Pickens Plan Update

By now, anybody with a television set will surely have heard of the Pickens Plan: the notion that to achieve energy independence, the United States should rely on wind rather than natural gas to generate electricity, and use the freed-up gas to power motor vehicles. Even allowing for the element of self-interestâ''T. Boone Pickens is a major wind developer in Texas and owner of a huge natural gas companyâ''I advised readers earlier this year that if they had to choose between just the Pickens plan and Al Goreâ''s latest proposals, theyâ''d do better to go with the plan. My one reservation, and itâ''s a big one, is that the plan seems to buy little in the way of carbon reduction. Today, in a group interview, I had the opportunity to ask Pickens face-to-face about that point.

The setting for our conversation was an energy conference sponsored by Forbes magazine. In the background were reports that Pickens was having to curtail plans for his Texas wind farm and related investments in the Texas transmission system. Responding, Pickens said he had already purchased the turbines, using his own money for 30 percent of the investment and financing for 70 percent. Not surprisingly, problems are arising with the finance, but he expressed confidence that when the turbines start arriving in 2010, heâ''ll be ready to start installing them. As for a dedicated transmission line he was going to buildâ''a touchier point that he plainly did not want to dwell onâ''he said that the Texas grid operator CREZ would almost certainly build it instead.

Since launching the Pickens Plan early last July, Mr. Pickens has both given and taken some ground. He now says that he really only proposes to replace gasoline in heavy trucking, implicitly conceding that it would be impractical to convert all passenger cars to compressed natural gas. But he now bills his proposals as not merely a plan but a movement: Taking a page from Move-On, he says that more than 12 million people have visited the Pickens Plan website, and that heâ''s enlisted more than 1.4 million of them as movement members. He also had the opportunity to pitch his plan to both presidential candidates during the campaign.

With characteristic faux modesty, he said he only got an hour and a half with Candidate Obama, so they couldnâ''t get into anything in real depth.

When I asked Pickens about climate change, he immediately pegged me as the Al Gore among his questioners, correctly divining my general politics if not my preferred energy policies. He readily conceded that his focus is entirely on freeing the country of dependence on Mideast oil, and that for him, global warming is a secondary issue. But when I pressed the point, he and an aide claimed that converting all U.S. 18-wheelers to CNG would reduce their carbon emissions by about a quarterâ''not trivial, but not a hugely compelling point either.

I will not easily forgive Pickens his role in financing the mendacious swift boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004. But heâ''s a disarming man who often speaks with greater than expected candor. When I asked him whether Obama asked him any Gore-like questions during their conversation, he said no, but that Obama asked to take notes, and did so, with his aide David Axelrod looking on. Obama enthusiastically told Pickens that he wanted to see 1 million hybrid electric cars on the road within 10 years. Pickens told him that 1 million might seem like a lot if they were all parked in a big lot outside the window where they were talking, but that 250 million cars are on the road in the United States, with an additional 9 million being produced every year. â''There are?â'' Pickens said Obama exclaimed.

Pickens obviously came away from that conversation with the impression that he had made an impression.

Somebody asked Pickens what was keeping him at age 80 out on the road, on the job, 24/7. With his trademark self-effacing immodesty, Pickens said that he had been â''given an assignment,â'' and that his job is to promote his plan because â''I know more about energy than anyone.â''

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