PHOENIX Billionaire T. Boone Pickens expects to know within 100 days of Barack Obama taking over as president in January whether the U.S. government is going to adopt part of his ambitious and controversial energy plan.
The plan calls for an eventual overhaul of the power grid and Pickens is also betting on huge growth in wind power. But he said, as a start, the United States can move toward using natural gas in trucks as well as more renewable power.
"I think both of those will be accepted in the first 100 days of this next administration," Pickens told industry players at the annual EEI Financial Conference on Tuesday.
"I haven't been told that this is the way it's going to unfold," he said, but he saw Obama's plan to stop importing oil from the Middle East within 10 years as an indication that he favored his plan.
"I think it can be done, but you're going to have to do it with natural gas," added Pickens, who made his fortune in the energy business.
Pickens said he hoped Obama's goal would not turn out to be like President Richard Nixon's prediction in 1970, when the United States imported a quarter of its oil, that the country would no longer buy any from abroad by the end of that decade.
The United States now imports 70 percent of the oil it consumes, and Pickens said that share would rise to three-quarters and that a barrel of crude would cost $300 within a decade if the country did not adopt some sort of energy policy.
While many people have embraced his plan for its ambition, industry players say relying so heavily on natural gas to generate power is a mistake and unrealistic.
"These are bold ideas, good ideas, and are part of the answer. But they are not the complete answer," Duke Energy Corp Chief Executive Jim Rogers said in an interview.
"You've got to leave everything on the table," added Rogers, who once worked as a lawyer for Pickens's oil company. "You shouldn't take wind off the table even though where the wind is and the load is, is 1,000 miles away."
Pickens has ordered $2 billion worth of wind turbines, and will start receiving them in 2010, but he said wind projects were stalled at the moment because natural gas was so cheap.
He expects energy prices to bounce back, however, citing industry forecasts for 2009 global oil production of 85 million barrels a day, and for demand of 1 million barrels above that.
Pickens joked about the fact that when he launched his plan in July, crude oil prices were above $140 a barrel. "Today they're half that. I think I've done a pretty good job."
In arguing for his plan, he noted long-time U.S. rival Iran was moving to all natural gas vehicles because the country had so much of it.
His plan for the United States targets large vehicles that cannot run as hybrids or on battery power. He cites a move by air-quality regulators in Southern California to replace half the trash-hauling diesel trucks with natural-gas-powered trucks by paying owners $50,000 to switch when they retired one.
"You take one diesel trash truck off the road, it's equivalent to 325 cars," he said, suggesting a similar plan for U.S. freight truck owners until natural gas-run trucks were being produced in numbers that made them as cheap as diesels.
The Pickens energy plan, launched with the chief executive of leading gas producer Chesapeake Energy Corp, has been criticized because both men will benefit if it succeeds.
Pickens, noting he did have a potential interest through his stake in Clean Energy Fuels Corp, responded: "Anybody who wants to take a chance with wind can do it."
(Editing by Bernard Orr)