Driving While Campaigning: Bill White Talking (Around) Climate Action

The gubernatorial candidate gamely navigates the politics of climate change

Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Bill White
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Bill White (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Is it politically possible to advocate statewide reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions while running for governor of Texas? Houston Mayor Bill White, now campaigning for the job as a Democrat, recently answered that question by ... not mentioning greenhouse gases.

"Texas has a great opportunity to be a world leader in energy-efficient fuels," he responded instead. Asked how his leadership on climate action would differ from that of Gov. Rick Perry, he responded, "Perry tried to expedite a dozen new coal-fired power plants; I and other mayors stood up against that." (In 2007, Perry signed an executive order to speed construction of 11 new plants; White was co-founder of the Texas mayors' coalition to prevent permitting them.)

White is professionally experienced in national energy and climate-action issues: He served as deputy secretary of energy for the Clinton administration, co-founded the international oil and gas exploration company Frontera Resources, and was a major industry investor through Wedge Group. He said he's read books about global warming, but he clearly prefers not to emphasize it while campaigning. "Global warming aside," he said, there are plenty of other good reasons – air quality, economic opportunity – for Texas to increase its energy efficiency, advocate natural gas over coal, and develop alternative fuels and vehicles and the state's wind and solar resources.

Gov. Rick Perry
Gov. Rick Perry (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"In Houston, we've seen that being more energy efficient is good business," he said. He cited his record as Houston mayor, which includes cutting the municipality's energy consumption by 6% through energy efficiency, despite increased demand for services due to rapid population growth. The city of Hous­ton also purchased 50 megawatts of wind energy, toughened green building standards, expanded bike paths and rail transit, and shifted to hybrid vehicles and buses. White said he also successfully persuaded the Environ­ment­al Protection Agency to more aggressively calculate pollution emitted from Hous­ton's large refining and chemical plants. "We can do the same types of things at the state level," he said. "I have long advocated that Texas join most other states in setting higher fuel and efficiency standards."

Perry has persistently denied the sufficiency of scientific evidence that climate change is real and the result of human activity. His stance and similar resistance at the Legislature has resulted in an absence of statewide programs specifically targeted at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. (That's globally significant; according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if Texas were a country, its greenhouse-gas emissions would rank seventh highest in the world.) In contrast to Perry, said White: "I do think there is scientific consensus that human activity does pose a significant risk of more active climate change. There is a risk posed by escalating levels of CO2." He continued, "No one can be precisely certain what's going to happen in 40 or 50 years, but there are risks." Then he carefully added, "If you can find ways to maintain the freedoms we have and our opportunities and standard of living without taking that risk, you should do so.

"The reality is that by reducing our energy consumed, per square foot of buildings and vehicle mile, we make our state more economically competitive," said White. "We put money in the hands of Texas consumers. We reduce emissions – greenhouse gases and others as well," and reduce smog. "We ought to be promoting renewable fuels here," he said, "and lead on fuel-efficient vehicles."

White's thoughts on the agreement in principle reached by the U.S. and other nations at December's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen? Again, he chose not to discuss solutions to global warming but to advocate other benefits of climate action: "I think it's in our national interest to waste less energy and have cleaner air." He also sidestepped addressing whether, as governor, he would support the U.N. and Obama administration targets for CO2 reductions. He replied instead, "I would like to play my role to see that the next generation in Texas has affordable electricity and cleaner air."

In the absence of mandatory greenhouse-gas emission targets at the federal level, 29 U.S. states have set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; about 20 have established hard targets by state law, or are in the process of doing so. But if that's a future step White might entertain as governor of Texas, we're unlikely to hear about it during the gubernatorial campaign. Instead, he's sticking to messages with tried-and-true political appeal: "I haven't met a single Texan who wants to pay higher utility bills."

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Bill White, climate change, environmental protection agency, global warming, Rick Perry, coal, natural gas

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