Albert Huddleston doesn't look -- or sound -- like the tough-talking Texas oilman you might expect would be buying land-purchase options in South Dakota on which to build an oil refinery.
Huddleston is tall and solidly built. He speaks with a soft accent more evocative of his native eastern Tennessee than his decades in Texas. In fact, after awhile you realize he looks -- and sounds -- a lot like his fellow Tennessean, Al Gore, the former vice president who now champions environmental causes.
Asked about the resemblance, the CEO of Hyperion Resources, the Dallas energy company that is making plans for building an $8 billion, 400,000-barrels-per-day oil refinery/energy center, possibly in southern Union County, admits he's been approached several times in Europe by people who addressed him as "Mr. Gore."
Huddleston shares Gore's passion for the natural environment. In a meeting earlier this week with the Journal's editorial board, Huddleston explained his own, three-legged stool philosophy of how "doing business" and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.
S.D. like home
Huddleston, 55, grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Maryville, Tenn., between Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Despite the vast flatness of southern Union County, he said the area and the people remind him of home. He said his Tennessee home had an "ag feel" to it and people there took stock not in what you said you'd do, but what you did.
Huddleston left home to attend McCallie School, a well-respected boys prep school in Chattanooga, Tenn. He then attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville where he earned a degree in engineering and met his wife, Mary. She was from Texas, and the granddaughter of Texas oil tycoon, H.L. Hunt and the daughter of N. Bunker Hunt.
Huddleston is widely known to be fiercely independent of his Hunt family ties, however. His business dealings are his own, a source in his company told WFAA.com in Dallas last year.
"He's different. He's a nice guy," said Julian Saul of Dalton, Ga. Saul said he isn't familiar with Huddleston's business or environmental interests, but knows him as a fellow member at golf clubs near Chattanooga and in Florida, and through Vanderbilt, where they would see each other because all of their children went to school there. The Huddlestons have four children.
"If he likes you, he'd do anything for you," Saul told the Journal. "He's got a big ego. We call him Prince Albert." He said Huddleston's a "pretty good" golfer. "When he hits the ball, he kills it."
Huddleston said he strives for excellence. "It's really a philosophy and a mandate," he said. He said he believes it's possible to have quality business and economics, coupled with environmental sensitivity and awareness and the ability to be socially uplifting where you do business. It's his "three-legged stool.
"I won't be satisfied unless all three of those work in harmony," he said. "My business will be directed by this mantra.
"It requires more planning, more in-depth analysis. You have to push people to think outside the box, to get people to move outside their comfort level and get people to quit talking about what they've 'always done.'"
For the refinery, he said, it will mean applying the latest technology to everything. He said, for example, that the facility will use "downlighting" and will light only the areas where work is being done, rather than the entire facility all night long. He said today's computers and sensors can even adjust the amount of light to let ambient moonlight be put to use.
He noted that when the last from-scratch, greenfield refinery was built more than 30 years ago, there were no personal computers, the Environmental Protection Agency was new and the plans for that refinery were probably six or seven years old when construction started.
He said sensors, computers, better processes and new energy technology will make the new refinery more environmentally friendly than all the others in existence. Still, he acknowledged, "A refinery has to do its work."
Emissions projections and other information will be available later in the process, he said, and he promised that every process would meet or exceed state and federal requirements.
On the record
Perhaps one measure of Huddleston's commitment to the environment is his dismissal of the first site he was shown in South Dakota. He said the state and members of the Elk Point Economic Development Corp. took him first to the land west of Elk Point, along the river. The company bought some options, but Huddleston said when he saw it, with the river and the bluffs of Nebraska across the way, he knew it wouldn't be right to put a major facility like the refinery there.
He did renew the options, however, saying it was only right to pay those landowners as agreed.
Despite talk in the community, Huddleston said Hyperion did not do any core sampling of the soil there, and "absolutely" has no plans to make it a campground or staging area for the 10,000 workers that will be needed at the peak of construction.
However, he said, he understands that properly managing the work force's needs throughout the project is a part of his responsibility.
Huddleston's interest in the environment is not new.
He has a bona fide track record as an environmentalist, pouring his personal efforts and money into a number of restoration and preservation projects in Texas and filing or threatening to file lawsuits to stop projects he deems harmful.
He is widely known to have worked, and invested along with rock star Don Henley of the Eagles, in a research institute and public awareness campaign to restore Caddo Lake, Texas' only natural lake, which was being depleted by water sales and degraded by pollutants.
Along with his environmental group, called the CleanCOALition, and a local citizens group, Huddleston also sued last year to block a power company's plans to build more than a dozen coal-fired plants in Texas.
A company spokesman said Huddleston does a tremendous amount of philanthropy as well, but doesn't like it to be public.
However, it wasn't possible to keep one effort last year under wraps. Huddleston received worldwide publicity when he spent more than $100,000 to bring Iraq's under-14 boys soccer team to Dallas, where it was one of 180 teams from around the world to compete in the Dallas Cup, an international youth tournament.
WFAA.com reported that Hyperion Resources had been training Iraqi oil workers for a couple years and had signed an agreement with Iraq, hoping to play a role in developing its oil fields. But Huddleston wanted the focus on the youth and his desire to have the youth of America meet the youth of Iraq.
"You can make a difference in the lives of people where you do business," he was reported saying. "They are not mutually exclusive."
Political guy, too
Campaign finance records in Texas show Huddleston is a dogged Republican supporter. He contributed $100,000 to the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. And, he routinely contributes amounts up to the allowed limit to the campaigns of most Republican candidates for the state legislature.
South Dakota state Rep. Joel Dykstra, a Republican who is running for Democrat Tim Johnson's seat in the U.S. Senate, was among 27 state legislators who heard Huddleston speak at Dakota Dunes on Thursday. Dykstra represents Union and Lincoln counties.
"I found him to be very genuine, very professional," he said. "I thought he did a very good job of laying out the case and why we need more refining capacity in the United States and why this area is a logical location for that.
"I think it is remarkable that a CEO of a company is spending his time trying to talk directly to the parties here," Dykstra said. "He's not asking for any favors. He's just trying to calm down some of the speculation."
Dykstra said, judging from his own business experience, the company is not really ready yet for so much public dialogue, since the project's details are still evolving.
He said it's not even appropriate for the legislators to have details of the project until the plans are completed. Although he didn't expect them to vote on anything since the company is not asking for state incentives, if it did, lawmakers might make a decision based on incomplete information.