The Austin Chronicle

Shami's Shale Flail

By Richard Whittaker, February 10, 2010, 7:30am, Newsdesk

There are few sadder sights than a political campaign caught in a death-rattle flail: But the latest attempts by Farouk Shami's camp to smear Bill White as a pollution profiteer seem particularly tragic.

Going into Monday night's Democratic governor's primary debate, Shami's campaign was running 16% in the polls to 49% for White. While Public Policy Polling said today they won't be doing another poll in this race for another two weeks, no one seems to think that Shami won any fans last night.

So, knowing this going in, why did Shami waste his one question on White's stance on natural gas drilling in the the Barnett Shale? So his people could release a statement late Tuesday that "Mayor White Has Major Stake in Barnett Shale Production Company" (breathlessly adding, "Maybe that's why Mayor White won't support a moratorium on drilling.")

Actually, Shami's campaign has been seeding the ground for this attack since Jan. 29, when they put out a press release in which Shami called for White to join him in backing a drilling moratorium. The only problem is that they're playing a really tenuous game of follow-the-money. In their latest statement, they say White has $2.2 million in oil and gas investments (hey, he's a Houston lawyer, what did you expect?), "with a substantial position in the giant Exxon Mobile." In December, Exxon bought Houston-based natural gas firm XTO Energy Inc., which drills in the area.

There are pollution issues surrounding Barnett Shale gas production, so much so that the governing commission of Dish (yes, the Dish that changed its name in exchange for free Dish Network broadcasting) declared a 90-day moratorium. This was triggered by the last round of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality testing on 94 drill sites in the region, in which recorded benzene levels were extremely high at two sites and elevated at 19 more.

Moratorium? Sounds like Shami was right, right? Er, no. It's not a moratorium on drilling, but on new permits. In fact, the Houston Chronicle reports that Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman said the delay is to allow them to reform their drilling rules "to incorporate some of the greener technology." White, on the other hand, said what he backed was enforcing the rules, leaving clean sites open (which is what Dish seems to want), then hit polluters with "heavy fines." Major offenders, he added, "should be shut down."

If Shami, who has kept his candidacy afloat with multi-million donations to himself, is going after White for being wealthy, that's a tough row to hoe. If this is an attack on White's environmental credentials, then this is the worst misfire by his campaign since alleging that White is a racist because he speaks Spanish and was born in San Antonio. It was White that severed Houston from the polluter-friendly TCEQ, established an independent local Bureau of Air Quality Control and, by actually enforcing state existing regulations, cracked down on industrial polluters in Harris County and cut emissions of major carcinogens – like benzene.

The even greater dramatic irony for Shami's campaign is that, according to the Fort Worth Weekly, in January Tillman echoed White's stance when he said, "As far as I'm concerned, TCEQ is part of the industry."

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