DALLAS: Oilman T. Boone Pickens met this past week with both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders as well as think tanks and environmental groups as part of a $58 million communications initiative he's bankrolling to win support for wind power and natural gas as energy alternatives in a bid to end US dependence on oil supplied by overseas sources.
An oil tycoon advocating renewable energy might seem like an anomaly, but the Pickens campaign argues the US collectively spends $700 billion a year on foreign oil imports that continue to grow in cost and cannot be supplied by increased domestic oil production.
Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser, the VP of public affairs for BP Capital Management, said that the campaign aims to capitalize on Pickens' access to influential individuals and groups as much as possible but that the heart of the campaign lies in drawing interest and support from advocacy groups and individuals around the country. The goal is to pressure the next presidential administration and the next Congress to adopt the plan.
“One of the initial goals is to help educate the American public on the magnitude of the problem and build an army of foot soldiers in support of [the Pickens plan],” Rosser said. “We've gone through extensive focus group testing, and the country's $700 billion a year dependency figure is shocking to people. [Boone] has been out actively stress testing his plan before government leaders, business leaders, and environmental groups [prior to bringing] this plan to market.”
Rosser said the campaign includes $44 million worth of print, TV, and radio ads running through the November 11 election, with the remainder of the budget devoted to legislative and grassroots outreach and administrative costs.
New York-based Sloane and Company is assisting with media relations. USA Today, Good Morning America, and CNBC's Squawk Box program were granted interviews ahead of the press conference launching the plan a couple of weeks ago. The visit by Pickens to Capitol Hill drew an additional round of media coverage, including big stories by Politico and the Washington Post.
Some stories have noted the vested interest of Pickens in promoting a plan that calls for the construction of new wind generation facilities to produce 20% of the nation's electricity and the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel within 10 years. The Pickens-owned Clean Energy Fuels is currently funding a multimillion-dollar campaign to pass a California ballot initiative to provide $5 billion in subsidies for developing “clean energy fuels.” In addition, the Pickens-owned Mesa Power is currently building a huge wind farm in Texas.
Rosser said the vested interest had no real bearing on the campaign.
“During extensive focus group meetings, it isn't an issue at all,” he said. “People actually like individuals to invest in something they believe in. More than anything, they want leadership and a plan. The notion that Boone is doing this to advance his business interests just doesn't factor in. He has repeatedly stated he has a net worth of $4 billion, and has given away more than $700 million in the past five years. The bulk of his estate goes to charity. It's a non-starter.”
Rosser said communications going forward include active participation by Pickens on the Web site, including frequent new postings of videos of Pickens addressing visitors to the site. Advertising and media relations help build “brand awareness” and public interest in the issues, but Rosser said all outreach is geared toward building an Internet-based grassroots program that will grow “virally” through social networking sites like Facebook. The initiative also aims to draw allies from environmental groups such as Sierra Club, whose president has endorsed the Pickens plan.
“A lot of the growth of this is on its own -- all you need is a great compelling story and it goes from there,” Rosser said.
Rosser declined to say what other communications firms might be aiding in outreach online, to the DC public policy community, or other audiences, though unnamed Pickens' aides reportedly told the Dallas Morning News that Pickens had hired “a dozen lobbyists to keep his ideas in circulation.” A representative of CRC Research, which handled outreach for the Pickens-funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004, said that his firm was not involved in this latest Pickens' venture.
With the Al Gore-chaired Alliance for Climate Protection launching a similar campaign at about the same time as the Pickens plan, some energy industry analysts questioned whether the plans were complementary or competitive. Both campaigns' representatives argued that the initiatives at heart work toward the same goals.
“This just shows how important this issue has become in our country,” Alliance communications director Brian Hardwick said. “Both initiatives bring more attention to our need to break our nation's dangerous dependence on fossil fuels.
Asked if the Alliance and the Pickens' group might consider banding together in their outreach, Hardwick said simply that “at this point we have nothing to announce about teaming up.”