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Science Be Damned

By
June 1, 2012

How Texas managed to export its energy policy to the rest of the United States.

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Photo courtesy of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

“I was very close to George W.”

By 2000, when George W. Bush was running for president, the days when Republicans could burble about protecting the forests and stopping climate change were pretty much over. The environmental discussion shifted to the need for “market-based incentives” and the rights of local communities. The 2000 Republican platform did promise that the party nominee would approach environmental issues “just as he did it in Texas.” That sounded rather ominous, since at the time Texas ranked first in airborne carcinogens, first in ozone components, first in toxic air releases. Houston had the nation’s dirtiest air and Texas was number one when it came to unhealthy ozone levels.

Texas ranked first in airborne carcinogens, first in ozone components, first in toxic air releases. Houston had the nation’s dirtiest air and Texas was number one when it came to unhealthy ozone levels.

Early in his days as governor, George W. had set the tone with his appointments to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state environmental agency. The TNRCC is run by three commissioners, and Bush chose:

  1. A cattleman.
  2. A former employee of the state agriculture department, who was known for his attempts to loosen the rules governing the use of pesticides.
  3. A career lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council who had once testified in Congress that ozone was “a relatively benign pollutant.”

To be fair, Governor Bush had an environmental plus side—sort of. For instance, when the pollution in Dallas became so bad that the federal government threatened to cut off road construction funds, Bush backed efforts by the state legislature to require power plants to cut their emissions dramatically by 2003—a year that he didn’t plan to be around to check on compliance. The state also tried to impose a new motor vehicle inspection program, but it ran into opposition from right-wing talk radio and the governor canceled it. When the firm that had won the contract to implement the program sued, the state settled for $130 million, which it paid for with funds from a state environmental protection program.

Bush’s one genuine environmental enthusiasm was alternative energy, or at least one form of alternative energy. “Pat, we like wind,” Bush told Pat Wood, the chairman of Texas’s Public Utility Commission, who he urged to “go get smart on wind.” It made total sense—if God had wanted to create a wind-power-generating heaven, he would have made it look a lot like Texas. And it was apparently Bush’s enthusiasm for wind that caused him to order the creation of the Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard, which has one of those names that make you understand why some people hate government bureaucrats but which was basically a set of goals for production of renewable energy, which Texas more than met.

“That led to a great investment in wind power,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “But at the same time, when it came to a conflict between oil company profits and Texans’ health, the government has always chosen oil company profits.”

In general, the Bush refrain when it came to the environment was “Let Texans run Texas”—a self-conscious appeal to the state’s belief in self-determination, which happened to work in concert with industry’s desire to be let alone. The state’s air pollution problems were made considerably worse by the more than 800 plants that had been built before Texas passed its Clean Air Act of 1971, which only applied to businesses to be constructed in the future. When Bush was governor most of the older plants were still in service, happily polluting away. Bush decided to resolve the problem with what his campaign would come to describe as “a healthy mix of voluntary and compulsory regulations.” Under a law that was written with the help of executives from oil and chemical businesses, he exempted the plants from state regulation in return for their promise to clean up voluntarily. The problem with voluntary was that you didn’t have to do it, and very few plants did.

“Basically, what you had is a guy from Marathon and a guy from Exxon sending out a proposal to this secret group of companies affected saying, here’s the way we should approach this,” said Tom Smith, the executive director of Texas Public Citizen.

Under Bush, the state stopped making surprise inspections of the plants it did regulate. And there weren’t enough state employees to oversee the program anyway. “We have our limits,” then Texas Natural Resource Conservation commissioner Ralph Marquez told the Washington Post in 2000. Marquez was a former lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council, a trade organization whose members were, at the time, responsible for 74 percent of all EPA-tracked toxic chemical emissions in the state, 98 percent of the toxic water pollution, and 67 percent of the toxic air pollution.

