Efforts to include at least one Hispanic in President Clinton's Cabinet may again prevent Utahn Elizabeth Moler from becoming secretary of energy - for the second time in two years.

Moler, now the No. 2 official at the department, was mentioned by outgoing Energy Secretary Federico Pena as a top candidate to replace him when he announced his retirement last month.But this week, administration officials are saying instead that Pena will likely be replaced by fellow Hispanic Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

However, Barry Toiv, a White House deputy press secretary, said Thursday the reports "are at the least premature and could turn out to be wrong. This decision has not been made yet."

Anonymous White House sources have been quoted this week saying that among reasons Richardson is being considered is that the cabinet would otherwise lack a Hispanic.

Also, Richardson is knowledgeable on energy matters - and the post could help him if he chooses to run for vice president or governor in his home state of New Mexico, where energy facilities such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory are important.

That means Moler could lose out on the post for a second time. She was almost named secretary of energy after Clinton's re-election. In fact, presidential aides told the press the day before he finished filling his second-term Cabinet that Moler would be named.

However, that evening Clinton changed his mind as he came under fire for not having any Hispanics in his Cabinet.

Moler was then dropped, and Pena, who had resigned as Clinton's first-term transportation secretary, was persuaded to stay on as the new energy secretary.

Meanwhile, Moler was given the consolation prize of deputy energy secretary. She has extensive background in energy matters - including serving from 1988 until last year on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. She was also an aide for years on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A source familiar with Richardson's thinking said his switch from ambassador to energy secretary was probable and that Richardson and Clinton were expected to talk in the next day or two.

Richardson's spokesman, Calvin Mitchell, said the ambassador had not resigned.

Richard Holbrooke, one-time assistant secretary of state for European affairs and architect of the Bosnia peace accords, would be the front-runner for Richardson's job should he leave, officials said.