Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Bush vs. Bush

By Robert Bryce

JUNE 1, 1999:  Sixteen months from now, Al Gore will pull a George H. W. Bush. Just as Bush, the former president, took his opponent, Michael Dukakis, to task for ignoring the environment in his home state, so will Gore lambaste his opponent. In 1988, President Bush went to Boston to ridicule Dukakis for the pollution problems in Boston Harbor. With a gaggle of reporters in tow, he said that while "Dukakis delayed the harbor got dirtier and dirtier."

Next year, Gore, the likely Democratic nominee for president, will come to Rockdale. With a swarm of reporters in tow, and a spate of TV cameras humming, Gore will stand in front of the Alcoa smelter, the state's largest source of grandfathered air pollutants, and point to the smokestacks as they belch smoke into the clear blue sky.

Why, Gore will ask, does George W. Bush oppose the federal clean air law that his own father signed into law? And why, Gore will ask, did Bush let big polluters write their own, voluntary solutions to clean air laws rather than demanding that they clean up their plants? Then, just to make sure everyone gets the point, Gore will quote former President Bush. He'll probably use the same words that the elder Bush used when he signed the amendments to the Clean Air Act: "Polluters must pay," the president told a gathering in the east wing of the White House on November 15, 1990. He said the new federal air laws set deadlines for compliance, and "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 said. "There is a new breeze blowing, a new current of concern for the environment."

Finally, Gore will wonder, why doesn't Bush think the environment is an important issue?

The younger Bush will be hard pressed to explain why he is so uninterested in environmental issues, particularly when the GOP has a long history of involvement on the environment. It was Theodore Roosevelt who created the national parks system. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon also signed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act into law. While negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, former President Bush created an integrated environmental plan for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Whenever Governor Bush has taken an interest in the environment, "it's been a voluntary, feel-good approach," says Mary Kelly, the executive director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, an Austin-based nonprofit that works on environmental and border-related issues.

President Bush signed the Clean Air Act...

Karen Hughes, Bush's press secretary, disagrees. As an example of Bush's commitment to the environment, she points out that a couple of years ago, Bush "took a nature tourism trip throughout Texas to promote good stewardship of land and our natural resources." As part of that trip, Bush visited state parks and nature sanctuaries, Hughes says. Secondly, she adds, "One of his biggest accomplishments has been calling in the leaders of grandfathered industries and insisting that they bring their plants into compliance."

How will Bush "insist" that the plants come into compliance when the grandfathered air pollution program is voluntary? Hughes replied, "There's public pressure. And I think they are responding. I think the proof will be in the results. Governor Richards, to my knowledge, during her four years as governor, did not call in the leaders of grandfathered plants and ask them to bring their plants into compliance. Governor Bush has done so."

Clean Air: Optional or Mandatory?

Governor Bush rarely talks about the environment. It wasn't mentioned in his inaugural address. It wasn't mentioned in his speech announcing his presidential plans on March 7. He did mention it, however, during his state of the state speech when he said, "I believe business and a healthy environment can coexist. I look forward to working with Sen. Buster Brown and Rep. Ray Allen on legislation to make our Texas air cleaner by significantly reducing emissions from older grandfathered plants."

...Governor Bush lets polluters blow smoke.
photograph by Jana Birchum

But Bush didn't work with Brown and Allen. Instead, he let industry write its own regulations. Documents obtained through the Texas Open Records Act by the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, an Austin-based environmental group, show that the grandfathered air program's parameters were developed by Exxon, and the bill was actually written by industry lawyers. A June 20, 1997, e-mail sent by Jim Kennedy, a DuPont employee, to officials at the TNRCC, provides details of a meeting at Exxon's offices the day before. Kennedy's e-mail says that about 40 people representing 15 to 20 companies with grandfathered facilities attended. "The belief was clearly communicated at the meeting that this industry group was going to be in the leadership role in transforming the concepts into a program that would be approved by the governor's office. The term 'TNRCC' [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] did not even appear in the overheads that were used in the meeting."

Kennedy went on to say that the TNRCC, the state agency responsible for policing air pollution, will approve whatever program industry gives it: "Clearly, the insiders from oil & gas believe that the Governor's Office will persuade the TNRCC to accept whatever program is developed between the industry group and the governor's office."

Another document, written by Kinnan Goleman, a partner at Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline, an Austin-based law firm that represents a number of clients in the oil, petrochemical, and electric industries, shows exactly who did the heavy lifting in putting the legislative package together. The Jan. 22, 1999, memo begins, "Attached you will find a draft of the legislation our office has put together to address the voluntary permit program to bring grandfathered facilities into the permit realm."

Golemon, a lawyer and lobbyist who represents the Association of Electric Utilities of Texas as well as Exxon and Koch Industries, told the Chronicle he wrote "a good portion of certain aspects of the bill." He added that the TNRCC staff had written a bill but that it "didn't apply to grandfathered plants." So Golemon rewrote the TNRCC's version of the bill and forwarded it to Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, who is now sponsoring the bill. Golemon defends the voluntary program, saying if power plants, refineries, and industrial facilities are required to meet current clean air standards, they could be forced to shut down because new pollution control equipment may be incompatible with the underlying machinery.

When industries "can do it economically, you make the cut on a voluntary basis. Then you see what's left. After that, you decide whether it needs to be made mandatory," Golemon said.

Cleanliness in the Eye of the Beholder

Environmentalists are attacking not just the voluntary program, but also Bush's statement that the air in Texas is getting cleaner. By some common measures, in fact, the air quality in Texas has been getting worse under Bush, not better. According to TNRCC figures, the amount of ground-level ozone in Victoria, Tyler, Longview, Laredo, Brownsville, Houston, and Dallas increased steadily over the three-year period beginning in 1996 and ending in 1998. In Laredo, the one-hour ozone measurement increased by a third, from 73 parts per billion to 97 parts per billion over the three-year period. In Dallas, it increased from 144 ppb to 152 ppb; at 115 ppb, a health advisory is put into effect and healthy adults and children are advised to avoid prolonged outdoor exercise. Just two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to state officials warning them that the state could face sanctions due to an inadequate air pollution control plan in Dallas.

In fact, over the three-year period (three-fourths of Bush's tenure in office) the average one-hour peak ozone measurement for 13 Texas cities increased from 115 ppb to 129 ppb, according to the TNRCC data. And in 1997, Houston, for the first time ever, threatened to wrest the title of America's smog capital from the city of Los Angeles, when the Bayou City recorded a record level of 234 ppb of ozone, far exceeding the ozone level reached in Los Angeles.

"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."

Peter Altman, the state director of the SEED Coalition, contends that Bush's voluntary pollution reduction program allows the grandfathered plants to avoid installing the best pollution control technologies and to avoid testing the health effects of their pollutants on local landowners. Altman's group has sued the governor's office under the Texas Open Records Act in an effort to get more documents about the voluntary program.

Altman says the governor's office has claimed that the voluntary program will reduce the amount of pollutants coming from the grandfathered plants by 100,000 tons per year. "But they are saying they don't have any documents on how this policy developed," says Altman. Given Bush's stated desire for sound science and good policy, Altman adds, "You'd expect a document that shows the scope of the problem. But they are saying that no documents exist."

In 1988, President George H.W. Bush 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."

Governor George W. Bush has taken a decidedly different tack. His mantra has been, "Let Texans run Texas." And his lack of decisive action on air pollution disturbs Altman and other environmentalists. "This is a frightening foreshadowing of how Bush would handle environmental policies at the national level," said Altman. "He puts polluters in the driver's seat."

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