T. Boone Pickens, the wildcatter “Oracle of Oil,” hedge fund founder and philanthropist who rewrote the playbook for corporate raiders, has died. He was 91.
He died Wednesday of natural causes.
Pickens had been in declining health, suffering from a series of strokes and a serious fall in 2017. In late 2017, he put his sprawling 100-square-mile Mesa Vista Ranch in the Texas Panhandle on the market for $250 million, and a few months later, he closed his energy hedge fund, BP Capital, to outside investors.
“I will sorely miss his friendship and his great wit. He was a stand-up guy from the old school. I wish there were more like him today,” said billionaire investor Carl Icahn. “He and I agreed on corporate governance … we shared the same values on shareholders’ rights.”
Pickens was known as a corporate raider in the 1980s, targeting Gulf Oil, Unocal and Phillips Petroleum, a company later targeted by Icahn. Icahn described Pickens’ Texas charm and wit. He recounted how Pickens told a major oil company CEO that his earnings were down for 10 years. Revenues were also down for 10 years, as was cash flow. Icahn remembers laughing, when Pickens said “Don’t you think that’s a trend?”
In a career that started with Phillips Petroleum, Pickens later pursued clean energy projects in wind power and natural gas.
He also was a big Republican political donor, backing George W. Bush in the Texas gubernatorial and presidential races. Guests at his ranch included Dick Cheney and Nancy Reagan.
Boone Pickens quail hunting on Mesa Vista Ranch. | Handout: Mesa Vista Ranch
He also donated more than $1 billion over the years, including hundreds of millions to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, which named its renovated football stadium after him.
Thomas Boone Pickens Jr. was born May 22, 1928, in Holdenville, Oklahoma. His father was a “landman,” who sold oil and mineral rights. During World War II, his mother was in charge of rationing in her region as head of the local Office of Price Administration.
As a 12-year-old paperboy, Pickens started out with 28 customers, but by acquiring adjacent routes one at a time he quadrupled his business.
“That was my first introduction to expanding quickly by acquisition — a talent I would perfect in my later years,” he recalled on his website.
His family moved to Amarillo, Texas, where he attended high school. After graduating in 1951 from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) with a degree in geology, Pickens started working at Phillips Petroleum.
He left three years later to drill wildcat wells, first founding Petroleum Exploration with $2,500 in cash and $100,000 in borrowed money for projects in the Texas Panhandle, and later establishing Altair Oil & Gas for exploration in western Canada. The companies became Mesa Petroleum, which Pickens took public in 1964 and became one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the United States.
Boone Pickens, Chairman, BP Capital Management | Adam Jeffery | CNBC
“Pickens was one of thousands driving around the oil states, using public phone booths as their offices, hustling, looking at deals. Selling them, getting a crew together and a well drilled and, if lucky, hitting oil or gas, dreaming all the while of making it big, really big,” Daniel Yergin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.”
“Pickens got farther than most. He was smart and shrewd, with an ability to analyze and think through a problem, step by step.”Corporate raider: ‘Big Oil was never the same’
Five years after creating Mesa, Pickens targeted Hugoton Production for a hostile takeover, seeing that the value of Hugoton’s extensive gas reserves in Kansas dwarfed its low stock price. Although Mesa was substantially smaller than Hugoton, Pickens gathered the support of its shareholders by promising greater returns and better management.
During the early 1980s, Pickens took his corporate raider talents to new levels, investing in chunks of undervalued oil companies, trying to take them over and making big profits even if the buyout failed. As described on his website:
“Pickens and his young band of hungry Mesa Petroleum managers grabbed hold of a monster and shook it like it’d never been jostled before. They rode that monster, and got thrown some, but Big Oil was never the same again.”
After accumulating more than 5% of Cities Service stock over the years, Pickens led Mesa’s attempt in 1982 to acquire the much larger oil company. Cities Service counterattacked by trying to acquire Mesa. A wild bidding war ensued, with Occidental Petroleum eventually winning Cities Service for $4 billion. Pickens still reaped $30 million in profit on his shares.
Later, Pickens made similar, but failed, attempts with Phillips Petroleum, Unocal and Gulf Oil. Gulf, one of the “Seven Sister” oil giants, defended itself by turning to Chevron as its “white knight.” Chevron wound up swallowing Gulf for $13.2 billion, but Pickens netted $404 million for Mesa shareholders for their Gulf stake.
