- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A great many listen. That’s a good thing. T. Boone Pickens is nothing if not an aggressive innovator, and the country needs some real energy innovation right now. Last week, the Texas oil billionaire, “Swiftboat” funder and now windpower guru, took to Washington to push his “Plan.” The goal is an America free of its dependency on foreign oil. The prime method would be a network of wind turbines stretching from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota that frees up natural gas for auto fuel conversion.

How realistic is the Pickens Plan? The sheer ambition is itself telling, as are some rather Pickensian unrealities on gas. There are also lingering questions about his intent. But the proposal is surely worth Washington’s attention and that of American industry.

Mr. Pickens’ unprecedented turbine network comes in at $1 trillion, to be borne largely by the private sector plus another $200 billion for the power-transport infrastructure. The envisioned network could meet 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs if Mr. Pickens’ numbers are correct (compared to wind’s less than 1 percent of total U.S. output today). Once in operation, the United States could then shift its natural-gas consumption, presently 22 percent of U.S. electrical generation, to fuels for transportation. If this sounds like a staggering investment of money in technologies not yet very market-competitive, it is. But a one-time $1.2 trillion compares favorably to the $700 billion each year, in perpetuity, in foreign-oil payments if today’s prices persist. This is not even counting higher future demand. So speaks Mr. Pickens, and his plan deserves discourse in the public and private sectors.

Of course, there are catches. Significant tax credits came up during Mr. Pickens’ congressional testimony. This means the jazzy “private sector investment” assurances are tempered by real, unknown and probably significant budgetary impacts. Another subject of interest is Mr. Pickens’ apparent desire to bring much more Canadian natural gas across the border. Someone should tell the Canadians, who until now have made other plans for a most prized natural resource. Then there are the oilman’s investments in wind power. These can be read either as the tycoon putting his money where his mouth is or gearing up for a big future profit.

At minimum, it is good to see an oil magnate thinking big thoughts about petroleum overdependency. All the real alternatives - nuclear, natural gas, wind and more - should be on the table. For that reason it is disappointing that Mr. Pickens is not beating the drum more loudly on nuclear energy. Mr. Pickens says he is for all the energy options. That is well and good. But why not expend a comparable effort to push this clean and efficient technology? While the public is still quite wary about nuclear energy, Mr. Pickens is perhaps betting that politics will continue to quash it out of fear.

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