Bill White wants his home state to use a lot less coal.
The man vying to be Texas' first Democratic governor in more than a decade mentions the fossil fuel immediately when asked about the biggest difference between himself and Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
"Rick Perry is for more coal-fired plants. I'm for more natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency," said White, a former three-term mayor of Houston and deputy secretary of energy, in a phone interview with ClimateWire.
Nationally, White said he would like to see coal's usage drop from 50 to 35 percent, a decline he said could occur in a dozen years or sooner.
By taking a Houston energy-efficiency program statewide, pushing for solar incentives and appointing new members to state energy agencies who believe in "science-based decisionmaking," he has similar plans to cut coal's use in Texas. It's not that coal should be phased out in the state, but that in the future, coal plants should not be "fast-tracked," he said.
White's comments come at a pivotal point in the Texas gubernatorial contest, where Perry is seeking a third term. With less than a month until Election Day, the race is considered a tossup by political analysts such as The Cook Political Report. That raises the possibility that White could be the first Democratic governor of Texas since Ann Richards left office in 1995.
Like voters in much of the country, Texas voters are focused largely on jobs and the economy. "Energy policy is not going to swing this," said Gilbert Cuthbertson, a professor at Rice University.
But the energy ramifications of the race are huge, considering that Texas is by far the nation's biggest greenhouse gas emitter and one of its main energy producers. The state's carbon dioxide emissions are roughly double the combined output of the No. 2 and 3 CO2 spewers, California and Pennsylvania. Texas also leads the nation in the wind-powered generation capacity and consumes more electricity than any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The state's current electricity mix, in which natural gas fires roughly 42 percent, coal fires 37 percent and renewables produce 7 percent, could change significantly depending on the election's outcome because of the governor's influence over the state permitting process for energy projects, analysts say.
An end to the fight between Texas and EPA?
Texas also is at the forefront of disagreements between U.S. EPA and a handful of states over pending greenhouse gas regulations. Perry sued the federal agency this year over what he called "overreach" and "flawed science."
For White supporters, the Democrat offers hope that EPA and Texas will reach a compromise, or that the state will at least engage in less public brawling with federal regulators. White also would work behind the scenes to bring more renewables online and wean the state off of its most-polluting power plants, they say.
"Rick Perry has been an obstructionist; he has been grandstanding on the EPA," said David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed White. "White will be a facilitator." His organization placed Perry on its "dirty dozen" list for what it said was a too-close relationship with polluters.
Other environmentalists point to White's frequent mention of science guiding his decisions as evidence he would place climate-friendly policies front and center. That means putting in mandates for solar power that will match Texas' wind power boom. When asked about the cause of climate change, White said, "I do tend to defer to the scientific consensus of the National Academy of Sciences. My interpretation is what those scientists have said is, 'There is significant risk that it is man-made, and the consequences are significant.'"
But Perry backers contend that White would be an economic disaster and spur too much regulation at a time when Texas is facing a state budget shortfall that could surpass $20 billion in the next two years. White's energy plan would cost the state $4 billion and increase the average residential electric bill by $160 annually, said Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier, citing data from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.
She called White's charges "baseless." Perry, not White, is the candidate for a diverse energy economy, including renewables, she said. The governor presided over a surge in wind installations at little cost over the past decade, she said.
"The only policies [White has] proposed are to raise taxes and increase regulations on Texans," said Frazier.
Can a big-city mayor convince the Legislature?
White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said the cost figures were false and that her boss's efficiency proposals would save the state money.
White is facing opposition from many business coalitions and well-funded energy interests in the state, though. Perry has raised almost $700,000 more from the oil and gas sector in the race, for example.
"White absolutely will raise electricity prices," said Luke Bellsnyder, executive director of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, whose political action committee endorsed Perry. Perry will be much more likely to let the market work "without outside interference," he said.
White's energy roots run deep. A trained lawyer, he speaks about the legal statutes governing electrical grids with ease. When asked about his view of natural gas, he cites estimates of the number of cubic feet of the fuel sitting underneath Texas soil.
As mayor of Houston, he launched a citywide energy-efficiency program for homeowners and placed solar panels on city buildings. He publicly challenged the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to hold hearings on benzene emissions from a Houston refinery. Under his watch, the city of Houston became the state's No. 1 municipal purchaser of renewable energy.
The challenge for White, if he is elected, is that many of his energy proposals, such as tweaking the state renewable standard to boost solar capacity specifically, will require cooperation of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
"He would have problems getting things through," said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University.
When asked about the prospect of a hostile Legislature, White turned again to coal plants. He will have the power to appoint people to TCEQ, which permits new power generators. The commission should hold public hearings on permit applications for coal plants and has been rubber-stamping coal projects under Perry, he said.
The agency recently permitted a half-dozen coal plants, and several more companies are seeking approval from TCEQ. Another way to block some of the proposed plants is by pressuring utilities to switch to natural gas, which proved effective in the 1990s, White said.
"I certainly would use that power of persuasion," he said.
Fisticuffs over who supports cap and trade
In addition to changing the makeup of the TCEQ, environmentalists say there's a lot White could do to change the state's energy mix without legislative action, despite a weak governorship in Texas.
If elected, White would have power to appoint people to the state Public Utility Commission, which can establish metrics for energy-efficiency programs, among other things. An existing law allowing, but not requiring, 500 megawatts of solar power could be put into place by the commission via the rulemaking process without a new state bill, said Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Much of White's proposal to broaden Houston's energy-efficiency program could happen by applying for federal and private-sector grants, said one Democratic political aide. White would retrofit state government buildings to use less energy, an action that would boost the clean energy sector unilaterally in Texas because of the state's size, according to the aide.
Yet White may not get that chance, if recent polling holds through Election Day. Two October surveys from Rasmussen Reports and WFAA/Belo show Perry gaining strength with a double-digit lead, after September polls showed a much tighter race.
At the same time, White is the most competitive Democratic candidate in years and has a "chance," said Jones of Rice University. There is a lot of "Perry fatigue" in the state, and that, combined with White's well-funded campaign, is making it the most competitive gubernatorial race in a decade, he said. A game-changing event could turn the polls around in White's favor, he said.
Any potential game-changing event will not be a debate. Perry is declining to debate White until his Democratic opponent releases more of his income tax returns.
Instead, the two are engaging in mudslinging about energy and climate change via press releases, advertisements and interviews. White spokeswoman Bacon called Perry's refusal to debate evidence that "he wants to avoid tough questions about the fact that he's put state government up for sale and about his record of spending, debt and the $18 billion budget hole."
Perry recently hammered White for making more than $2 million on the board of Houston-based BJ Services, which was investigated by Congress this year for allegedly contaminating groundwater in the process of extracting natural gas. He claims that a memo sent from White to the Obama administration reveals support for cap-and-trade policies. There are also charges he mismanaged Houston's budget.
On White's proposal to talk more with EPA about greenhouse gas regulations, Frazier said there’s already been much correspondence between the state and the federal agency without resolution and that "Texans like action," not just talk.
White called these charges ridiculous and a complete distortion of his record. He said he is opposed to EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, "period," even though he thinks there needs to be much less public confrontation on the issue. It is Perry who should be running from the cap-and-trade issue, he said, since the governor is from the same political party as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supported cap-and-trade programs in the past.
"I oppose cap and trade, and it should be obvious from that memo that I did," said White.