Ain't no wind in T. Boone Pickens' sails

The oil tycoon's support of John McCain for president demonstrates that his heavily advertised plan for wind power is only hot air.

Published August 28, 2008 10:14AM (EDT)

The epic struggle over clean energy that will define this century has been joined by the unlikeliest of Don Quixotes, ultraconservative oilman T. Boone Pickens. As Pickens tilts at billion-dollar windmill farms, he advocates the federal government enact multi-year renewable energy tax credits, require private companies to purchase alternative fuel vehicles and help build a renewable energy transmission grid.

While one can argue with some of the details of his plan, there can be no doubt his core idea is correct. To break its oil addiction, a country must embrace strong government policies, much as Brazil employed to create a transportation system with 40 percent alternative fuels.

What has driven a major backer of the Swift boat attacks on John Kerry to embrace policies that Kerry and Barack Obama strongly support but that conservatives from President Reagan to John McCain have bitterly opposed? Simply put: the impoverishment that Americans face if we continue our laissez-faire policies. As Pickens argues in a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, and in a recent interview, U.S. consumers in the next decade will engage in "the largest transfer of wealth in human history," some $10 trillion, to oil-producing nations.

"It's absolutely stupid that we're pouring out that kind of money and getting nothing for it," Pickens tells me. "There's no jobs created, no taxes paid and no profit made."

The threat to our security is equally grave, as we're importing almost 70 percent of the oil used in this country. Should our supply line fail for any reason, it would bring the U.S. to its knees. "We should have never gotten that vulnerable to that kind of a problem," Pickens says. Even without a stoppage, oil prices will soar by the end of the next decade. "I can guarantee you," asserts the lifelong oilman, "it'll be $300 a barrel."

That means roughly $9 a gallon gasoline, more than double current prices. The effects on truckers, inflation, the airline industry and the average American would be devastating. The dire situation has driven Pickens to abandon a central tenet of conservative ideology when it comes to alternative energy -- government's role should be limited.

So what is Pickens' plan? The first part is an aggressive government push toward renewable power, especially wind. "The government's going to have to provide corridors to transmit the wind energy to the East and West Coast," he says. "You need to put in a 10-year production tax credit" for wind power. The government has been renewing this tax credit a year or two at a time, sometimes letting it expire. This has caused the industry to lurch backward and forward, making stable, long-term investment all but impossible.

I couldn't agree more that we need a long-term tax credit for wind power. But I'm not in Congress. When you look at the votes over the last year that held up the extension of the production tax credit, some 90 percent of them were cast by Republicans, while 90 percent of Democrats voted for it. How does Pickens plan to get Republicans to support that kind of investment in renewables? In essence, he doesn't have an answer, other than trying to make "both Republicans and Democrats understand that this is not a partisan issue."

This is where Pickens' quixotic quest collapses, and reveals that he is not willing to put his money where his mouth is. Yes, avoiding our grim energy fate should not be a partisan issue. Yet Democrats are already in nearly unanimous agreement with his renewable energy proposals, while conservatives have done everything in their power to block them.

This conservative myopia dates back to President Reagan, who gutted Jimmy Carter's multibillion-dollar research and development budget for renewables, and ended the tax credits for wind and solar. The sad result is our country is now a bit player in what will probably be one of the biggest job-creating industries of the century, an industry we launched. We had 90 percent of global-installed wind capacity in the 1980s. Today we have one major wind manufacturer, General Electric, with about one-sixth of the market.

It is no exaggeration to say that conservatives -- led by their intellectuals -- hate government programs to promote renewables. In a recent column, George Will wrote:

Obama recently said he would "require that 10 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources by the end of my first term -- more than double what we have now." Note the verb "require" and the adjective "renewable."

Will called this "comic" and a "fairy-tale promise."

But back to requiring this or that quota of energy from renewable sources. What will that involve? For conservatives, seeing is believing; for liberals, believing is seeing. Obama seems to believe that if a particular outcome is desirable, one can see how to require it. But how does that work? Details to follow, sometime after noon, Jan. 20, 2009.

Actually, Obama has spelled out the details in his energy plan, but I wouldn't expect Will to bother using Google to find it. In any case, Will has nailed the difference between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives believe that if they haven't seen something happen yet, it can't possibly happen. Will is mocking Obama for wanting an additional 5 percent of total U.S. electricity to come from all forms of new renewable energy in five years. Maybe he should check in with his fellow conservative Pickens, who is certain that 20 percent of all U.S. electricity could come from wind power alone in 10 years.

But Pickens just can't bring himself to oppose the people who mock and block his plan, the people whose policies he says will leave this country "forever crippled." In fact, he keeps throwing money at them.

In the year ending June 30, Pickens has given nearly $100,000 to Republican Party candidates and organizations, but nothing -- zilch -- to the Democratic Party. He has thrown $38,500 to the Republican National Committee and $14,250 to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, even though the Senate failed to stop a filibuster by the Republicans who were blocking the renewable energy tax credits that Pickens knows we desperately need. Heck, Pickens has given $4,600, the maximum allowed by law, to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the global warming denier who opposes all alternatives to fossil fuels.

And then there's the man Pickens has said he is supporting for president, John McCain. The Arizonan has been one of the most consistent opponents of renewable electricity in the Senate, even though his state has some of the largest renewable resources in the country. In the past year, McCain missed eight straight votes on renewable tax credits; his spokesman made clear he would've voted against the tax credits had he bothered to show up. McCain, whose views on many subjects are as backward as could be, told Grist last year that it is nuclear power, not solar and wind power, that deserves government subsidies. He told a town hall in New Hampshire:

"When you say wind, solar and tide, most every expert that I know says that, if you maximize that in every possible way, the contribution that that would make given the present state of technology is very small, is very small. It's not a large contribution ... The truly clean technologies don't work."

OK, you might say, McCain lives in a bubble like President Bush, surrounded by out-of-touch "experts" stuck in the 1970s. Surely a conservative oilman like Pickens could change his mind. Guess again. Here's McCain at a recent town hall meeting in Michigan:

This is where Mr. Pickens and I disagree a little bit ... We all love solar. Is there anybody that doesn't love solar power? But when we look at the actual contributions, compared with the increased demand for energy that's gonna be part of America in the next 20 years, it does not meet much of those demands.

Pickens believes wind by itself could pretty much meet all those demands -- as does the Bush administration's own Department of Energy.

An important aside: If McCain believes what he is saying about clean technology, then his plan to require the United States to cut fossil fuel emissions 60 percent to 70 percent in four decades is obviously a fraud, aimed at capturing the votes of gullible independents.

If you back McCain and the GOP, then you must want energy policies that will leave this country forever crippled economically, forever vulnerable to the whims of the oil-producing nations like Russia, Venezuela and the Persian Gulf states. Until Pickens puts his money behind progressive politicians, then his quest for progressive policies will remain an impossible dream.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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