By Brad Zigler
Energy-mogul-turned-hedge-fund-manager T. Boone Pickens has spent the summer pitching his plan for American energy independence in a series of town hall meetings and media appearances across the nation. And, like any shrewd oilman, he's found a way to fund his adventure with OPM (other people's money). Stick with me a moment. I'll explain shortly.
Pickens' plan calls for a rejiggering of energy resources to provide the United States with enough technological breathing space to develop alternatives to a $700-billion-a-year imported oil habit.
Conceptually, the plan is simple: Replace the natural gas that's used in the generation of electricity with wind power. Then, use the freed-up natural gas to supplant diesel fuel in the nation's fleet of 18-wheeled tractor-trailers.
The Pickens mantra goes like this: Natural gas is clean, it's cheap and, best of all, it's American. There are plenty of natural gas reserves to tap in the United States, says Pickens. Converting the U.S. truck fleet to natural gas, using nothing but existing technology, would slash America's imported energy demand by 38% alone, giving the country time to develop a permanent energy solution and avoid energy bankruptcy.
To make Pickens' plan work, a step-up in the supply of wind-generated electricity is required. More wind turbines would have to be constructed in America's Midwestern "wind corridor." That's a trillion-dollar - yes, trillion with a "T" - investment that Pickens says can be financed privately. He claims to have the backing of Warren Buffett on that score.
Another $200 billion would be needed to build out the power grid to transmit the wind-generated energy to cities and towns. Pickens says the $1.2-trillion one-time cost, compared with the $700 billion annual expenditure for foreign oil, is a bargain.
Pickens is crisscrossing the nation to sell his plan for two reasons. First, he's building grassroots support in the wind corridor, using his folksy manner to sell the economic development and job creation potential of wind farms.
Pickens claims that developing wind power represents an investment in rural America. His model is the town of Sweetwater, Texas, a town revived when a large wind power facility was built nearby, offering high-paying construction and maintenance jobs. Wind farms don't interfere with farming and grazing, either, so the jobs are additive to local economies.
Second, Pickens is using the media and meetings with politicians to push for a national energy policy that will incorporate his "bridge to the future." Pickens has schmoozed legislators on the left and the right as well as presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama to pledge action in the next administration.
Pickens' political approach is multifaceted. His California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (CLNE) is backing Proposition 10 on the Golden State's November ballot, a measure, if passed, that would, among other things, subsidize purchases of natural gas vehicles. Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which operates the largest network of natural gas fueling stations in North America, stands to gain customers if the measure passes.
Pickens also hopes to cash in on wind-generated power through Mesa Energy, a firm he created to develop a 4,000 megawatt wind farm in the panhandle north of Sweetwater. The project, being built at a cost of about $10.5 billion, includes a 750-megawatt coal-fired generation plant to supply energy when winds are idle, a 600-megawatt natural-gas-fueled facility to handle peak loads and a 320-mile transmission line to ship electricity to the Dallas market. Altogether, the project is expected to produce 5,000 megawatts.
Pickens says he has no partners in his wind project yet, though he expects to bring in partners or, in fact, get bought out by the time the project is half completed.
Now, about that OPM financing ...
Pickens is offsetting the cost of his road show with proceeds from the sale of Clean Energy Fuels Corp. stock. Before his Pickens Plan campaign was launched on July 8, Clean Energy's shares traded at the $10 level. Over the course of the next two months, as Pickens met with pols and proles, and made countless media appearances, Clean Energy's stock price nearly doubled. When, on September 10, Pickens made appearances on CNBC with Maria Bartiromo and on CNN with Lou Dobbs, Pickens' wife began selling a 1.1-million-share stake in the company, netting $19.3 million. Her sales accounted for 17% of the company's share volume over the three-day sale period.
Pickens' Clean Energy Fuels (CLNE) Stock Sales
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who's spoken to Pickens. "If I'm going to invest money," he says, "I'm going to expect a profit."
Clean Energy shares have fallen 21% since the stock sale.