Last week, Pickens stopped by The Times to discuss his push to wean the U.S. off foreign oil by dramatically ramping up development of its infrastructure for wind and natural gas. Below is a partial transcript.
T. Boone Pickens: We are now importing oil that costs us $700 billion a year. That’s four and a half times what the Iraq war costs. Nobody running for president even speaks about this. Yet they talk a lot about the Iraq war. When you look at it, the world oil supply is about 85 million barrels of oil a day. And demand is about 86-plus million barrels a day.
So there’s a supply and demand issue, and we have Congress calling Exxon, Chevron and everybody in to say, “Tell me why you’re running the price of oil up.” Well Exxon only owns about 3% of the supply. So anybody could look at these numbers for five minutes and say Exxon has nothing to do with the price of oil. We’re wasting our time talking about speculators running up the price of oil.
Anyway, of that 85 million, we’re using 21 million. That’s 25% we’re using, with 4% of the population and 3% of the reserves. That 25% of oil in the world that we’re using every day is the problem. We’re trying to get that $700 billion down .
Jim Newton, L.A. Times: So you’re motivated in this not principally by environmental or climate change issues, but by the economic and security implications of being dependent on oil from abroad.
Pickens: That’s my position, absolutely. Gore calls me, Al calls me, we talk, he always wants me to go with him on his deal. I said, “Al, global warming’s on page 2 for me.” I said, “I believe in global warming, but the $700 billion and the 70% are on page 1.” I said, “If I still have enough energy when I get the 70% and the $700 billion fixed,” I said, “then I may help you.” But I said, “Global warming, I’m OK, that’s fine with me. I think we are having global warming. But it isn’t nearly as severe as this number.”
Jon Healey, L.A. Times: Can you talk a little bit about the infrastructure challenges of getting wind power into the grid at volume, and also of getting natural gas into the transportation sector at volume?
Pickens: You’ve got to have health in the wind corridor . Just look at how blessed we are with where our wind is. It’s in a perfect place it’s in the plains. It’s interesting because this is going to have great support. Back in 1996 when Bob Dole ran for president and I was his energy advisor, and he told me, “Energy is a sleeping dog, and I’m not going to kick the dog. And then there’s Clinton, and you won’t be much use in this case, but just in case something happens, and the subject came up, I’ll call you and you help me.”
Well, he was right on: Nothing happened in ’96. And he also told me on ethanol, he said, “Ethanol is, you say it’s a bad fuel.” I said, “Come on Bob, you spend more money making it than importing it.” And he said, “Let me explain something to you about politics: There are 21 farm states, and that’s 42 senators. Don’t go any further.” I’m getting the picture. I said, “They want ethanol.” He said, “They’re going to have ethanol.” And so he said, “Don’t waste any more of our time or your time telling us it’s a bad idea, because they’re going to do it.”
That’s the way I see this unfolding on wind, that you’re going to have 21 farm states as kind of the same state, and you’re going to get a lot of support for wind in this whole picture because the landowners want it. People say it’s so unsightly. I say, let me tell you, some people say it’s not unsightly, it looks like money. And they need the money, and they’ll do it .
I think that if Congress would do something like Eisenhower did in the Interstate highways that is to say, an emergency, which it is. It’s like war, and we need to address it in a non-partisan way . We have the vast resources of wind and solar, but the naysayers say wait a minute, solar isn’t there yet. Don’t worry about it; I have enough faith in America .
Whatever you do, this is the loser, here foreign oil. And there wouldn’t be anybody that would I don’t think, in this country that would not like to see these people lose and we win .
Healey: How long would it take to develop the east-west connections to move the power out of the wind corridor?
Pickens: In answering that question, you’re now talking about one thing: leadership. You’ve got to have it opened up. Now how quickly can that be done? It can be done quick. If Congress decided to just go with an emergency approach and say, “OK, we’ll open it up,” I think that you’ll find and one thing that came up in a meeting the other day is, look, when you’re talking to both sides of the aisle, tell them if they want to put in the grid, fine, if they don’t, we can come up with the money for it. A hundred billion is not much money as you, I mean, in a project like this. It wouldn’t be easy for you and I to do, but it isn’t when you get a room full of GEs or somebody else they can come up with the money pretty fast.
