Topeka With a salesman's pitch that combined patriotism and profits, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens on Wednesday kicked off his tour to get the country off imported oil.
Approximately 500 people crammed into Heritage Hall at the Kansas Expocentre to listen to the 80-year-old Pickens say, "I think we are very close to a disaster for the country."
Hundreds more stood outside as Pickens' public relations team handed out pamphlets and postcards for people wanting to get more information on his plan.
Essentially, Pickens' plan is to increase wind-generated electricity to 22 percent of the nation's total, take the natural gas that is currently used to produce electricity and use that instead to run natural gas-powered vehicles. Replacing gasoline would eliminate the need to import oil from the Middle East and Africa.
Topeka was the first stop on what Pickens said will be a $58 million campaign. The townhall meeting where Pickens spoke briefly and then took questions from the audience looked like a major campaign event filled with local politicians and officials.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius introduced Pickens, saying, "We have a crisis in America. We are borrowing money from China to import 70 percent of our oil, much of it from nations who don't like us very much. And when we burn it, it harms our planet."
Pickens said that the days of cheap oil are gone, and that buying so much oil from foreign countries threatens U.S. security. He said some of America's payments for oil are falling into the hands of terrorists.
He said changing the nation's energy policy should be the No. 1 issue in the current presidential campaign, but said neither candidate is fully addressing it.
Pickens has been criticized by some who say he is motivated by profit because he has invested heavily in wind energy and natural gas. He said the first step of his plan is to get the federal government to create a market for natural gas-powered cars by requiring that new vehicles purchased by the government use natural gas.
But those listening to his talk didn't seem to mind that Pickens was looking at his bottom line.
"The only question is will this project double or triple the worth of his natural gas holdings," said Joe Spease, chief executive of alternative energy company Windsohy in Overland Park. "But bless his heart for the wind portion" of his plan.
Spease said Kansas should be following Texas' lead in building transmission lines to export wind energy.
"Kansas needs to work on public and private collaborations," he said.
KT Walsh, an artist from Lawrence, said she doesn't mind Pickens making money off the plan as long as it gets the country moving toward renewable energy.
"This conversation needs to be happening every day in the state of Kansas," she said.
Tim Basgall of Lawrence said he wanted to find out more about Pickens' proposal.
Basgall said increasing energy prices were going to create "dire circumstances" for Americans.
"There will be no discretionary income unless we get some alternative energy. We needed to start doing something 15 years ago," he said.
Pickens also said he supported more nuclear power, more drilling in the outer continental shelf and Alaska, and other forms of energy.