In Big Oil Texas, Democrat looks to sun and wind

HOUSTON Sun Oct 10, 2010 11:24am EDT

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - As a former oil entrepreneur, Bill White is by no means a foe of Big Oil, the engine at the heart of the Texas economy.

But if the Democrat wins the state governor's race next month, he will be spending lots of time working with two other resources in abundance in Texas -- sun and wind -- and trying to make the whole state much more energy efficient.

If successful, White could help turn oil-happy Texas into the de facto U.S. leader in alternative energy while Washington's push toward a low-carbon economy drags on in Congress.

As Houston's mayor for three terms, White burnished his clean energy credentials by championing efficiency and making the "Petro Metro" the biggest municipal clean energy purchaser in the state.

He also proved his mettle as a cool-headed, straight-talking administrator who focused on the bottom line and proved a steely crisis manager after Hurricane Ike barreled through Houston in 2008.

But White, 56, has yet to prove he can win this tough election. Most polls have him trailing Republican Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in the history of the second most populous U.S. state.

"The guy is darn near a deity in the Houston area," said Jason Stanford, a political consultant with Stanford Research in Austin, the state capital. "The challenge for him is to make his case to the rest of the state in the time that's left."

To his credit, White is already the best Democratic bet in 15 years.

"Being a conservative, fiscally careful Democrat puts White in pretty good stead," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"He's making as good a run as any Democrat has made since Ann Richards," the last Democrat to hold the office in 1991-1995.

JUMP START SOLAR

The clean energy credentials help distinguish White, but he can't call Perry a slouch on the matter. Under Perry's watch, Texas wind energy bloomed, and the state leads the nation in producing carbon-free electricity from windmills.

Surging interest in renewable energy supplies like wind and solar has made Texas a hotbed for clean-energy technology.

As governor, observers say White could take the state's success as the No. 1 U.S. wind energy producer and apply it to the solar industry, harnessing thousands of carbon-free megawatts and boosting the state's high-tech credentials.

"That would jump-start our solar industry here and get a lot of private investment," said Jim Marston, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Texas office. "It would change the solar industry in this country like we did for wind."

White says he would defend Texas' place as "energy capital of the world" as governor by focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

"We have all the natural ingredients to be the clean energy leader for the nation's future, including the largest concentration of engineers in the Western Hemisphere," White told Reuters in a recent interview.

Like many Texas politicians, White's position on energy issues is nuanced and complex.

As Deputy Energy Secretary under former President Bill Clinton, White focused on cutting costs in a giant federal agency and secured early funds for Texas first wind power.

He is no sworn enemy of Big Oil.

In his prior career as a businessman, White started an energy company that pursued oil deals in the Caspian Sea. As mayor, he served in a pro-business city that is home to more energy companies than any other U.S. city.

CYCLING AROUND TOWN

However, White has clear pro-environment proclivities.

He's an avid cyclist and public transportation advocate -- Houston's Metro light rail expanded during his watch. As mayor, he made Houston the state's biggest municipal renewable energy purchaser and went after Houston-area petroleum refiners to reduce their harmful air emissions.

"On the energy efficiency side Bill White has been a true champion," Marston said. "He made the city of Houston a model for building retro-fits and reduced air emissions from power plants."

White's one-page energy plan calls for a program to encourage home-owners to adopt energy-efficiency, retrofit government buildings to reduce energy use, and adjust the state's renewable energy targets to accentuate solar power.

In a state whose heavy refining and petroleum-extraction industries are firmly in the cross-hairs of carbon-reduction legislation being pursued by some Democrats in Congress, both White and Perry have opposed "cap-and-trade" schemes that would set limits on heat-trapping carbon emissions.

Perry has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent regulation of carbon emissions, and White has called federal emissions regulation "the wrong way to go."

Instead of regulating carbon, White said the government should tighten U.S. automobile fuel standards, boost building efficiency, and encourage utilities to switch their generators to burn natural gas instead of coal.

"The biggest culprit is emissions from coal-fired power plants," White said. "The low-hanging fruit is substituting natural and renewables for coal."

(Reporting by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jerry Norton)

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