Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, who promotes renewable energy as a way to wean the nation off of fossil fuels, has sold his stock holdings in the country's largest independent refining company.

Richardson owned stock in Valero Energy Corp. worth between $100,001 and $250,000, and had stock options valued between $250,001 and $500,000, according to a financial disclosure report filed earlier this month with the Federal Election Commission.

Richardson said Thursday he sold the oil company stock because "it was just a distraction" in his campaign.

"Because I was getting questions, I just felt it was best to divest myself," Richardson said.

However, he lauded Valero, calling it a "very reputable company that does important work."

Richardson served on Valero's board of directors from 2001 until June 2002, when he resigned after winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New Mexico. He served as energy secretary in the Clinton administration in 1998-2000.

Two weeks ago, Richardson unveiled an energy plan that called for increased production from renewable energy sources, more fuel efficient cars and steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The governor said at the time he saw no contradiction in his oil industry investments and his clean energy proposals.

Richardson also served as a director of other oil companies after leaving the Clinton administration: Houston-based Diamond Offshore Drilling and Denver-based Venoco Inc., which produces oil and gas in California, including offshore from Santa Barbara.

Valero, which is based in San Antonio, Texas, is the nation's largest independent refiner and has a network of retail gasoline stations.

The governor sold the stock last Friday and exercised his options and sold those shares, according to Pahl Shipley, a spokesman for Richardson's campaign.

Valero's stock closed last week at $74.74 a share.

Valero paid its non-employee directors, like Richardson, $25,000 a year, plus granting them stock and options.

Richardson owned 1,245 shares of Valero and had 1,667 shares under option in February 2002, according to a proxy statement filed by the company for a shareholders' meeting that year. Richardson received an additional 2,000 options in May 2002, giving him the right to purchase the stock at $41.12 a share, according to a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The state tax bite on income from Richardson's stock sales will be smaller because of personal income tax cuts enacted since he became governor. In 2003, Richardson signed into law reductions in the top marginal tax rate and an expanded deduction for capital gains.