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United States

Coming clean on dirty politics -- Wind in the Republican camp

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Evidence of a new maturity for wind power in America is emerging in an odd way now that dirty presidential politics has merged with clean power. For several years multimillionaire Texas businessman Sam Wyly has not only been a main backer of GreenMountain.com, the Vermont seller of electricity from renewable sources such as wind, he has also backed Texas Governor and presidential hopeful George W. Bush. But it was only in early March that the two interests converged -- and in a way that made headlines in the US.

Wyly, who owns and chairs GreenMountain.com, was exposed last month as the mysterious financier of political advertisements that stirred up environmental dirt and which raised eyebrows even in America's bloodiest campaign fight for the Republican nomination in many years. The TV advertisements, which made a sudden appearance and were backed by an unknown group named "Republicans for Clean Air," attacked Republican contender John McCain as a backer of polluting electricity -- and lauded Bush for presiding over a huge drop in Texas air pollution. They were immediately slammed by green groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, who called Bush's environmental record poor and the facts on McCain inaccurate. The candidates had been rated similarly on environmental issues by consumer groups.

Ads that shocked

One of the images superimposed McCain, a US Senator who has since dropped out of the race, in front of belching power plants and utility power lines with the superimposed message, "McCain Voted Against Clean Energy." The voice-over added, "Last year, John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air," apparently a reference to McCain's vote on an amendment last year that would have increased funding for the federal renewables program.

News of the dramatic ads, run in key primary states, was quickly picked up by America's daily and weekly trade press. Then it emerged in the New York Times that it was Wyly who had paid $2.5 million for the advertisements. He and other members of his family have helped bankroll Bush for years.

Although the Wyly family made much of its fortune in oil and mining, Sam Wyly is apparently adamant that clean air be made an issue in the presidential campaign. A keen businessman, with his sons and brother he oversees several companies reportedly worth more than $1 billion.

Tom Smith of the pro-consumer group Public Citizen in Texas, says that when the bill on Texas electricity restructuring was debated, Wyly readily agreed to meet with Bush to try and convince him to keep in a provision requiring some coal-fired plants to reduce pollution. Passage of the bill, which contained the country's most progressive Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), was also expected to benefit GreenMountain.com's potential business in Texas immensely. GreenMountain.com's premium products feature wind prominently.

Wyly apparently hopes to help defend Bush from attacks on his environmentalism record and to win support, in the remainder of the White House campaign, until November, for clean electricity. Vice President Al Gore is generally the candidate of choice for environmentalists. Critics of Bush say the governor, a former oilman as is Wyly, is relentlessly in favour of big business and not especially keen on green issues. They also say that Bush, as the governor of Texas, is only the state's fifth most powerful politician and that he had little to do with passage of the RPS in the restructuring legislation.

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