Billionaire oilman and entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens met the Georgia tea party Thursday.
The two forces eyed each other with some admiration. But don’t expect the relationship to flourish. They don’t agree on the basics.
The occasion was the 2011 Manufacturing Summit in Dalton. For the better part of the day, Georgia’s political and economic center shifted from Atlanta to the mountains — a region that, despite hard times, still can claim more manufacturing jobs than any other area of the state.
In front of 900 or so job-hungry citizens, dozens of state officials, business executives and academics pondered an unemployment rate that remains only a whisper under 10 percent.
The first prominent speaker was U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger. More than any other House Republican from Georgia, Graves has embraced the tenets of the tea party movement. He reflects his constituency.
“I’m here to get out of your way,” Graves told the audience, declaring that the country was ailing from “a pox” of government regulation and interference.
But it was Pickens who drew the crowd. The legendary businessman has spent the past few years pushing Washington toward an energy policy, and he opened with a line familiar to anyone who has sat through any GOP breakfast in the past two years.
“We are dependent on oil from people that don’t like us,” Pickens said. He is a natural gas man and has pushed wind turbines as well. But Pickens says he isn’t picky.
“Anything from America, I’m for. I’m not even against ethanol,” he declared. “It’s an ugly baby, but it’s our baby.”
So far, so good. But from that point on, Pickens and his tea party listeners drifted apart.
For more than two years, Republican energy policy has emphasized the oil-laden phrase coined by Newt Gingrich: “Drill here, drill now.” It is based on the free-market presumption that more supply will result in less demand — and lower prices at the gas station.
Pickens, who knows more about oil than all but a handful of souls on earth, cried poppycock. The price of oil, he said, is controlled in the Middle East, by OPEC.
If Pickens told his listeners once, he told them three times: “They set the price of oil. If anybody thinks it’s a free market for oil, they’re kidding themselves. There’s no free market for oil.” And to focus merely on pushing down the price of a barrel, he said, is a Sisyphean chore that will leave this country forever in the clutches of the Middle East.
Moreover, if the game is rigged on the far side of the world, this country — for the sake of its own national security — should do some fixing of its own, Pickens argued.
His latest project is House Resolution 1380, a bill now before Congress that’s designed to promote the conversion of the 8 million tractor-trailers — the 18-wheelers that dominate the nation’s interstates — from diesel fuel to natural gas.
Five billion dollars in tax subsidies over five years would be aimed at the creation of a petroleum-free infrastructure of fueling stations and manufacturers across the country.
“As we go up on the use of our resources, it allows us to negotiate on the price of oil,” Pickens said.
The billionaire pointed his audience to his website, www.pickensplan.com, which would keep them apprised of his fight. And allows him to bring his supporters down on the Washington forces lined up against him.
Pickens said he was about to send thousands of emails the way of a Kansas congressman who had decided that, rather than embrace Pickens’ plan, he would prefer to let the free market work. “If you think OPEC is a free market, you are badly, badly missing the point,” Pickens said of the congressman. OK, so that’s four times.
Pickens didn’t mention the name of the wayward House member, but he is Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Wichita who had declared a week earlier that government shouldn’t be in the business of “picking winners and losers” in the energy field.
Pompeo is, like Graves, a newcomer to Congress and a tea party adherent. He was supported by Washington-based Americans For Prosperity, a major underwriter of the tea party movement.
In the middle of Pickens’ speech, I asked Graves whether he had endorsed HR 1380. He replied that Pickens had brought it to his attention only that morning.
Graves made no commitment and afterward spoke well of Pickens. “He’s trying to transition us from one type of fuel to another. He’s beginning to think ahead. That’s what makes him such a great entrepreneur,” the Georgia congressman said.
But Graves didn’t sound like he was leaning Pickens’ way.
“Let’s have all the options available to the American people and let them choose what’s best for them. You’ve got to create a marketplace in which everybody has the least expensive alternatives out there available,” he said. “You don’t need a manipulated marketplace to drive it. It’s all about supply and demand.”
In other words, a free market.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider