T. Boone Pickens can't read his lines. Squinting at his teleprompter, he is posing in front of a mile-long ribbon of wind turbines, churning against an endless Texas sky. Pickens is in Sweetwater, a town of 12,000 that bills itself as the nation's wind-energy capital, to shoot a commercial urging Americans to put themselves on a new energy diet: cutting out imported oil—which costs $700 billion a year—in favor of domestically produced sources such as wind and natural gas. "Our dependence on foreign oil means that we are buying from our enemies," he drawls into the camera, veering from the script. At this, the director walks onto the set, frowning his disapproval. "Don't want me to say 'enemies', huh?" Pickens deadpans as he drops his head in mock shame and scuffs his cowboy boot in the dirt. "How 'bout 'Some friends and a few a––holes?' That better?"
With that kind of blunt talk—and an estimated $3 billion fortune to back it up with action—Pickens, who last made headlines for funding the Swift Boat attack ads against John Kerry in 2004, has put himself back in the spotlight in time for the 2008 presidential election. It's an audacious act of rebranding: the flamboyant 80-year-old oilman and onetime corporate raider reborn as green wildcatter and the Web's first senior blog star. Since it was launched a month ago, www.pickensplan.com has cracked the top-1,000 list of most heavily trafficked sites worldwide, according to the Internet marketing firm Quantcast.
If you haven't yet heard of the Pickens Plan, then you've no doubt been on vacation: he has flooded TV and radio with thousands of ads urging viewers to log on to his Web site and demand that Washington overhaul the country's energy infrastructure. "The American people know something is wrong as far as energy is concerned," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They don't think they are being told the truth."
Just don't mistake Pickens for a tree-hugger. While he says he'd probably "pass a cheek-swab test" for his environmental credentials, and he believes climate change is real, Pickens favors drilling offshore and in Alaska, and more nuclear power if it will mean importing less oil. "I'm pro-everything," he says. To sell his plan, Pickens has enlisted an unlikely supporting cast of environmental leaders and top Democrats who for years loathed everything he stands for. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who once said he considered Pickens his "mortal enemy," will host him this month at a clean-energy summit in Las Vegas, along with Bill Clinton. Even Al Gore, who has his own proposal to wean the U.S. power grid from fossil fuels within a decade, pronounced the Pickens Plan "respectable" last month.
Can Pickens finish the job that Gore started? With Americans desperate for relief from $4-a-gallon gasoline, the irreverent capitalist seems to have captured public attention with an ease and flair that eluded the earnest, Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist. Forget about drowning polar bears and compact fluorescent light bulbs; Pickens is peddling pure old star-spangled self-interest. His ads feature grainy images of burning oilfields and U.S. soldiers standing watch in the desert, with an ominous soundtrack worthy of a horror film. The roiling clouds part and majestic wind turbines pop against a heartland sky. "We can take back our energy future," says the oilman. Environmentalists seem grateful for the cross-cultural messenger. "I hope he grabs that part of Middle America that we failed to reach," says Sierra Club president Carl Pope, whose endorsement is posted on Pickens's Web site.
What's in it for Pickens? He is investing $10 billion to build the world's largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. Through another venture, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., he is the country's largest private owner of natural-gas fueling stations. If demand for these sources soars, as his plan envisions, he is positioned to win big. Pickens, who claims he's worth $4 billion (Fortune says $3 billion), scoffs at the notion that he's driven by profit. "I don't need to make any more money," he says, laughing. In fact, Pickens says he doesn't even plan to erect turbines on his own 120,000-acre ranch in the panhandle, because he thinks they are "ugly." Converts to Pickens's cause don't mind if he cashes in. "I want him to make more money in wind than he did in oil," says the Sierra Club's Pope. "It has a huge impact on the conversation."
Having a huge impact is a recurring theme in Pickens's life. As a paperboy in tiny Holdenville, Okla., a plucky young Boone persuaded his boss to let him invade the routes of other boys by selling more papers. "It was my first experience in the takeover field: expansion by acquisition," he writes in his forthcoming memoir, "The First Billion Is the Hardest," to be published early next month. In it, T. (for Thomas) Boone traces his rise from boy capitalist, trained by his father, an oil-company land man, his rectitudinous mother and his stern grandmother Nellie (who once talked him into a bad lawn-mowing deal in order to teach him a lesson). Despite his success, the striving paperboy remains at his core. Over the past several years, Pickens donated $165 million to the athletics department at Oklahoma State University, his alma mater, in large part because he was tired of seeing his beloved Cowboys lose. During halftime at a game at Boone Pickens stadium, OSU athletic director Mike Holder was stunned to find the benefactor cleaning up the restroom. "People had splashed water all over the counters, thrown paper towels on the floor and Boone Pickens couldn't stand to see his investment in disarray. So without a word, he started picking up the paper towels and wiping down the counters himself," Holder told NEWSWEEK. "I think the rest of us were so embarrassed, we started to clean up quietly around him."