Some accused Pickens of being a “greenmailer,” in which an investor purchased large amounts of a company, then launched a takeover to run up the price before bailing out. But Pickens rejected that label. “I never greenmailed anybody,” he said in an interview on his website.
But there was no arguing that Pickens’ takeover tactics made him a bundle. They also landed him on the cover of Time magazine. There he was in 1985, sitting behind a pile of poker chips — blue chips — and holding a hand of cards decorated by oil derricks.
Source: Birney Lettick
“He was Gordon Gekko before ‘Wall Street,’ and his influence was profound,” The New York Times’ David Gelles wrote in a January 2018 profile, referring to the villain in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie.
As a corporate raider, Pickens was a leader of the budding “shareholders rights” movement. He founded the United Shareholders Association in 1986 to pressure corporate leaders “to give the companies back to the owners, which are the shareholders.”
“I have always believed that maintaining the status quo inevitably leads to failure,” Pickens wrote in a September 2017 column for Forbes. “Back then, the notion that shareholders own the companies and managements were employees was foreign to big oil companies that would rather operate like empires. I was hell-bent on shaking things up. I was a disrupter before disrupters were cool.”‘Halftime’ at age 68
In 1996, at age 68, Pickens sold Mesa, but rather than retire, he started a new business, BP Capital Management, a hedge fund focusing on the energy industry. (BP stands for his name, not British Petroleum.)
T. Boone Pickens, founder and chief executive officer of BP Capital LLC. | Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“For most people, that would have been the end. For me, it was halftime,” he wrote in the Forbes column.
The hedge fund managed billions of dollars for investors until Pickens closed it in January 2018 because of his declining health.
A year after starting the hedge fund, he formed Pickens Fuel Corp. in 1997, promoting natural gas as an alternative to gasoline. In 2007, he spent $100 million of his own money to launch the Pickens Plan, a campaign with the goal of declaring U.S. energy independence.
The same year, the oilman announced plans to build the world’s largest wind farm — 4,000 megawatts — in the Texas Panhandle, but subsequent low natural gas prices helped to derail the plans. He turned his focus to getting Congress to offer incentives for conversion of trucks from diesel to compressed natural gas.
“I’m all American,” Pickens said. “Any energy in America beats importing.”‘Yes, I’m for Donald Trump’
During Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, Pickens helped finance the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign that questioned John Kerry’s Vietnam War record and helped undermine the Democrat’s presidential bid.
He backed Republican Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.
“Yes, I’m for Donald Trump,” Pickens declared in May 2016. “I’m tired of having politicians as president of the U.S. Let’s try something different.”
He supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his attempts to restrict visitors from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
“I’d cut off the Muslims from coming into the United States until we can vet these people,” he said. “Cut them off until we can figure out who they are.”
Aside from Republican politics, Pickens was a benefactor of numerous organizations, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ($50 million each in 2007). His $165 million donation to his OSU’s athletic department helped fund the stadium renovation. The school named the complex Boone Pickens Stadium to thank him for what it said was the largest single donation ever to any university athletic department.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, the 85-year-old Pickens married Toni Brinker, widow of Dallas restaurateur Norman Brinker, in a small ceremony in the Mesa Vista family chapel. His four previous marriages ended in divorce. She survives him, as do three daughters and two sons from previous marriages.
Days after Pickens suffered “a Texas-sized fall” in July 2017, he wrote a LinkedIn post titled “Accepting (or Embracing) Mortality.”
“Now, don’t for a minute think I’m being morbid,” he wrote. “Truth is, when you’re in the oil business like I’ve been all my life, you drill your fair share of dry holes, but you never lose your optimism. There’s a story I tell about the geologist who fell off a 10-story building. When he blew past the fifth floor he thought to himself, ‘So far so good.’ That’s the way to approach life. Be the eternal optimist who is excited to see what the next decade will bring.”
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Working natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states totaled 3,519 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending October 11, 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report (WNGSR). This is the first week that Lower 48 states’ working gas inventories have exceeded the previous five-year average since September 22, 2017. Weekly injections in three of the past four weeks each surpassed 100 Bcf, or about 27% more than typical injections for that time of year.
Working natural gas capacity at underground storage facilities helps market participants balance the supply and consumption of natural gas. Inventories in each of the five regions are based on varying commercial, risk management, and reliability goals.
When determining whether natural gas inventories are relatively high or low, EIA uses the average inventories for that same week in each of the previous five years. Relatively low inventories heading into winter months can put upward pressure on natural gas prices. Conversely, relatively high inventories can put downward pressure on natural gas prices.
