T. Boone Pickens: American Hero or Savvy Lobbyist?

Whether his effort to promote the natural gas industry is good for the nation or not, it's definitely good for his wallet

600 pickens REUTERS Todd Korol.jpg

Billionaire investor T. Boone Pickens is on a mission. He has developed a plan to end the U.S.'s addiction to foreign oil, which he calls the "Pickens Plan." Among other objectives, it hopes to "utilize America's natural gas to replace imported oil as a transportation fuel." In order to make that happen, he's urging Congress to provide subsidies for natural gas. Are his intentions here as pure as he claims, or does he stand to benefit financially if natural gas succeeds?

This week, he has been making the case for natural gas subsides before the American people on various news shows, including MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Tuesday. There, he dazzled its hosts with his commitment to clean energy and a better future in America. He explained that he is pushing a bill in Congress that would provide $5 billion in natural gas subsidies to jump start the effort that the Pickens Plan calls for. But he's frustrated by some resistance he's feeling -- in particular, from Koch Industries, a large conglomerate. Pickens explained why he believes Koch is against the bill (full clip at the bottom of the post):

They want cheap natural gas: they're in the fertilizer business, that's one thing. They also import 61,000 barrels of OPEC crude a day. And they also are one of the biggest recipients of the ethanol subsidy. So, I mean, they've got a bunch of reasons. And, I really feel like this: I know Charles Koch. I've known him forever it seems like; I've done a lot of business with him. But Charles is focused on Koch Industries. But that's who pays him. I'm focused on America. I'm for a plan for us, and to get us off the OPEC oil.

Essentially, Pickens criticizes Koch for preferring government subsidies to benefit Koch Industries. But is Pickens' motivation for natural gas subsidies really any different? It isn't as altruistic as he makes it seem. Pickens is the founder and largest shareholder of the natural gas company Clean Energy Fuels Corp. Pickens' ownership of common stock and warrants add up to a 41% stake in the firm, according to the company's March 2011 10-Q filing.

The company's website says that it's "the leading provider of natural gas fuel for transportation in North America." One if its key focuses is natural gas for fleet vehicles. It even has a liquefied natural gas production facility called "The Pickens Plant."

If you take the "t" off the end of that facility's name, what do you get? The Pickens Plan: a savvy way to ensure that Pickens's big bet on natural gas pays off. The bill that Pickens is pushing specifically seeks to "promote the purchase and use of natural gas vehicles with an emphasis on heavy-duty and fleet vehicles." This is precisely Clean Energy Fuels Corp.'s business. Through the subsidies the bill would provide, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. profits and Pickens makes a lot of money, as its biggest shareholder.

At no point during the nine-minute interview on MSNBC did Pickens mention that he stands to make a significant financial gain if the bill he's promoting succeeds and natural gas usage expands. Shouldn't a news show note when one of its guests has a clear financial bias in favor of an industry that guest is promoting? If a Wall Street trader talks up a company on a business news show, any ownership stake in the firm's stock is disclosed. Shouldn't the same apply to famous investors who campaign and lobby for an industry from which they seek to benefit financially?

Pickens may truly be "focused on America" in his effort to push Congress and the public towards natural gas. But considering his big bet on the commodity, he could just as easily be focused on his wallet. If he's trying to persuade people that natural gas must be the energy source of the future, he should disclose his potential bias. That way, people can listen to his praise of the industry with a healthy skepticism.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Todd Korol

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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