Is T. Boon Pickens the right man to be the spokesperson for natural gas and clean energy ? It is not hard to like Mr. Pickens. He is the caricature of the penultimate wildcatter--the guy who looks the part--the rugged western individualist that any Ayn Rand devotee would find irresistible. But in order for the argument for clean energy to succeed it must do more than win over investors and environmentalists; its ultimate success will hinge in part on public opinion. Lest we forget, the ballot box is mighty and politicians are notorious for pandering to public opinion.
The problem with the public relations campaign for natural gas is that the public is less likely to find industry cheerleaders like Aubrey McClendon and T. Boon Pickens as believable as it would a Tom Hanks or an Oprah Winfrey (just to pull a couple of names out of a hat). Pickens comes with so much baggage that many politicians would have second thoughts about appearing in the same room with him. Remember that back in the 1980's Fortune Magazine called him "the most hated man in America." Pickens was also the guy who funded the Swift Boat Campaign that helped sink John Kerry's chances for the White House. While this makes him a hero to many, it also reminds others of just how shrewd an operator he really is and that doesn't necessarily add up to a plus when trying to swing broad public support to your side of the argument--even when that argument is clearly correct.
A lot has changed since Pickens days as a raider, but memories are long. To put it more bluntly, when Pickens speaks, what many Americans hear is: "Here's my plan and I stand to make a fortune if America signs off on it." It's a long leap from corporate raider and green mailer to savior of the environment. Particularly when Pickens is up to some of his old tricks down in Texas. He is accused of attempting to maneuver an eminent domain issue to favor and enhance the value of a purchase he made of 200,000 acres of water rights in Roberts County, Texas for $75 million. He has publically stated that he expects to eventually sell water from the underlying aquifer for a cool billion. No doubt Pickens is on to something. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest in the country and the value of bringing water to drought stricken areas of the nation is brilliantly entrepreneurial. While that part of Pickens plan isn't part of the official plan, it has tremendous economic potential for Pickens if he lives long enough to see it come to fruition. Suffice it to say that Pickens brings a lot of side issues and baggage to the clean energy debate.
That's the rub. We can admire Pickens for his brilliance. We can admire his plan for its practicality, but as cynical as it may sound, the natural gas industry and Pickens would have more success pushing the plan if they'd hired a better PR team or gotten Pickens to understand that face time and name recognition in the national media doesn't necessarily equate to success. People should be weighing the merits of the plan rather than Pickens' credibility. That's where the focus should be. Here's the new plan, Boone. Take your name off the plan, hire people that everyone loves and you've got a winner. You might win either way, but you'd make it a heck of a lot easier for Washington to sign off without giving the appearance that they're getting into bed with you.
Disclosure: No stocks mentioned