This week’s inventory level ends a 106-week streak of lower-than-normal natural gas inventories. Natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states entered the winter of 2017–18 lower than the previous average. Episodes of relatively cold temperatures in the winter of 2017–18—including a bomb cyclone—resulted in record withdrawals from storage, increasing the deficit to the five-year average.
In the subsequent refill season (typically April through October), sustained warmer-than-normal temperatures increased electricity demand for natural gas. Increased demand slowed natural gas storage injection activity through the summer and fall of 2018. By November 30, 2018, the deficit to the five-year average had grown to 725 Bcf. Inventories in that week were 20% lower than the previous five-year average for that time of year. Throughout the 2019 refill season, record levels of U.S. natural gas production led to relatively high injections of natural gas into storage and reduced the deficit to the previous five-year average.
The deficit was also decreased as last year’s low inventory levels are rolled into the previous five-year average. For this week in 2019, the preceding five-year average is about 124 Bcf lower than it was for the same week last year. Consequently, the gap has closed in part based on a lower five-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report
The level of working natural gas inventories relative to the previous five-year average tends to be inversely correlated with natural gas prices. Front-month futures prices at the Henry Hub, the main price benchmark for natural gas in the United States, were as low as $1.67 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in early 2016. At about that same time, natural gas inventories were 874 Bcf more than the previous five-year average.
By the winter of 2018–19, natural gas front-month futures prices reached their highest level in several years. Natural gas inventories fell to 725 Bcf less than the previous five-year average on November 30, 2018. In recent weeks, increasing the Lower 48 states’ natural gas storage levels have contributed to lower natural gas futures prices.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report and front-month futures prices from New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX)
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 14 October 2019 – Brent: US$59/b; WTI: US$53/b
Headlines of the week
Amid ongoing political unrest, Ecuador has chosen to withdraw from OPEC in January 2020. Citing a need to boost oil revenues by being ‘honest about its ability to endure further cuts’, Ecuador is prioritising crude production and welcoming new oil investment (free from production constraints) as President Lenin Moreno pursues more market-friendly economic policies. But his decisions have caused unrest; the removal of fuel subsidies – which effectively double domestic fuel prices – have triggered an ongoing widespread protests after 40 years of low prices. To balance its fiscal books, Ecuador’s priorities have changed.
The departure is symbolic. Ecuador’s production amounts to some 540,000 b/d of crude oil. It has historically exceeded its allocated quota within the wider OPEC supply deal, but given its smaller volumes, does not have a major impact on OPEC’s total output. The divorce is also not acrimonious, with Ecuador promising to continue supporting OPEC’s efforts to stabilise the oil market where it can.
This isn’t the first time, or the last time, that a country will quit OPEC. Ecuador itself has already done so once, withdrawing in December 1992. Back then, Quito cited fiscal problems, balking at the high membership fee – US$2 million per year – and that it needed to prioritise increasing production over output discipline. Ecuador rejoined in October 2007. Similar circumstances over supply constraints also prompted Gabon to withdraw in January 1995, returning only in July 2016. The likelihood of Ecuador returning is high, given this history, but there are also two OPEC members that have departed seemingly permanently.
The first is Indonesia, which exited OPEC in 2008 after 46 years of membership. Chronic mismanagement of its upstream resources had led Indonesia to become a net importer of crude oil since the early 2000s and therefore unable to meet its production quota. Indonesia did rejoin OPEC briefly in January 2016 after managing to (slightly) improve its crude balance, but was forced to withdraw once again in December 2016 when OPEC began requesting more comprehensive production cuts to stabilise prices. But while Indonesia may return, Qatar is likely gone permanently. Officially, Qatar exited OPEC in January 2019 after 48 years of continuous membership to focus on natural gas production, which dwarfs its crude output. Unofficially, geopolitical tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which has resulted in an ongoing blockade and boycott – contributed to the split.
The exit of Ecuador will not make much material difference to OPEC’s current goal of controlling supply to stabilise prices. With Saudi production back at full capacity – and showing the willingness to turn its taps on or off to control the market – gains in Ecuador’s crude production can be offset elsewhere. What matters is optics. The exit leaves the impression that OPEC’s power is weakening, limiting its ability to influence the market by controlling supply. There are also ongoing tensions brewing within OPEC, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The continued implosion of the Venezuelan economy is also an issue. OPEC will survive the exit of Ecuador; but if Iran or Venezuela choose to go, then it will face a full-blown existential crisis.
Current OPEC membership: