Altrusim aside, critics maintain the real plan of energy magnate T. Boone Pickens is making money.

Railing against the “club” of Big Oil and promising to shake up “management entrenchment,” T. Boone Pickens once turned his epic takeover battles with oil companies into a national effort to make public companies more accountable to shareholders.

He modeled his effort on a political campaign – complete with lobbyists, grass-roots supporters and his own money. A corporate raider whose duels with incumbent managers earned him millions, Pickens became the public advocate of shareholders betrayed by dull corporate bosses.

Now 80, Pickens is again casting business as a “crusade,” as a Democratic senator once put it. On commercials and in testimony before Congress, he is urging the country to use more wind power and natural gas – the focus of his own investments – to wean itself off foreign oil.

While the Texas oil and gas executive has downplayed his self-interest – he’s made enough money, he says – a company that he founded has engineered a California ballot initiative to put $5 billion toward renewable-energy incentives, much of which would benefit the firm, known as Clean Energy, by subsidizing the purchase of vehicles powered by natural gas.

Critics say the referendum, Proposition 10, could undermine Pickens’ effort to portray his “Pickens Plan” as a selfless crusade.

Based in California, Clean Energy is the biggest provider of natural gas for transportation needs. Pickens has long cultivated political ties in California, a state friendly to clean-energy interests. He recently gave Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a private briefing on the Pickens Plan. Neither Pickens nor his aides deny his financial interest in both the national campaign and the California initiative.

“That is how he’s hard-wired,” said Michelle Laxalt, Pickens’ longtime lobbyist in Washington. “He is very straightforward about that.”

But Laxalt and others close to Pickens’ effort insist money isn’t the big prize. Pickens is focused on advocating an energy policy that stresses American security, they say.

“He wants to see Americans move into a domestic self-reliance, which protects us from a lot of creepy people who hate our guts,” Laxalt said.

Energy analysts have questioned Pickens’ vision and say he’s offered few supporting details. According to the Pickens model, wind power would replace natural gas in power generation, freeing up natural gas – produced abundantly in the U.S. and Canada – for transportation.

Pickens has invested more than $2 billion in turbines for a wind farm in the Texas Panhandle. But without new transmission – paid for by utility customers – the power can’t be moved to population centers where it’s needed.

“A lot of what he’s trying to do is add value to a stranded asset,” said Kenneth B. Medlock III, an energy fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “It’s a misnomer to say he’s doing this with the country’s best interests at heart, because he’s obviously got millions of dollars on the line.”

Pickens has been promoting wind and natural gas as alternatives to oil for a long time. But he’s made a big splash since announcing a $58 million advertising campaign that allows him to speak directly to voters about his ideas.

Lawmakers from both parties have quoted his plan, and some pending legislation would help move it along.

“I’m glad he’s sending the message,” said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “He may fine-tune it for his self-interest, but that is kind of the American way.”

The California ballot initiative, funded almost entirely with $3.2 million from Clean Energy, would include about $2.9 billion to rebates for consumers who buy vehicles that don’t run on gasoline or diesel, which create more pollution than natural gas.

The measure’s critics say the initiative promotes natural-gas vehicles over other technologies. The biggest rebates, of $35,000 and $50,000, would go toward the purchase of heavy-duty trucks and transit buses fueled by natural gas.

The largest rebate for passenger vehicles – $10,000 – would be offered for “dedicated clean alternative fuel vehicles,” according to the proposed law. While electric cars would eventually qualify, only natural-gas vehicles are available now.

“A lot of people are recognizing the initiative was set up to favor the natural-gas industry involved in the transportation sector,” said Dan Kalb, California policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan group working on science environmental policy.

Andrew Littlefair, Clean Energy’s chief executive, said the company pursued the state initiative because federal policy hasn’t done enough to assist alternative energy.

In some cases, California offers more funding than the federal government for projects, such as cleaner-fuel school buses, Littlefair said.

“A lot of people have learned that if you want this stuff, you don’t wait for the federal government to do it,” he said.

So far, the initiative has received little media coverage. Its opponents plan to highlight its overall cost, about $10 billion, at a time when California is seeking cuts to deal with a $15 billion budget deficit.

For some critics, the referendum highlights Pickens’s propensity to market his business ventures as the tides that raise all boats.

Pickens often characterized his 1980s corporate-raider activities as efforts to make money for shareholders poorly served by risk-averse corporate managers. That prompted former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum to remark: “Pickens makes a crusade out of what he’s doing because he can make a lot of money.”

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