But here, let the government do it. If they don’t want to, industry will do it. Industry will be quicker; you know that. We can get it done a lot faster . You would be surprised how much you can get done in 10 years.
Healey: But there are some pretty serious NIMBY issues, though. These transmission lines, aren’t they kind of hard to site?
Pickens: That’s why I’m saying you’ve got to go emergency, and they would just have to be sited . You’ve got to sweep through, and that is a broad-brush answer to your question. I don’t know exactly, but in talking to them, they said they can do it.
Newton: So what you’re looking for from the government is some tax credit and really just a willingness to brush through whatever regulatory obstacles might exist out there. At that point, assuming those two things can be solved, at that point does private industry take it from there?
Pickens: I think private industry would do the job, yes. I think you could put together a trillion dollars to do the wind and the grid and everything else. One thing that the president asked me two months ago, he said, “When you see all this, who do you see that would do it?” And I said, “Well, you get an energy czar that reports to the president one time a year. They have to be told what to do.” And I said, “I would suggest George Patten for the job an give him the tools and tell him that’s the hill. Take the hill and report back when you get it finished.” Leadership is going to be huge in the overall plan .
Tim Cavanaugh, L.A. Times: In your list of alternative sources, I notice one that has a proven ability to generate a lot of power and that’s the one we haven’t talked about at all. And that’s nuclear.
Pickens: Oh yeah, do nuclear.
Cavanaugh: And why would be destroying the landscape of Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska .
Pickens: The people want that. Private landowners want the income from those [wind] turbines .
Cavanaugh: You’ve been getting more favorable press than you used to from the liberal media these days [laughs]. As you’ve pointed out yourself, your views are not completely aligned with people who are coming from more of an environmental standpoint. How long do you think this sort of coalition can last?
Pickens: Well, you know, you tell me. If you believe the story of $700 billion, which is a fact, and the 70%, it’s an American problem, not a liberal or a conservative problem. Either side that doesn’t like it, you know where they break down real quick: I say, OK, this is a plan, and there is no other plan. We know the natural gas will work, there’s no doubt about that. We know the $700 billion is there, we can see that and the 70%. We know the wind works, and we know it is going to revitalize part of our country and it’ll help our economy. And anybody who makes any money out of this, any profit, you’re going to pay taxes.
So what happens in the whole scheme is that it’s ours; it’s in-house. What’s your plan?
Well, there’s only one fuel that’ll work; it’s natural gas, to get you to 38%. You have to kind of accept that. You get people that say, well, I want to go to the electric car quicker. Well, the 700 keeps ticking on you on the electric car. We’re not there on the electric car. Am I opposed? No I’m not opposed. I’m for electric; I’m for anything that gets that number down. So it’s hard for somebody to take another side and say, well, here’s another fuel that’ll work or this is a better way to do it. The outflow is so huge, it kind of sets my plan up as something that’s worth looking at .
What’s been missing for 40 years is a plan. We’ve never had a plan; there’s no energy plan. And it all comes to the fact that it’s a leadership problem. Nobody decided to take it on and say, hey, we can’t do this, this is messed up. Even though we’re getting cheap oil, we’ve got to have something for our own security here in this country.
We didn’t do that, so the leadership was missing. But now, what I see is that once the thing kicks off, and we say, this is a plan, we’re going to call an emergency, we’re going to open up corridors to transmit this power to the east and the west, we’re going to have a grid and everything like that, what’ll happen is we now have something that everybody’s focused on and everybody’s working on. And you’re going to have all kinds of ideas that I think it’s a good idea because natural gas sets it up but there are going to be some better ideas than I’ve got on some of these other things that are going to happen .
You’ll think, my gosh, why didn’t we do this a long time ago? But we’ve got to have a plan; we’ve got to get something started.