“It is a darn good bill”

When Bush was elected president, for once a plank in a political platform got carried out. He did indeed continue the Texas strategy. He championed a Clear Skies initiative which, Al Gore grumbled, “actually allows more toxic mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur pollution than if we enforced the laws on the books today.” There was a Healthy Forests initiative to allow more logging. The environment in general accounted for only 5 percent of Bush’s presidential radio addresses. Given the fact that he gave one a week for eight years, it was a wonder his speechwriters didn’t just turn to it more in desperation.

Bush’s primary policy advisor on energy issues was Hunter Hunt, son of oil baron Ray Hunt. At the Department of the Interior, environmentalists learned to their horror that the number two man was going to be J. Steven Griles, an energy industry lobbyist.

Meanwhile, the energy industry lobbyists were being assured that they would have the president’s ear. During the transition, Bush’s primary policy advisor on energy issues was Hunter Hunt, son of oil baron Ray Hunt. At the Department of the Interior, environmentalists learned to their horror that the number two man was going to be J. Steven Griles, an energy industry lobbyist.

“Not since the rise of the railroads more than a century ago has a single industry placed so many foot soldiers at the top of a new administration,” said Newsweek.

And then—oh joy and bliss beyond compare for Texas—Bush made Vice President Dick Cheney his energy czar. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy,” the vice president said, in a hint that what was coming would not involve turning down the thermostat or turning in the Hummer.

Cheney is from Wyoming, a state with a population of 544,000 that sends as many senators to Washington as California, with a population of roughly 37 million. Like Texas, Wyoming prides itself on being a self-sufficient land of wide open spaces where people can do whatever they want with their land. Cheney represented Wyoming in Congress, was secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush, and then left politics to become CEO of the Houston-based energy giant Halliburton. So let’s consider him an honorary Texan.

The vice president’s task force, the National Energy Policy Development Group, ran for about three months. Officials of Texas-based Enron met with the task force at least six times in person as well as a number of times on the phone. Ken Lay, who Bush called “Kennyboy,” got a meeting to discuss energy policy in California, where Enron would eventually use the magic of the marketplace to create a catastrophic spike in electricity prices. In 2003, the General Accounting Office looked back on how the energy group had operated, and reported that one of Cheney’s advisors “solicited detailed energy policy recommendations from a variety of nonfederal energy stakeholders, including the American Petroleum Institute [and] the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.” It hardly seems necessary to point out that while Bush was pushing out his energy policy, the oil industry was spending seven times as much as environmental groups on lobbying.

“We’ll have a strong conservation statement,” the president promised as the world awaited the Cheney energy policy’s arrival. Later that day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was also asked whether Bush would be calling on Americans to use less energy, and took the opportunity to clarify his boss’s statement a tad. “That’s a big no,” Fleischer said. “The president believes that it’s an American way of life, that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.” God, it seemed, smiled upon the Hummers in his flock. He looked upon the empty room with a burning lightbulb and found it good.

“The president believes that it’s an American way of life, that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.” God, it seemed, smiled upon the Hummers in his flock.

The plan that arrived from the Cheney task force, to the surprise of no one, was all about more drilling and pipelines and power plants. Also, about the importance of removing burdensome clean air regulations. In 2005, Congress passed an energy plan that was basically a Texas model with a nod to the plains states’ desire to have something that involved using a whole lot of corn. There were huge breaks for energy producers, plus provisions to help create markets for ethanol and wind power. “It is a darn good bill,” said Texas Congressman “Smokey” Joe Barton, the lead sponsor. Texas was getting what it came for. A report by the Congressional Budget Office found that while American business in general is taxed at an overall 25 percent rate, oil field leases and drilling equipment were taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent. For small and midsize companies, whatever taxes existed were eliminated by various credits, giving them a return on investment that can actually be greater after taxes than it would have been before.

If the Texas Republicans hated all things EPA, there was no subject on which they were more rabid than global warming. “It’s the arrogance of man to think that man can change the climate of the world. Only nature can change the climate—a volcano for instance,” said DeLay. Armey, who disagreed with his fellow Texan on quite a lot, was in exactly the same camp. At a hearing on climate change legislation in 2009, Armey equated a belief in man-made global warming with a lack of faith in God. “It is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy God’s creation,” he testified.

Christie Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, was Bush’s original head of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was a moderate from New Jersey, and it didn’t require a crystal ball to figure out she was not going to fit in. Not long after the inauguration, Whitman made a trip to Italy, where she emphasized to Europeans that the administration was committed to controlling greenhouse gases—something the president had said himself before the election. Environmentalists had hung on desperately to that campaign comment, but the W. portfolio of compassionate conservative commitments was a mixture of things the new president seemed to really believe in, like education reform, and the stuff that was just thrown out there for the moment. Everything relating to global warming, it turned out, was in Category Two.

The White House announced that a cabinet-level review of its energy policy had convinced the president that there should be no federal attempt to cut carbon dioxide emissions. It could not have been more humiliating for Whitman, particularly given the fact that this particular cabinet-level review had not included the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. “When I made the statement in Italy that something might happen on CO2, the utility industry got really engaged, and all of that caused a rethink,” Whitman told Rolling Stone much later. The magazine acquired a memo from a team of Cheney loyalists in the White House, which posited that whatever Bush had said about greenhouse gasses during the campaign “did not fully reflect the president’s position” and that “it would be premature at this time to propose any specific policy or approach aimed at addressing global warming.”

Many people, from Whitman to the administration’s first secretary of the treasury, Paul O’Neill, have argued that George W. went into the presidency planning to do something about climate change, but that Cheney stole the issue away from him. Doesn’t matter. In policy, good intentions—especially good intentions that aren’t followed up by any attempt at action whatsoever—don’t count. The bottom line was that the idea of doing anything serious about global warming got trashed, pounded into the ground, pulverized, vaporized, and expelled into the already rather heavily polluted Washington air. And in 2002, when the EPA issued a report that said climate change was probably due to human activity, Bush said dismissively, “I read the report put out by the bureaucracy.”

The White House did eventually set a goal of reducing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent by 2012. It’s always hard to get a fix on goals that involve reducing the rate at which something is growing. So when Bush held a press conference in 2008 to announce that his initiatives were going great, I did some calculations. If Bush, that well-known fitness buff, had discovered two years into his job that he had gained 40 pounds and resolved to deal with the problem by reducing the rate at which he was gaining weight by 18 percent, he would weigh 400 pounds in 2012.

When delivering his good news about global warming, Bush also vowed to stop the growth of US emissions entirely by 2025. Setting aside the fact that Bush was only going to be president for nine months of that next seventeen years, and that the president warned that the “wrong way” to accomplish this goal was “to raise taxes, duplicate mandates or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts,” you were still talking, in my original model, about a 486-pound ex-president.

In the real world, W. was the same size as always when the White House changed hands in 2008. The Bushes returned to a quiet life in Texas and Barack Obama came roaring into Washington promising aggressive action on environmental issues, almost nothing of which made it into law. The White House claimed it had accomplished quite a bit through executive orders, but there is a limit to how much you can do without any congressional help whatsoever.

The surging Tea Party movement helped pressure Senate Republicans into delaying or derailing everything possible, and when the Republicans recaptured the House in 2010, they marched through the agenda that former majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas had once pursued. The Democratic minority on the House Energy and Commerce Committee tallied “191 votes against environmental protection” in the first year of Republican control, which would have averaged out to more than one anti-environmental vote a day. The House majority knew that virtually none of their environmental rollbacks had a chance of going anywhere in the still-Democratic Senate. But if you envisioned the environmental legislation that had been set into place since the days of Lyndon Johnson as bowling pins, the House Republicans were very happily knocking them down, just to show they could: weaken the Clean Air Act, weaken the Endangered Species Act, defund and declaw the EPA, and, of course, liberate the cement industry. (Rep. Barton’s district includes Midlothian, “The Cement Capital of Texas.”)

Also, refuse to acknowledge that the globe is warming. “The science is not settled and the science is actually going the other way,” said Joe Barton, the Energy Committee Chairman Emeritus. Texan Ralph Hall, who had taken over the Science Committee, told the National Journal that he was “pretty close” to the Rick Perry theory of climate change as baloney that research scientists were tossing out to qualify for federal funding. “I don’t think we can control what God controls,” