Pickens touts energy plan in Charlotte

T. Boone Pickens may seem an odd one to preach the saving graces of alternative energy, given he made his billions running oil and gas companies and investing in companies such as ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum.

On a visit to Charlotte this week, he said some people have even suspected he's terminally ill.

“I haven't changed. I'm still an American,” he said. He'd drill a new oil well “right now if I had a good place to drill it.” But he firmly believes the country can't continue to depend on the 12 million barrels of oil it imports each day for its future. Alternative energy, he said, “has an opportunity now.”

More North Carolinians than any other state's residents have signed onto his Pickens Pledge, he said, which asks presidential candidates Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain to enact his plan within the first 100 days in office if elected. His army, as Pickens calls it, has hit 158,000 in N.C. and includes Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan and Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. His plan calls for investing in wind turbines and using natural gas for transportation fuel.

Pickens didn't have an explanation for why he thought his plan was more popular in the Tar Heel state.

He urged consumers not to be lulled by falling gas prices, which dropped 25 cents a gallon nationwide last week alone. It's false comfort, he says, because gas prices will rise in the future. Ticking off the reasons Americans need to change energy policy, he said: Oil imports have grown to nearly 70 percent from 24 percent since 1970; Americans consume 25 percent of the world's oil but own 3 percent of the world's oil reserves.

At one point, he rose and walked to a white grease board, where, like a college professor lecturing to a class, he listed America's energy resources.

Oil. Coal. Natural gas (“This one will really do the job.”). Biofuels (“We ran that out.”). Solar. Wind. Nuclear. Geothermal. Hydro.

“What has happened to us, we've never been tasked to solve the problem because of cheap oil,” he said. “And that is killing us.”

“Oil dependence is like a drug addiction. It's cheap, we like it. We're going to use more of it.”

A longtime Republican, he is not endorsing a presidential candidate. He doesn't think either has adequately explained his energy plan.

All Obama and McCain have done, he said, is promise to make the country “energy independent,” he said, “which is probably the most stupid thing a presidential candidate has ever said. … We need oil and natural gas from Canada… and Mexico.”

As for Obama's goal to put 1 million hybrid cars on the road, “big deal,” said Pickens, who said he drives a Honda Civic powered by natural gas. “There are 250 million cars out there.”

Dressed in a black suit, Pickens sipped on a Diet Coke and dropped names during his visit with Observer editors and reporters – mentioning talks with Warren Buffett and good friend Ted Turner. “If you ever have lunch with (former presidential candidate and environmentalist) Al Gore, let him order,” he said. “He'll order you a cheeseburger and fries.”

Asked what average citizens can do, Pickens said in the future they should buy cars run by natural gas.

Earlier, he had talked at an American City Business Journals gathering in Charlotte. Was he meeting with local banks or does he have business interests in Charlotte? “No,” Pickens said, shaking his head and giving a dismissive wave of his hand.

Had he met with Bruton Smith? “Who's he?” he asked. (Smith owns Lowe's Motor Speedway and founded Sonic Automotive, one of the nation's largest automotive retailers.)

What does he think of a government bailout for automakers GM and Chrysler? “I don't care about any of that.”

Was he going to be meeting with Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy? Pickens gave a blank response.

As he was leaving, he paused to stress one last point:

“I'm for America,” he said. “We need to use our own resources instead of importing. You can't drill your way out of it.”