Column: Stew on This

Impressions of T. Boone Pickens

In Ann Arbor to campaign for his alternative energy plans for the U.S., 80-year-old Oklahoma billionaire T. Boone Pickens took center stage at the Power Center (appropriately enough) last Wednesday to a near packed house. Introduced to the predominately student audience by the president of the Michigan Student Assembly, Sabrina Shingwani, as part of Homecoming 2008, “Go Blue, Live Green,” Pickens wasted no time outlining the magnitude of the problem from our reliance on imported oil.

As the world’s largest oil consumer, the U.S. imports 21 billion barrels of oil annually at a cost $700 billion. This represents nearly 25% of the world consumption, despite the fact that we have only 4% of the world population and 3% of the oil reserves.

T. Boone Pickens . Photo by Stew Nelson

T. Boone Pickens at the Power Center in Ann Arbor. Photo by Stew Nelson.

In his witty and “good old boy” style, Pickens chided both current presidential contenders McCain and Obama for failing to outline an oil policy as part of their campaigns. Lucky for us, Pickens, a geologist by training, has a few concrete ideas for how we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Most of the ideas center on patriotism and abundant and clean-burning natural gas. Pickens himself drives a car powered by natural gas even though he only lives a mile from his office. According to Pickens, $8 of natural gas can replace $32 of gasoline. That sound like a good plan to me.

I am more confident than ever that there is hope for our country getting off our dependence on foreign oil if an octogenarian oil man from Oklahoma, who did not even mention football, can pack an auditorium as part Homecoming. Maybe the floats this year will all be drawn by hybrids?


  1. By Steve Bean
    October 5, 2008 at 1:33 pm | permalink

    Pickens made his fortune off the environmental and social destruction that resulted from our hasty and self-serving (i.e., let our kids deal with the repercussions) conversion of fossil fuels to toxic waste and global suffocation. No doubt he stands to profit unconscionably from the shift from oil to natural gas as well. The Pickens Plan is a business plan, nothing more.

    If world oil “production” didn’t already peak last May, it almost certainly will in the next eighteen months. Most experts agree that natural gas “production” will peak about ten to fifteen years after oil does. Keep in mind that in this country we use NG for heating millions of homes. Also be aware that when NG peaks, it drops off a cliff on the backside–one day you’re getting more out of the ground than ever before, and shortly thereafter it’s just gone.

    We can’t both heat our homes and fuel our cars with NG, but Pickens isn’t going to tell you that. He’s looking forward to the increased demand for NG he hopes will result from its relatively low cost compared to oil. He’ll profit from the resulting price jump while we foolishly drive more because we can “afford it” again.

    I’ll be more hopeful about our prospects when the U invites Richard Heinberg to speak, though he’d insist on addressing us remotely, rather than travel here.

    Heinberg will be doing just that for the upcoming “Fifth US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions” (, at Oakland University, in Rochester, MI, 10/31/08-11/02/08.

  2. By Stewart Nelson
    October 6, 2008 at 4:37 pm | permalink

    Good points Steve. Another good choice of a speaker would be Svend Auken, former Danish Energy Minister that helped the Danes achieve energy independence.


  3. By Steve Bean
    October 9, 2008 at 10:45 am | permalink

    I just saw an article on Alternet ( ) that gives a similar take on Pickens’ plan, with the prediction that the financial bailout will kill it.

  4. By Whit Whitman
    October 12, 2008 at 12:55 pm | permalink

    Steve, I believe the Pickens Plan is a transition plan and would use NG for long haul trucks while we get to truly renewable resources. Doesn’t transportation account for 70% of imported oil use in the USA? You do grant that NG is cleaner than gasoline and diesel, don’t you? As T Boone says, “It’s a start.” And I might add, the NG is domestic and keeps those dollars at home.

  5. By Stewart Nelson
    October 12, 2008 at 4:04 pm | permalink

    It is a start indeed and almost completely domestic if we count Canada as domestic. Warren Buffet would also profit as he owns most of the gas transmission lines.

    In the end does it really matter who profits as long as we can end our adiction to foreign oil?

  6. By Steve Bean
    October 12, 2008 at 5:26 pm | permalink

    Yes, Whit, NG pollutes less than oil. It hardly matters at this point. Not burning NG, through numerous available alternatives, is infinitely cleaner, would create jobs, and would truly strengthen our economy.

    Yes, Stew, it does matter who profits. More specifically, it matters who receives a return on investment, what is done with that return, and what are the environmental and social impacts of the initial and subsequent investments. A corporation leading the way, asking for public support for a plan that doesn’t move us toward sustainability is a mistake we can’t afford. It’s not “a start”, it’s a continuation of what got us where we are: centralized, large-scale, profit-driven decision making and consumption-focused priorities with profits spent on more consumption and promotion of more consumption, rather than localized improvements to environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity, i.e., community sustainability.

    When we allow the focus to be primarily on the economics we’re susceptible to the pitfall of thinking that incremental improvements are sufficient to address the environment and equity issues. They will only be sufficient if they can legitimately move us to where we need to go. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. That’s just over 40 years away. That may be sufficient time to invest a portion of our (limited and dwindling as well as polluting) fossil fuel resources in the development of wind and solar and a variety of small-scale renewable energy generation and comprehensive energy efficiency measures and behavioral changes. If, at the insistence of the wealthy and resistant-to-change among us, we spend the first 10 years developing a system that depends on natural gas and USES IT ALL UP IN THAT TIME moving heavy vehicles for short commutes and products long distances, we’ll have no hope of succeeding.

    We have the ability to envision a sustainable future. If we leapfrog the “transition” and and accept the reality that we’ve already burned up too much of the fossil fuels, we might get there with a livable planet.

  7. By Stewart Nelson
    October 12, 2008 at 6:08 pm | permalink

    Just curious but are you suggesting we nationalize the oil industry or cap profits in some way with a windfall profits tax?

  8. By Steve Bean
    October 12, 2008 at 9:59 pm | permalink

    I’m not suggesting either, though I think that taxing the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources (and using the revenues to subsidize the development of renewable alternatives to replace them, not to mention dropping the current subsidies for fossil fuel extraction) would be intelligent. Phasing in such taxes decades ago would have been even more intelligent, but it still may not be too late for at least a windfall profits tax, though I don’t know what would keep the oil companies from just passing most of the cost on to consumers.

    What I do suggest is to not get bogged down in such matters that we have very little say in or power to control. Instead, let’s act at the local level and work together to shift away from the unsustainable infrastructure and system components to sustainable ones. Doing so is very possible, the question is whether we are willing to do it or if we’d rather go on believing that we shouldn’t have to make that effort. I think it could be the best thing we ever do as a community. Likewise for every other community in the country.

  9. October 13, 2008 at 9:57 am | permalink

    I totally agree. Lets pull together as a community and help lead Michigan out of the economic “Dark Ages” toward a more sustainable future.