Smog alert

The Texas governor is trying to clear the air about his environmental record -- trouble is, the state's alarming pollution levels are getting in the way.

By Robert Bryce
Published November 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

While the press and Texas environmentalists have been hammering away on George W. Bush's environmental record, the Texas governor has tried to accentuate the positive.

For instance, early last month, he attended the dedication of a new 3,200-acre state wildlife management area on the Gulf Coast, 50 miles south of Houston, a city that has just earned the notorious distinction of having the dirtiest air in America. During the dedication, Bush posed for TV cameras and talked about "balancing the benefits of wildlife and the environment with a common-sense realization" that development is going to happen.

Two weeks later, just one day after a coalition of environmental groups bashed him for Texas' air-quality problems, Bush appeared in Dallas to laud the conversion of a formerly contaminated industrial site into a mission for homeless people. "All of our prosperity means nothing if we leave future generations with land that is contaminated," Bush told the reporters in attendance, offering a mild revision of his standard campaign stump speech, preaching conservatism with a smile.

Unfortunately for Bush, the two photo ops won't change his legacy. During his tenure, air quality in the state's metropolitan areas has deteriorated, and during the last legislative session, Bush invited industry lobbyists to write environmental cleanup legislation, a move that outraged state environmentalists who say the legislation is riddled with loopholes.

Bush's environmental record certainly offers a contrast to the record and rhetoric of his father. During his 1988 campaign for the presidency, George Bush taunted his opponent, Michael Dukakis, for ignoring environmental problems in his home state of Massachusetts. The elder Bush rented a boat and took reporters for a ride in Boston Harbor, where he ridiculed Dukakis for the pollution problems in the harbor. With a flotilla of reporters at hand, Bush assailed the Massachusetts governor, saying that while "Dukakis delayed, the harbor got dirtier and dirtier."

To drive home the point, the elder Bush later declared, "I am an environmentalist; always have been and always will be." He also said his administration would "enforce environmental laws aggressively, putting the responsibility for cleanup where it belongs -- on those who caused the problem in the first place."

By allowing industry to write its own regulations in Texas and escape federal mandates, George W. has contradicted positions taken by his father, who campaigned in 1988 as the environmental president. When the elder Bush signed the amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, a measure that set deadlines for outdated facilities to clean up their operations, he said, "Polluters must pay. Once deadlines go by, once they pass, the penalties are severe. American heritage is precious. We will not turn our backs or look the other way," he told a gathering in the East Wing of the White House on Nov. 15, 1990. "There is a new breeze blowing, a new current of concern for the environment."

The younger Bush said recently that the environment "should be a major issue" in the presidential race. "I think the environment is incredibly important for the 21st century for America," he said. That may be the case. But so far, Bush can't claim any major achievements that prove he believes that to be true.

During his time in Austin, Bush backed a law that gives immunity -- and a pledge of secrecy -- to industrial polluters if they voluntarily inform state regulators that they have violated Texas' pollution laws. And finally, while his fellow Republican governors are backing dramatic increases in spending on parks and recreation facilities, Bush has opposed new park acquisition at a time when the state's park system is woefully underfunded and overcrowded.

Bush's lack of attention to the environment was underscored on Oct. 7, when Houston surpassed Los Angeles as the city with the worst air quality in America. That day, Houston had the highest ozone level reading in the nation this year: 251 parts per billion. It was the highest reading in the Houston area in 10 years, and more than double the permissible maximum of 125 ppb.

The revelation predictably led to attacks on Bush from Vice President Al Gore, who said Bush "carries water -- dirty water -- for the special interests." Then came attacks from a coalition of environmental groups called the Texas Air Crisis Campaign, which said that air quality in Texas was declining due to "actions and conscious omissions" by Bush, his appointees to the state's environmental agency and the Texas Legislature.

The groups focused on Bush's failure to enforce air-quality regulations on so-called grandfathered industrial plants that are exempt from current air-quality rules. "What we've seen is an attempt to deny there's a problem and to delay any attempt to clean up the air," said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen. "When given an opportunity to hit a home run and clear the air over Texas and end the grandfathered plants loophole, Gov. Bush bunted and barely got to first base. Instead of reducing emissions by 50 percent he's only getting a fraction of the reduction he could have obtained from these older dirty plants."

The Bush campaign quickly launched a counterattack. Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman, pointed out that Texas has air problems for many reasons, not least of which is the high concentration of industrial development. Texas contains a quarter of the nation's oil refineries and two-thirds of its petrochemical plants and it generates more electricity than any other state, said McClellan.

And he added that since 1994, industrial air emissions statewide have decreased by 10 percent. Bush was "the first Texas governor to call on and get grandfathered plants to significantly reduce air emissions." Those reductions, McClellan said "will reduce air emissions by a total of 250,000 tons per year. That's the equivalent of 5.5 million cars being removed from Texas roads."

In fact, when he was asked recently to name his biggest environmental achievement, Bush quickly answered, "The air is cleaner." He continued, "I think you have to ask the question is the air cleaner since I became the governor. And the answer is yes."

Bush points to Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission data that says industrial emissions have declined by 11 percent between 1994 and 1997. But during that same time period smog alerts in Austin, Dallas and Houston have increased in frequency. And according to data compiled by the TNRCC, ground-level ozone readings rose in 11 of the 13 metropolitan areas in Texas between early 1996 and the end of 1998.

The air problems in Dallas and Fort Worth are so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency may cut off federal highway funds unless the state comes up with a viable plan to reduce smog in the region. At present, four Texas metropolitan areas are in violation of federal clean-air laws -- Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso and Beaumont-Port Arthur. And the EPA has warned Texas officials that four other cities, Austin, San Antonio, Tyler and Longview, will be added to the violators list by next summer.

"Where's the proof that the air is getting cleaner?" asks Neil Carman, the clean-air program director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It doesn't show up in the monitoring data."

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

MORE FROM Robert Bryce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment George W. Bush Texas