As the millions turned into billions, Pickens also confronted failure and loss, all in one annus horribilis in 1996. He got a divorce, lost his best friends in a car crash, and received a taste of his own medicine when he was forced out as CEO of Mesa Petroleum, the oil company he built into one of the world's largest independents. That year, he fell into clinical depression: "My dauber was down, as the saying goes." The ruthless raider writes about the heartache of having to share custody of his beloved Papillon spaniel with his ex-wife. "When I first went to pick him up, old Winston started growling at me in the front seat," he writes. "I decided it wasn't fair to Winston … so for his benefit, I just stopped." (Pickens, who today cuts a jaunty, vigorous figure, remarried in 2005—and has a new Papillon.)
Pickens likes to portray his years as a corporate buccaneer during the 1980s as "shareholder activism." When Mesa fell into a cash crisis in the mid '90s after the price of natural gas collapsed, there was no mercy for him on Wall Street. Pickens called in Texas financier Richard Rainwater, and his wife and business partner, Darla Moore, to help raise capital. (Rainwater helped another oilman, George W. Bush, escape his money problems by making him co-owner of the Texas Rangers, a deal that eventually made Bush a multimillionaire.)
Moore, a leveraged-buyout specialist dubbed "the Toughest Babe in the Business" by Fortune, tried to raise $1 billion on Wall Street for Mesa. "I found out there wasn't a bank in the country that would touch the deal if Boone was CEO," Moore told NEWSWEEK. "I tried to soften the message [but] he was really surprised. 'But I get along with all those guys,' is what he said." The Rainwaters worked out a deal for Pickens to retire as CEO, and bought him out, a deal that still rankles the billionaire. Moore whooped with surprise when told by a NEWSWEEK reporter that Pickens had compared her in his book to a "wolverine that pisses on everything it doesn't eat." Moore responds, "I think what people don't know about Boone is that deep down he is actually—I hate to say this—a nice man. And he knows more about energy than anybody in the world."
It's not as though Pickens doesn't have a few crafty deals on his own ledger. Five years ago he launched a controversial scheme to buy water rights around Roberts County, Texas, the same region of the panhandle where he plans to build his wind farm—and where he owns a 68,000-acre ranch. The idea was to pump water from the Ogallala aquifer to cities downstate. Though he never found a buyer for the water, Pickens did win the right of eminent domain for his pipeline. His attorneys applied to create an entity known as a groundwater-supply district, which was gerrymandered to include only two voters: his two ranch hands. The measure passed, to no one's surprise. Though Pickens says he has abandoned the water project, his lawyers want to use the water corridor to site a private transmission line from his panhandle wind farm to power-hungry cities. "You have to admire his guts and his gall," says Thomas (Smitty) Smith, director of Public Citizen, an advocacy group that opposed Pickens's water business.
Despite tangling with Pickens earlier, Smith supports his vision of transforming the great plains into the "Saudi Arabia of wind energy." Pickens says private investors will provide the $1 trillion or so to erect thousands of turbines through the wind corridor stretching from the panhandle to Canada. But it will take Congress and a new president to build a national power grid connecting the wind corridor—as well as the emerging solar corridor across the desert Southwest—to the nation's population centers. It's a challenge Pickens likens to creating the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. The grid could cost about $200 billion, but compared with the $700 billion exported each year to pay the country's oil tab, says Pickens, "it's a bargain."
Whether the Pickens Plan is feasible—or affordable—is an open question. But his shrewd sense of timing is beyond doubt. Last year he correctly predicted that oil would reach $100 a barrel by mid-2008, a threshold it has hovered over since May. Months before that, Pickens was plotting his $58 million media blitz to push energy independence as a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign. His needling seems to be working. In new ads promoting their own remedies, Barack Obama, John McCain—and even Paris Hilton in her spoof—dutifully echo Pickens's message about energy security. "T. Boone Pickens is right," said Obama, who also wants the country to invest heavily in renewables and al-low "limited" offshore drilling. McCain, for his part, announced an "all of the above" approach, saying he supports offshore drilling, more nuclear power plants and the development of alternative energies such as wind, solar and biofuels.
When it comes to energy, Pickens bills himself as "bipartisan." He's disappointed that Republicans whose careers he's financed, including George W. Bush, have done little in his view to guarantee energy security (a supporter of Rudy Giuliani's during this year's GOP primary season, Pickens says, "I doubt we spent five minutes talking about energy"). He says he has no plans to donate to McCain, in order to avoid confusion about his motives.
And what, exactly are those motives? This being Pickens, they are complex. He says rebuilding the American energy system "is the most important work I've ever done." It's a message even his former opponents seem to buy. "He said, 'I'm 80 years old and I want to die recognizing that I've done something for my country rather than make a lot of money for myself,'" says Senator Reid, who admitted to NEWSWEEK he found the Swift Boat ads "repulsive" and was initially suspicious of Pickens's motives now. "To be a convert on energy at the age of 80? That's pretty good." Pickens says he's always been captivated by the imaginary headline THE OLD MAN MAKES A COMEBACK. If he pulls it off, Pickens's legacy play will be the biggest deal of his career.