The Oil Man Cometh
Saturday, 26 July 2008

By TIMOTHY EGAN

There he is, the sound of money in a wizened Texas drawl, the tired realist looking a bit like the John Huston character from "Chinatown" as he warns in national television ads that we should just listen here and do as he says.

And what the 80-year-old T. Boone Pickens says, in a $58 million campaign, is that we can't drill our way to lower gas prices. By implication, anybody who tells you otherwise — including the fellow Texan he helped put in the White House — is a fraud.
 
This is a political parable for the ages: the guy who was behind one of the knockout punches to John Kerry four years ago is now doing Democrats the biggest favor of the election by calling Republicans on their phony energy campaign.
 
"Totally misleading" is the way Pickens describes Republican attempts to convince the public that if we just opened up all these forbidden areas to oil drilling then gas prices would fall. He's not against new drilling, but he is honest enough to say it wouldn't do anything.
 
Republicans are furious at their longtime benefactor. Senator John McCain is currently running an ad in which he directly blames Barack Obama for $4-a-gallon gas at the pump — as bogus a claim as anything yet made in 2008.
 
Then along comes Pickens, Texas oilman and billionaire corporate raider, overwhelming the McCain attack with a saturation message that has the added value of being true, as Henry Kissinger once said about another matter.
 
Pickens was a geologist before he found a deep pool of money, so when he says "the geology just isn't there" to reduce oil imports through new drilling in offshore areas, he has some cred.
 
But, more importantly, Pickens is betting $10 billion in constructing what he says will be the world's largest wind farm in the gusts of West Texas. If the mighty winds of the American midsection were harnessed, it could free up plentiful natural gas for vehicles — a relatively quick step away from foreign oil.
 
Would it enrich him further? Yes. But perhaps it's not about money. In "Chinatown," the old man played by Huston was asked by Detective Jake Gittes what more he could possibly buy at his age.
 
"The future, Mr. Gittes. The future."
 
But before T. Boone poses for his statue, he has to answer to his past. Pickens was the moneybags, to the tune of $3 million, behind the Swift Boat attacks that made Senator Kerry's honorable service in Vietnam sound like Rambo tangled up in lies. He even promised to pay $1 million to anyone who could challenge the veracity of the claims.
 
After a group of veterans presented him with documents identifying 10 lies of the Swifties, Pickens broke his promise. The vets misunderstood the precise details of the $1 million offer, he said last month. Sorry, but thanks for your service, boys!
 
The old-fashioned term for this is welshing on a bet, which dishonors Wales.
 
Because so much is at stake in the energy debate, some are quick to embrace Pickens. An endorsement from Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, is prominently displayed on the Pickens Web site.
 
"To put it plainly," Pope says, "T. Boone Pickens is out to save America." I asked Pope why he lent his words to someone who had so much to do with giving us another four years of the oil intransigence of the Bush administration.
 
"Ten billion dollars gets my attention," he said.
 
No doubt, the Pickens plan makes sense. Just last week, Texas state officials gave preliminary approval to the biggest investment in clean energy in American history, backing a $4.9 billion plan to build transmission lines for wind energy.
 
Meanwhile, looking bravely to the past, Bush and McCain are trying to convince us that more oil drilling will save us from $5-a-gallon gas. History says otherwise. The number of oil and gas permits on federal land doubled in the last five years, with no effect on price or supply. And Bush's own Energy Information Administration says increased drilling wouldn't move the market in the short term.
 
McCain knows this, despite the brazen lie in his Obama gas ad. He now says drilling offshore would have "a psychological impact." Just like that "mental recession" his former chief economic adviser Phil Gramm spoke of. These guys need to get off the couch.
 
It's sad to see McCain go down this path, an easy sell for a fast-food nation. Straight talk distress.
 
Winning the argument may depend on who has the bigger megaphone. Advantage Pickens. Which means advantage Obama. Unless, of course, McCain wants to Swift Boat him, and then he knows who to turn to.

Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.

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