[Update: David Zetland at his Aquanomics blog has linked to my piece, astutely noting that if one applies Bruce Yandle`s "Bootleggers and Baptists" metaphor to Pickens' campaign for wind power and transmission subsidies, Pickens as Bootlegger now has the Sierra Club (as the Baptists) dancing to his tune. I`ve updated my title accordingly.]
I previously reported on T. Boone Pickens' plan to suck down half of the water from that part of the Ogallala aquifer that underlies the Texas Panhandle, sell it to Dallas and put the money in his pocket - other users of the aquifer be damned. Pickens' has subsequently launched a publicity blitz to get the federal government to subsidize his wind farm power scheme.
It's now becoming clear how Pickens' water plan and wind plan are tied together, greased by corrupt Republican legislators in Texas and the apparent willingness of environmentalist leaders - anxious for "clean" energy, to turn a blind eye to Pickens' water plan.
First, let me note that Pickens and the Republican-dominated Texas legislature have just put on a marvelous display of how government, in Texas at least, is by the rich and for the rich, who are allowed to ride roughshod over the "property rights" of others.
Last year the Texas legislature, greased by $1.2 million in campaign contributions by Pickens over the previous election cycle, modified its laws who can create a "fresh water supply district" that has powers of eminent domain - powers to forcibly take land from others - and authorized such water districts to use their rights of way to carry power transmission lines. Such water districts are authorized to raise cheap money by issuing tax-exempt bonds. By securing rule changes in his favor, a Pickens-controlled district covering eight acres in the Panhandle acquired the power to issue tax-exempt bonds and to condemn private land for a pipeline and power transmission lines all the way to Dallas. In Texas, money talks and money rules - and "property rights" means nothing more than the right to collect reasonable value in compensation for what the rich want to take from you. According to one report,
Going into the 2006 election that preceded this legislative fix, Pickens personally contributed $1.2 million to state candidates and political committees. Recipients of his largesse included each of the 16 senators who faced election in 2006 and one third of the 150-member House. Republicans received 94 percent of all the money that Pickens doled out to state candidates.
Promptly upon the changes in law, Pickens deeded eight acres in Roberts County to five of his employees - two of them the only residents/locally-registered voters within the parcel - to form a water district, which was then approved by Roberts County last November. Before the change in law, as reported by Business Week, "a district's five elected supervisors needed to be registered voters living within the boundaries of the district. Now, they only had to own land in the district; they could live and vote wherever." In the past, petitions to create a water district required the support of a majority of the registered voters within the proposed district's borders; the recent changes allow a district to be formed with the backing of whoever owns the majority of the appraised land value within its proposed borders.
As further reported by Business Week,
On Nov. 6, Roberts County held an election to decide whether to form the new district. Only two people were qualified to take part: Alton and Lu Boone [the couple who manage the Pickens' ranch from which the eight acres were sold]. The vote was unanimous. With that, Pickens won the right to issue tax-free bonds for his pipeline and electrical lines as well as the extraordinary power to claim land across swaths of the state.
The water district also approved "$101 million in revenue bonds to acquire the rights-of-way through up to 12 counties for delivering water and wind-generated electricity." Earlier this years, the new water district and Mesa Power (Pickens' power company) together sent letters to about 1,100 landowners along part of the proposed 320-mile path through 11 Panhandle and Central Texas counties, telling them their "property may be affected" as the water district obtains rights of way for construction of the underground pipeline and aboveground electrical transmission lines, and hosted a number of public meetings telling landowners in Pickens' way how "fair" Pickens wants to be with them as he lays pipe and power lines across 250 foot swathes of their land.
Construction of the pipeline and transmission lines is expected to begin in 2009, to the tune of roughly $2 billion each. Pickens is set to spend $12 billion on the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle, while he expects his water investment in the area — around a $100 million so far - will earn him about $1 billion.
A second, and interesting, aspect of Pickens' development plans is that Pickens has seemed to have found a way to buy off environmental opposition to his unsustainable, get-rich-quick-at-the-expense-of-others water mining scheme by combining it with an aggressive development of wind power - also turning environmentalists into a foil for his bid for public subsidies for wind power. Carl Pope, executive for the Sierra Club - which has for the past few years prominently opposed Pickens' Ogallala reservoir development plans - now jets about with Pickens and lauds him as his new "friend"; Pickens, says Pope, "is out to save America." It's just that Pickens is going to need the help of government and taxpayers: "How to recruit the necessary public support? This would take, it seems to me, a government mandate to get the distribution network in place. ... Pickens says he has a game plan, and will announce it next week."
We obviously need big ideas and big investments, both to deal with water shortages and to replace dirty and GHG emitting energy usage; Pickens' plans may offer us a way forward. But we definitely don't need developers like Pickens using government to force these projects down our throats (and misusing government authority to take property from unconsenting landowners) or to get public subsidies. Let his plans stand on their own two feet, and let him (and the Sierra Club) keep his hands off of my wallet. I am also not in favor of water plans that accelerate a race to draw down shared but unowned resources - has the Sierra Club really changed it's stance on this?
Pickens, the Republicans in Texas and the Sierra Club should all be ashamed of their behavior.
h/t Steven Milloy (it is a bit interesting that FOX, which was a big fan of Pickens when he funded the Swift Boaters, seems to be turning aginst him now.)