T. Boone Pickens was a big name in Texas when I lived there more than 20 years ago. That name now may become familiar nationwide.
Pickens, the quintessential Texas oilman, has embarked on a $58 million ad campaign to promote wind power as an alternative to the commodity that made him rich. This barrage of TV ads coincides with rising anger and panic over $4 gasoline, so Americans may be receptive to Pickens' message.
My wife and I went to Pickens' home in Amarillo once for a wedding party for a friend. Pickens was out of town, but his wife was on hand to welcome the guests.
The house had an indoor tennis court the size of a high school gym and, in those pre-cell-phone days, it had land-line phones installed in the bathrooms. But other than those indulgences, it was a relatively modest home for someone Forbes now ranks as the 117th richest man in America.
Pickens may abide by the notion that, if you have real money, you don't have to brag about it. Pickens, now 80 years old, has $3 billion.
"I don't need more money," he said when asked if profit was one of the motives for pushing wind power. His plan, however, could add to the pile.
Pickens' company, Mesa Power, is building the world's largest wind farm near Pampa in the Texas Panhandle at a cost of $10 billion. Once it is finished, it will double the amount of energy now generated by wind nationwide.
Pickens has hired a dozen Washington lobbyists to drum up publicity for his idea of installing thousands of wind turbines across America's heartland. While he is not specific about who would pay for the national grid to transmit the electricity generated by those wind farms, he hints that the government is the obvious candidate to pick up that tab. Texas state officials, in fact, recently gave initial approval to a $4.9 billion plan to build transmission lines in the Lone Star State.
The most likely location for wind farms is the nation's wide-open midsection. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines stretching across Kansas and Nebraska. They would be unobstructed, and they certainly wouldn't spoil the scenery.
I lived in West Texas where prairie and scrub land sit atop the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil formations on earth. Every five miles or so, you would see a pump-jack bobbing up and down on the horizon, bringing sweet crude to the surface -- where it was sold, at the time, for about $30 a barrel.
I can attest that, in addition to oil, wind is another boundless natural resource in West Texas. It never stops. The wind can range from a whisper to a howling fury, a roaring blast that blows in a sudden blue norther or a dust storm that blots out the sun.
We've all heard the stories about how the plains Indians considered the oil that occasionally bubbled up out of the ground to be a nuisance. In the near future, we may get a laugh out of how generations of Texans have complained about the wind.
Part of the theme of Pickens' campaign is that increasing domestic exploration for oil will do little or nothing to affect the price of gas at the tank. He also objects to the projected $10 trillion the United States will spend on foreign oil over the next decade.
"It will be the greatest transfer of wealth from one country to other parts of the world in the history of mankind," he said.
All this has made him the new friend of liberals and environmentalists. It also makes him the bane of John McCain and others who are pushing to open the Alaskan wildlife refuge and offshore sites to drillers.
But Pickens has a lot to atone for. He is the one who bankrolled the Swift Boat attack ads against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. That makes him at least partially culpable for the re-election of George W. Bush and four more years of failing to address global warming or develop a sensible energy policy.
If it's not about the money, maybe it's about redemption.