- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2011

T. Boone Pickens is truly a piece of work. The Texas billionaire has been at various times a champion of free markets and a major backer of conservative causes and candidates, but he has morphed into an unapologetic advocate of government subsidies and mandates.

His current obsession is natural gas and his belief that its abundance and current price advantage over gasoline and diesel fuel make it the perfect alternative to foreign oil. Being an investor as well as a visionary, Mr. Pickens has invested heavily in natural gas and wants the rest of us to get with the program.

To accomplish this, he has developed what he modestly calls the Pickens Plan and has rounded up a lot of support for it in Congress. He’s called on conservatives he’s supported in the past to sponsor legislation that would implement his “plan,” met with the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seeking bipartisan support, and is begging President Obama for “bold” action to solve our energy problem by embracing it, too.

The Pickens Plan would cost you and me something like $5 billion at a time when most conservatives and more than a few liberals have finally realized that mandates picking winners and subsidizing particular industries are neither popular nor effective. Mr. Pickens‘ legislative vehicle is H.R. 1380, which would help truckers buy vehicles that would run on natural gas and provide subsidies to retailers willing to sell the stuff and to you and me if we’ll just buy a natural-gas-powered car.

Mr. Pickens insists all these subsidies and mandates are needed to “kick start” the transition, but he never really mentions that much of the money he’s asking the government to ante up will end up in his pockets. Fortunately for the taxpayer, his plan is in trouble. Conservatives have dropped off as sponsors, and the House leadership isn’t anxious to bring it up for a vote anytime soon. This hasn’t stopped Mr. Pickens, who is hoping that some of his old and new friends in Congress will attach it as an amendment to some other legislation that is sure to pass.

But why would a man who spent the better part of his life competing within the market suddenly develop a business model that depends not on consumers who want to buy his product but on a government that can force them to do so? Perhaps it’s because, as Willie Sutton replied decades ago when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.” Americans used to get rich by providing consumers something they wanted, but in today’s economy, wealth is just as likely to come to those who produce schemes that appeal to politicians.

A few years ago, I attended a gathering where Mr. Pickens was holding forth on the coming energy crisis. It was his contention that all the oil and gas that was going to be discovered had by then been found and it was time to look to alternate energy sources. His list of viable alternatives included natural gas, wind and ethanol.

When he finished, a young lady rose to question his endorsement of ethanol. “Mr. Pickens,” she said, “from what I’ve read, ethanol doesn’t make much sense as an energy source. It actually hurts the environment more than fossil fuels and doesn’t produce enough energy to justify its cost. Most of what I’ve read suggests that without massive subsidies and mandates, ethanol wouldn’t be produced at all.”

Mr. Pickens looked at her and said, “That may all be true, but a lot of money is going to be made in ethanol, and it will play a major role precisely because of the mandates and subsidies. That makes it a good investment.”

He was right; a lot of folks made and still make a lot of money from ethanol. Mr. Pickens was late on that one but learned the lesson. If you can get the government to order people to use your product and subsidize it as well, you can make a lot of money.

So Mr. Pickens, who previously championed and made money via the free market, saw a new age dawning with a road to riches that led through Washington and wanted to be part of it. The result is the Pickens Plan and an alternative fuel that he can sell not to truckers and motorists, but to bureaucrats and Congress. That’s why Kevin D. Williamson, author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism,” recently called him “the perfect socialist entrepreneur.”

The sad fact, though, is that if an independent Texas oilman like T. Boone Pickens can be seduced by the prospect of government-generated riches, we had better hope there aren’t more like him out there.

David A. Keene is president of the National Rifle Association.