"Go back to sleep, America."
"The oil crisis is over."
Not so, says T. Boone Pickens in the latest commercial for his energy plan, aptly named "The Pickens Plan."
The oil tycoon and chairman of hedge fund BP Capital is championing natural gas and wind energy to wean America off foreign oil, which he calls a national security threat. This concept is the core thesis of his plan, created in June 2008.
Although he had to postpone his wind farm project this summer because of clamped capital markets and difficulties surrounding the transmission of energy generation, Pickens says the Pickens Plan is alive and unchanged. Some have theorized that he has revitalized his plan to focus more on natural gas as opposed to wind energy, but Pickens says this is not the case. He’s committed to wind energy, but says that as long as natural gas remains cheap, it’s difficult to finance wind projects. However, he notes that both forms of energy work well together; wind is not constant, but its gaps can be filled in with natural gas. In addition, Pickens recommends natural gas, not gasoline, as a fuel source for 18-wheeler trucks and buses in order to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
He’s not alone in his efforts to reduce oil use. The green revolution is under way, with FedEx
All in all, Pickens says he thinks he could cut U.S. oil imports from OPEC in half in seven to 10 years with his plan. This is not insignificant; according to the Energy Information Administration, as of November 2009, the U.S. imported 41% of its total amount of oil from OPEC countries.
In a recent interview, Pickens also discussed crude oil, the energy sector and the state of the economy. Here are some edited excerpts:
Jennifer Schonberger: Could you update me on the status of your plan?
T. Boone Pickens: It’s the same as it’s always been. I want heavy-duty trucks and buses to operate on natural gas and reduce reliance on OPEC oil ... I want to use natural gas for transportation fuel. It’s fine for power generation, too, but you don’t have to use natural gas until you get wind built out. You can use them both. They work very well together because wind is not constant, so you need a fuel to peak wind, which is natural gas. ... The sooner the better, but I think in seven to 10 years, I can cut OPEC in half.
Schonberger: And what about the wind side?
Pickens: No. 1, the transmission isn’t in place to take your power off the wind. Also, wind is priced off the margin -- the margin is natural gas, and natural gas is very cheap. So when natural gas is under $7 in MCF, it’s hard to finance a wind project.
Schonberger: Do you think natural gas prices will stay low in 2010 and for some time to come?
Pickens: Yes, I think you’re going to have low natural gas prices, which is going to hurt wind projects.
Schonberger: Realistically, how long before green energy/wind becomes an economically viable alternative? Or does it ever?
Pickens: Well, sure. But, see, what wind and solar needs is a [resolution] from Congress.
Schonberger: You said you thought the Natural Gas Act was going to pass back in October, and then of course health care took the front seat on the political agenda. Do you think there is any chance for that legislation to gain traction again this year, and if not, what impact does that have on the viability of natural gas as a fuel alternative to oil?
Pickens: Well, natural gas is being used now, but it would just make it happen faster. ... In 2008, there were 10 million vehicles globally on natural gas; I haven’t seen the numbers for 2009 yet, but I’m suspecting that they’re up dramatically over 2008. I think it will be up to 12 million. So all that is happening, but legislation would make it happen faster.
... I think there’s a good chance that the H.R. 1835 bill [the Natural Gas Act] passes in the House before Memorial Day -- it would be very popular to do it. It has 127 co-sponsors.
Schonberger: Then you believe your plan will work without legislation/government tax breaks for natural gas?
Pickens: It will.
Schonberger: Can the same be said of green energy? If the federal incentives for green energy don’t pass as many hope or expect -- i.e., the climate bill, which is now stuck in the Senate -- is private industry willing to take the reins without federal incentives?
Pickens: Probably not to the level you want to happen, but you’ll still have projects developed.
We’re in the process of finalizing a couple of deals in the north Midwest [of the] U.S. and then also in Ontario, Canada. We’re not at liberty to give too many specifics because these are private transactions that we’re still finalizing, but we’re excited about it. We’re excited about the Ontario power’s authority to feed into our program, and also the opportunity we see in the U.S. in the upcoming 12 to 18 months.
Schonberger: If private industry is willing to take the reins, maybe at a slower pace, when do you foresee that really burgeoning?
Pickens: When Congress passes [a resolution] ... for instance, utilities would have to have some percentage of renewables in their portfolio, like 15%.
Pickens: That’s right, and that helps these projects. Ted Turner and Southern Company
Schonberger: Last year was really the tale of two fuels. We saw natural gas stay near its lows, whereas oil rebounded from its lows to roughly $80 a barrel. Where do you see the price of crude oil going in 2010?
Pickens: I think it will be $90 a barrel by the end of the year.
Schonberger: Last year, the dollar and the outlook for the global economy were big drivers for oil. In your opinion, what will be the driving forces for oil this year?
Pickens: It will be demand.
Schonberger: Incidentally, how much of oil’s climb in the last five years is because it’s been treated like an asset class, or a trading vehicle like a stock?
Pickens: I don’t think it has anything to do with the price of oil.
Schonberger: In terms of hot spots you and your fund are investing in: Within the energy space, last we spoke, you favored the E&P companies. What areas do you favor most right now?
Pickens: We’re still investing in the exploration and production space. What’s going to affect that group is what happens to the price of natural gas. You’re oversupplied with natural gas right now, so the group is struggling ... But, I think they’re all good [and] well-managed, and they have an abundance of reserves. ... Those companies will come into favor at some point when natural gas prices go up.
Schonberger: What about your favorite companies? Last we spoke, you told me you favored Chesapeake Energy
Pickens: Yes, Chesapeake is good. If you want to force me to name names, then I have to name everybody. They’re all good.
Schonberger: What are your thoughts on the state of the economy? What is the best way to create jobs in America?
Pickens: I think we’re picking up, and jobs are always the last thing to follow. So it’s going to be a while before we start creating a lot of jobs. You have to get the economy going before you can create jobs.
Schonberger: Do you think cap-and-trade is a viable way to create jobs?
Pickens: No. How does carbon trading create jobs?
Schonberger: Would you trade with a cap-and-trade system?
Pickens: We don’t have any plans to participate in a carbon market at this time.
To read our previous interview with Pickens, click here.
Fool contributor Jennifer Schonberger does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. You can follow her on Twitter. Chesapeake Energy and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. FedEx is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Duke Energy and Southern Company are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.