WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - He spent much of his life drilling for oil, taking over other companies and using his vast wealth to fund Republicans.
Now, though, T. Boone Pickens champions wind energy, has a Facebook profile and passes the time with grateful Democrats.
Yesterday, the famous oil tycoon made his Capitol Hill debut to promote his new cause: using American wind to alleviate the nation's energy crisis and wean itself from foreign oil dependency. He testified before a Senate committee and held meetings with Democratic leaders, calling on lawmakers to take a leadership stand.
For Pickens, 80, it's not a complete turnabout. For instance, he hasn't apologized for funding the infamous Swift Boat attack ads in 2004 against the Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry. But he is spending $58 million to advance what he calls "the Pickens Plan" to the country and its leaders.
"The American people have not been asked to do what needs to be done," he said. "I'm going to awaken the American people and they're going to see what they're up against. When they walk out of the room, they're going to turn off the lights. ...We're going to become much more sensitive to energy in the country, and that's good."
Democrats have welcomed their new friend. In Pickens, they see a powerful political example - a billionaire oilman who doesn't view drilling for more oil as the solution to the nation's energy problems.
Pickens doesn't oppose offshore drilling, a chief Bush administration proposal, he said yesterday. However, he said, there aren't enough U.S. reserves to solve the nation's energy problems.
Pickens' plan is a blueprint to harness domestic energy alternatives to reduce foreign oil dependence.
His plan envisions investing in enough turbines to provide 20 percent of the nation's energy, and reducing oil imports by a third in 10 years.
As gas prices have topped $4, Pickens joined senators in calling for political leadership for innovative solutions to energy problems.
"President Kennedy said we were going to put a man on the moon in 10 years, and by golly, we did," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.
But there's more to it than bold, political leadership, said Chris Namovicz, a research analyst at the Energy Information Administration. For instance, it's unclear how much in tax credits or other government assistance would be required.
"One would hope there would be an examination of the costs and the benefits of pursuing this goal," Namovicz said.
Pickens' star power and advertising have provided renewed interest in wind energy and a greater public willingness to examine the issue.
Randall Swisher, executive director of American Wind Energy Association, said the energy industry is seeing a fundamental change because of fuel costs, concern over national security and global warming.
"We certainly support his vision," Swisher said. "This country is going to be in a world of hurt if we don't go beyond business as usual in how we're dealing with our energy problems."
Pickens' hedge fund, BP Capital, invests in several natural gas companies, and he sits on the board of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the continent's largest provider of vehicular natural gas. He is also building a multibillion-dollar wind farm in Texas.
But Pickens said his motives are patriotic. "I only have one enemy, and that's foreign oil," he said. "I'm first an American, and second, an oil man."
Vimal Patel writes for the Los Angeles Times.