Oilman Flores looks to nuclear, alternative fuels for energy future

Four years ago, freshman Rep. Bill Flores (R) — a 30-year Texas oil chief with an ecumenical approach to energy policy — packed the roof of his estate with so many hidden solar panels that, by his count, he is now the largest producer of solar electricity in Brazos County.

“I will never get a return on investment, but I can afford to do it, and I thought it would be kind of fun,” he said.

Flores is an “early adopter” of new energy technologies like solar panels and CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps], and one of the few House members who can say that his energy mentality is at once free-thinking and thoroughly market-based.

He also forgoes a particular allegiance to his former industry — oil and gas — in which he made a small fortune.

“I want to make nuclear power so cost-effective that today’s utilities invest in that generating capability which has the lowest carbon footprint of anything, and the lowest land footprint of anything,” he said.

“Granted, their initial construction cost is huge. But it is the safest, most stable form of cheap electricity that you can produce. It allows us to let these coal plants to begin to phase out over time.”

“If we did this right, in 30 years we could have 70-80 percent of our baseload power produced by nuclear plants, then use all the other things — solar, biomass, natural gas, wind, you name it — things that haven’t even been invented today — to provide the peak power. That’s what I’d like to see.”

In the open market Flores envisions — his disagreement with the cap and trade legislation passed in 2009 spurred his run for office, he said — domestic oil and gas production is largely unrestricted.

So, drilling on public lands? “Go for it.”

In national parks? “Absolutely.”

“Go to the north slope of Alaska,” he said. “When we first found reserves in there, the pad structures used for drilling were much larger than they were today. But now you can drain thousands of acres with a very small footprint,” he said.

“That’s what makes me get upset with people who want to put ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Reserve) off limits. We’re talking about drilling on postage stamps.”

He cited his own district — the second-largest producer of natural gas in Texas.

“If you look at the way companies are drilling, it’s environmentally sensitive — even from a visual standpoint,” he said.

Flores, unlike many players in the Texas oil scene, did not come by his business through family.

His parents were poor ranchers, and he joined the energy industry at 26 after his then-employer, ABC in Houston, froze salaries and transfers, thwarting his plans to move to New York.

“I said to myself, ‘Here I am, working in the energy capital of the world,’” Flores said. “And I’m working for a company that’s saying ‘Everybody freeze.’”

Starting in 1980, he moved through several oil and oil field service firms, and in many cases served as CFO. He formed Phoenix Exploration with four partners in 2006.

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, he is now working on rules to streamline the permitting process for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Phoenix Exploration has had a shallow-water drilling application in for over a year, he said, which he attributed to “a little bit of Deepwater Horizon, and a lot of ideology.”

Flores also recently authored a measure to defund enforcement of controversial Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which bans the Pentagon from procuring alternative fuels with higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels, like crude oil from Canadian oil sands. The measure is now part of the fiscal 2012 defense spending bill.

Defenders of the law say it spurred the development of advanced biofuels. Flores said he’s not against this.

“You’d have thought I’ve gone anti-green,” he said. “But I didn’t say stop using biofuels, or any other kind of new technology. I just said don’t force us into buying [purely] conventional fuels, because when we do, we’re getting it from the Middle East.”

He applies the same logic to recent demands to get rid of deductions — commonly called “subsidies” — for oil and gas companies.

“The example I use in townhalls, because everybody seems to be as infatuated with these things” — he pointed to an iPad on his desk — “as I am, is: ‘Let’s go raise taxes on Apple.’

“And then I ask: ‘Does that mean Apple is going to produce more [iPads] at a cheaper cost?’ Everybody knows intuitively that [they] can’t.”

“It’s just sort of part of our culture to throw rocks at [oil companies], even though some are exceptionally well-run,” he said.

“At Phoenix [Exploration], we had 50 employees on a $6 million payroll. If you do the math, that means your average salary is about $120,000.”

“That’s how you build a middle class.”