Think of Texas and the mental movie is obvious: old fashioned oil rigs, big hats, big hair, big boots and conservative politics. Not much room for innovation, information technology, renewable energy or energy efficiency efforts in that narrative, but Texas confounds expectations.
The state is a leading location for wind energy installations in the US, technology employment both in and out of the energy business is growing and Houston – that icon to oil production and air conditioning – has implemented a far-reaching and innovative energy efficiency building retrofit program.
Despite its image, the focus on efficient energy use and technological improvements to energy production are perfect fits for Texas and for Houston; what other city has the depth of understanding and expertise so fundamental to comprehending the real cost of wasted energy and the real opportunities in energy’s future?
Houston has the fourth largest number of LEED certified buildings in the country, according to the mayors’ climate action group C40. The city’s mayor Annise Parker, a former oil company executive herself, has led the energy efficiency and renewables education and outreach efforts in Houston, working with the Clinton Climate Initiative and other groups, including major Houston energy companies, to expand education about the ways Houston can “green” itself. Find out more on a city website here.
For a state rich in natural gas and oil and long dependent on large-scale older coal units for its power, Texas has become an unexpected forerunner in the US in integrating renewables, particularly wind power. Through the end of 2012, Texas was by far the largest installer of wind power according to the American Wind Energy Association, with more than 12,000 MW installed – far outpacing number two California, perceived as a leader in renewable generation. California only had 5,544 MW of wind power installed at the end of last year
The role of regulation in driving changes in energy use is another Texas idiosyncrasy that has allowed it to move faster than other states. The state’s power market, ERCOT, is almost entirely independent of the rest of the country’s grid system, meaning reliability tradeoffs and market design issues can be addressed by in-state regulators without the complications of federal intervention or operator parochialism. While the single-regulator approach has sometimes attracted criticism, it has given the state’s power companies room to experiment in ways what would be near-impossible in the knit-together patchworks of regulated and deregulated markets across much of the rest of the country.
That mix of deep sector specificity and locality with a global leadership position in one of the largest and most dynamic industries in the contemporary economy underpin the legal sector in the city as well. At a recent Breaking Media event in Houston hosted by Above the Law, the city’s lawyers outlined a robust hiring environment that attracts investment by global firms while remaining distinctive in its business practices and in the practice areas that thrive.
Firms with headquarters in New York, Washington DC and the Midwest have opened or expanded offices in Houston with varied success – success local attorneys say is in part dependent on understanding the uniqueness of working in Texas. Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft joined other New York firms in opening Houston offices last year, with traditional large law firms Sidley Austin, Paul Hastings and Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett all opening offices in the city and occasionally poaching lawyers from the long-running dominant local firm Vinson & Elkins.
For more on the growing role of energy law as a practice, read a previous Breaking Energy/Breaking Energy story here.
Texas has confounded expectations before, and bounced back from blows to its economy and to its energy sector leadership. The tower built by Enron continues to loom over Houston’s downtown more than a decade after the firm’s spectacular implosion, and much of the technology that has boosted availability of reserves of oil and gas in the state and the country was developed during lean years for the sector during a long stretch of low prices after overdevelopment.
With the global energy sector undergoing a transformation in response to what the World Energy Council has called a “trilemma,” Texas – and Houston – are working to learn from the boom and bust lessons of the past, while showcasing their continued leadership in developing, refining and conserving the fossil fuels on which the global economy still depends.