Stealing from Taxpayers Is the Easiest

Last week, Robert Bradley, Jr. wrote a terrific review of T. Boone Pickens’ latest autobiography, The First Billion Is the Hardest. The conclusion, in particular, is right on:

Mr. Pickens’s standing to pronounce on energy matters was earned as a free-market producer. He is now using that standing to defy the market itself.

His arguments for a government-led remake of the nation’s energy use are sketchy at best, dangerous at worst. Despite his grand claims, generating wind power is uneconomic, and transmitting it is even more so (windy places are far from electricity markets). Wind is unreliable, requiring constant backup from natural-gas-fired plants in particular. Wind takes summer days off. In Boone-speak, wind is all hat and no cattle.

As for natural gas: Mr. Pickens scarcely mentions the manifold problems with natural-gas vehicles, from the price premium for a new car (around $6,000) to the cost of fuel conversion (averaging around $12,000 per car). Converted vehicles must sacrifice trunk space to accommodate a heavy natural-gas cylinder. The task of retrofitting service stations, let alone cars, puts the cost of the Pickens Plan north of a trillion dollars. And what happens if oil prices fall and natural-gas prices spike?

Why is Mr. Pickens pushing this energy plan so hard, aside from the supposed good of the nation? The most obvious reason is that his Clean Energy Fuels Corp. — invested heavily in natural-gas dispensing stations — would be a big winner. Mr. Pickens also has on the drawing board a $10-billion wind-power project — “the biggest deal of my career.” Another reason, one suspects, is a desire to reclaim the kind of folk-hero status that Mr. Pickens lost after Mesa’s fall. He might become the “greenest” energy man since Ken Lay was at Enron and Lord John Browne rebranded the “BP” of British Petroleum to mean “beyond petroleum.”

A third reason is less obvious. Mr. Pickens refers to Big Oil as “the monster.” Why such an animus toward an industry that has been at the forefront of the American dream? As it turns out, both Mr. Pickens and his father (a failed independent) spent unhappy years at Phillips Petroleum. During the takeover battles with Big Oil, Boone was professionally and personally smeared and was ultimately denied his dream job: running an integrated major. He also links Mesa’s fall to overdrilling by the cash-flush majors.

A man is entitled to his vendettas, of course. But surely the government shouldn’t help fuel them. One hopes that Mr. Pickens can reinvent himself one more time, remembering — how did he put it? — that “the greatest opportunity lies in a free marketplace.”

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center