It's beginning to feel like 1992, and not just because economic woes are dominating the presidential campaign. Last week a billionaire Texan with a disarming drawl started a media blitz to focus attention on a dire financial and public-policy problem. In 1992, it was H. Ross Perot and his charts on the deficit. Today, it's T. Boone Pickens, the 80-year-old oilman. In ads on CNBC and CNN and in newspapers—and before NEWSWEEK's editors—Pickens laid out his plan to stop the madness of spending $700 billion each year on foreign oil. "We have to take control of our own destiny as far as foreign oil is concerned." But unlike Perot, Pickens isn't interested in public office. Now running a hedge fund, and a big investor in wind energy, he's going green to make green.
Drawing pie charts and crude maps on a whiteboard, Pickens shows how the United States' need to import 70 percent (and rising) of the oil it requires has been a national disaster. Short term, Pickens believes we should drill everywhere we can. "But don't stop there, because we must do everything." That includes conservation, ethanol, nuclear and renewables.
His big idea? Harness the mighty wind that sweeps through his beloved Texas and Oklahoma—and the rest of the Great Plains—and use it to displace natural gas as a fuel for generating electricity. That would free up the plentiful domestic source—"the only fuel that would help with our transportation system right now"—to power cars instead of turbines. That would reduce the need for imported oil by 38 percent, saving about $300 billion per year.
Of course, it's not that simple. Building the infrastructure to allow for (a) the transmission of electricity from the Great Plains to population centers, and (b) the use of natural gas as a mainstream transportation fuel would require massive investments. The car-crazy United States has only 142,000 vehicles that run on natural gas. But given the potential benefits, government should step in. "This has to be done with the urgency that was used when Eisenhower built the interstate highways," says Pickens.
Pickens isn't waiting for the government. He's buying a Honda Civic GX, which runs on natural gas. And he's building a $10 billion wind farm in the Texas panhandle, where he's persuading neighboring ranchers to plant turbines in their fields. But even Pickens isn't averse to the sort of NIMBY-ism that has impeded new energy infrastructure. "There are no turbines on my ranch, because I think they are ugly."