T. Boone Pickens’ Alternative Energy Hype


A version of this story ran in the December 2012 issue.

T. Boone Pickens
T. Boone Pickens  David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons

The Texas media has a long tradition of reverentially lapping up the morsels doled out by über-rich Citizen Kings, as if those folks are sages on everything from private morals to public policy.

Looking back on 2012, journalists continued celebrating the billionaire who religiously funds Karl Rove’s shadowy political machines—champion fracker and oil driller T. Boone Pickens. Both in Texas and nationally, Pickens was offered routine access to the airwaves and editorial pages, to the point where he morphed into our twangy version of Donald Trump.

But in October, while Pickens was basking in hagiography, The Center for Public Integrity quietly noted that he had just forked over a million dollars to Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, one of the heaviest supporters of right-wing politics in the nation, and one that gave well over $30 million to ultraconservative campaigns in the days leading to the November election.

And let’s not forget Pickens’ often-ignored-by-the-media history of underwriting the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, in which he conspired with pro-Bush-dynasty Texas tycoons Harold Simmons and Bob Perry. (The New Republic did a brilliant piece in April tying Simmons, Pickens and Rove).

All of which dovetails with a charade that myopic media outlets still ape: Pickens’ promotion of himself as a born-again proponent of alternative energy.
Here’s one recent example of Pickens holding the media keys: Two days before the presidential election, Pickens was in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a column endorsing Mitt Romney and slapping Obama (“… his administration has systematically launched a regulatory war on oil, gas and coal”). Karl Rove had to love seeing his bankroller ink a column in a swing state—one filled with moneymaking opportunities for Pickens to frack the holy hell out of the Marcellus Shale.

The fact that he is wrong about Obama’s energy record is almost beside the point. What the media really should investigate is why his once-ballyhooed “Pickens Plan” to promote alternative energy sources—when it was introduced four years ago some in the media embraced him as an Oilman-Prodigal-Son-turned-Rachel Carson—has, ahem, radically changed.

All the while, the media continues to ignore the fact that he is as consistent as ever in support of right-wingers pushing old, dirty energy.

Recently, tucked away in some diligent Minnesota newspapers, came the telling news that Pickens has abandoned his stake in a large-scale wind farm in that state. Earlier, he had slashed his once-lionized plans to build massive wind operations in West Texas.

Bottom line: Pickens spent 2012 pulling the plug, saying that solar and wind energy are not worth his time and money—while putting his muscle into the kind of mega PAC that makes a mockery of campaign financing.

In late summer, at an Amarillo forum, Pickens appeared in an easy chair for onstage musings elicited by The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. The chat allowed the billionaire to reminisce about his big-money water-rights deals, his preference for natural gas and Romney, and his favorite college football teams. (After The Texas Tribune’s founding, Pickens gave a $150,000 donation.)

In October, The Dallas Morning News published a Pickens piece exploring “what makes the legendary oilman’s mind tick.” Pickens, now in his 80s and accustomed to unfiltered access to the media, said, “I start every morning with, ‘Does anyone have an idea of how we can make money today?’”

That same month, Pickens was in Louisiana stumping for Big Energy pols, where he was granted friendly face time with the editorial board at the Gannett newspaper chain’s The Advertiser in Lafayette. He told them, “You’ve got a bunch of these people who are very environmentally indoctrinated and they want to shut down the coal fire plants and get on wind. Well, wind doesn’t blow every day, so they say: ‘Solar.’ Well, the sun doesn’t shine every day either.”

Years ago, eccentric billionaire H.L. Hunt’s rants against “government regulation” were dutifully written about all over Texas—even as the Dallas anti-communist advocated a new Constitution wherein rich people were given more votes than ordinary Americans.

Maybe not a lot has changed.