Whoever wins the Texas governorship in November will face a variety of pressing questions concerning one of the state's biggest industries: energy. Texas is a top producer of natural gas, oil and, more recently, wind power. As things stand now, the state is coping with a federal moratorium on new deepwater oil drilling, bracing for federal action on climate change and other air pollution, preparing for an influx of electric cars and debating whether to enact a mandate for renewable energy sources other than wind.
The following is a rundown of the gubernatorial candidates' positions on energy topics, drawn from Texas Tribune interviews this week with Gov. Rick Perry and his Democratic challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, as well as prior interviews the candidates have conducted with other media. White — who worked extensively on energy as a lawyer and served as a deputy secretary in the Department of Energy from 1993 to 1995 — rolled out an energy plan for the state this week. Texans can expect more energy news next week, as Perry keynotes a clean-carbon conference in Austin.
Who could oppose wind? Both candidates embrace the rapid growth of wind power in Texas, which stemmed largely from a renewable energy mandate signed by Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. As a Department of Energy official, White helped get federal money for one of the first wind farms in Texas, more than a decade ago. Perry tends to emphasize that it's part of his all-sources-welcome vision for energy.
On the more controversial question of big transmission lines planned across the state to support wind power — which have garnered vigorous opposition, especially in Hill Country — Perry told the San Angelo Standard-Times in a written exchange: "Although a difficult task, the [Public Utility Commission] is well-equipped to balance the economic, environmental, and personal property right issues. Many of the routes for these transmission lines have settled in a way that makes them the least intrusive for landowners, and the PUC has effectively addressed property owners' concerns where they arise."
White told the environmental website Grist: "There are some constraints with the issue of getting transmission lines built out in a way that doesn't violate the rights of landowners and doesn't interfere with other natural resources. We need to balance this against other environmental considerations involving land use. We ought to try to use existing right-of-ways as much as possible to build up transmission capacity."
Wind power has done so well that it long ago surpassed levels required in the Bush mandate, as well as a subsequent stronger mandate. But should more expensive forms of renewables — especially solar — be subject to a special mandate to encourage their growth? The PUC, whose members are appointed by the governor, is currently considering the prospect. White, in his interview with Grist, suggested that he would support a mandate for solar, provided that "it is a target that does not cause excessive costs." White is also a strong believer in energy efficiency.
Perry, asked about a non-wind mandate by the Tribune, responded, "I have always been and I remain concerned about any potential cost to consumers from government-imposed mandates." Texas has already become a leader in developing a variety of fuels — including clean coal, nuclear, solar and biofuels — without mandates, he added.
Over the next few months, hundreds or thousands of electric cars — new models from GM and Nissan — will arrive in Texas. Should the state government encourage the proliferation of these clean-burning but expensive cars? In his State of the State speech last year, Perry voiced support for a $5,000 incentive to help Texans purchase the vehicles, specifically those in more-polluted areas like Dallas or Houston. Asked by the Tribune whether he still supported that incentive, which has never been adopted, Perry responded, "I'm always going to favor incentives over government mandates." But he then pivoted to talk about his support for another type of fuel: "I personally would like to see a major effort in the state on natural gas-operated vehicles."
White, asked about electric cars, said he would "consider" an incentive but that the biggest issue was infrastructure. "The state should play a role in promoting the commercialization of an electric car infrastructure," he said, noting that in Houston, the city converted some vehicles to plug-ins during his tenure and then worked with the utility to install recharging stations that would also be available to the public.
The oil spill
The candidates reacted very differently to the April oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, yet their positions have now largely converged. A few weeks after the spill, Perry likened the accident to an "act of God." White went wonky, releasing a 10-page memo detailing the possible reasons for blow-outs deep under the sea and suggesting a blue-ribbon panel to study the spill.
Both candidates now oppose the Obama administration's moratorium on new deepwater drilling. Attorney General Greg Abbott, with Perry's blessing, has sued the federal government seeking to get the ban lifted. Perry has established a "Gulf Project" to research lessons learned from the spill. He told the Tribune: "We need to find ways to ensure that our offshore drilling is safer ... [to prevent] another event like this ever happening. And that's really what the Gulf Project is all about." He opposes "bureaucratic regulations and restrictions."
White told the Trinbune: "A moratorium is not a solution. The solution is industry standards which are best crafted by knowledgeable industry participants that would avoid the type of problem that occurred with the BP oil spill." There are some "fairly straightforward things that could be done to ensure the type of operator and design errors on the BP Horizon well will not occur again," White added. By delaying production of domestic oil and gas, "you simply increase the amount of oil coming in on tankers," White said.
This increasingly widespread method of natural-gas drilling, commonly called fracking, has stirred controversy around the country, as homeowners have complained about contamination of groundwater. In Texas, this technique is used extensively in the Barnett Shale around Fort Worth. Both Perry and White say continued drilling is vital to Texas's economy — indeed, until earlier this year, White served as a board member of BJ Services, one of several companies whose fracking methodologies are being studied by a committee in the House of Representatives.
Perry, asked by the Tribune about fracking, said, "It's been a very common practice for many years in Texas." He noted that the Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas business, has not to date recorded any cases of groundwater contamination from the technique. "I think there have been over 14,000 wells drilled in the Barnett Shale, and there's been no contamination of groundwater. So I'm confident that our regulatory structure is doing what it's supposed to be," Perry said. But his campaign previously has warned of the "dangerous chemicals" injected into the groundwater from gas drilling — in the context of raising questions over White's ties to BJ Services, according to the Austin American-Statesman.)
White has told the Houston Chronicle, "Hydraulic fracturing is essential to an affordable supply of natural gas — a clean domestic fuel — and can be done in a manner that's safe for both people and the environment."
The Environmental Protection Agency
Perry never tires of bashing the EPA as intrusive federal regulators. The agency has tried to force changes to Texas' air-pollution permitting program for big plants and also is preparing, in theory, to implement national climate change regulations — which the state says it will resist. White, though no fan of an EPA climate-regulation mandate, decries Perry's tactics as "political theater." As the state-level air-pollution permitting battles were heating up this summer, he issued a statement saying, "I guarantee you that as governor, I'll ensure Texas complies with the law and I'll bring the ability to regulate the refineries back to Texas where it belongs."
The EPA battles have captured the headlines. But behind the fireworks, what do the candidates think about whether climate change is happening and whether humans cause it?
White told the Tribune this week: "I believe that politicians should defer to scientists and bodies such as the [National Academy of Sciences] ... who believe that human activity has contributed to climate change. ... I don't believe the role of elected officials is to base opinions on science on either personal preferences or partisanship or polling." As mayor of Houston, White implemented greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, including a program to make city buildings more energy efficient.
Perry told the Tribune, "The climate has always been in a state of flux, and from the time it was formed until present, it continues to change, and our role of protecting our environment and preserving our natural heritage, if you will, should always be a priority." As to whether climate change was caused by humans, Perry said, "I think the jury is out on that assumption because of the manipulated and flawed data."