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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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett