powering our transportation fleet with natural gas.

In a wide-ranging interview at the New York Times on Tuesday, Pickens made it plain that the plan was a work in progress. He's already spent something like $60 million on television ads, but he's got a new one that emphasizes the fact that the people who sell us the nearly 70 percent of the oil we import don't really like us all that much. And if you missed the point of who "they" are, the Arabic script was a clue.

Here's a look at one of Pickens' television commercials, which have cost him deep in the purse. This is the second one:

Pickens is downplaying wind development, and in New York he outlined his own frustrations with restrictive state laws. "Wind is priced off the margin, and the margin is natural gas," he said. "The credit markets also dried up, which slowed the whole thing down." A further issue, he said, was his own company's misinterpretation of a state law that he thought guaranteed his right to build electric transmission lines, obtaining property rights through eminent domain. "I had a $2 billion commitment, negotiated to half that, and $200 million equity in the deal," Pickens said. "I had stars in my eyes about how it would unfold, but 60 percent of the turbines I ordered are being deployed in smaller projects, two in Canada and one in Minnesota. And I think the Texas opportunity will come again, maybe around 2013."

Another big change to the Plan, or at least to the way Pickens describes it, is in the vehicles targeted for natural gas. Although he would no doubt still want to power our entire transportation fleet with this clean, domestically obtained fuel, Pickens is now concentrating on heavy commercial trucks--which, as he says he pointed out to Al Gore, are unlikely to be running on batteries anytime soon.

Pickens points to the California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is converting all its garbage trucks to natural gas. "They went looking for the biggest polluters, and that was the trash trucks," he said. Instead of enjoying retirement, the billionaire is keeping a very busy schedule visiting trucking companies such as J.B. Hunt and Swift Transportation and trying to convince them to convert their fleets to natural gas.

Pickens is pessimistic about the high cost of hydrogen (which can be produced from natural gas), considers ethanol "a stupid fuel," and has some issues with electric cars, too. "You better be sure the batteries don't come from China," he said. The whole point is building a self-contained U.S. industry, he said. Some U.S. EV companies, such as Coda Automotive, are indeed sourcing batteries from China, but most (including Coda) have long-term plans to build such production in the U.S.

Pickens likes H.R. 1835, which has 127 co-sponsors, because it provides a plethora of tax breaks for people who buy natural gas cars, as well as the companies that produce them. He predicted in New York that it would become law by Memorial Day.

Right now, the only natural gas car on the U.S. market is the Honda Civic GX, though Pickens said that "30 to 40" are available in Europe, from Mercedes to General Motors. Clearly, it is an uphill battle to get America hooked on the natural gas it has in abundance, and weaned away from the fossil fuel it imports (five million barrels a day from OPEC alone, he said).

Photo: Flickr/Center for American Progress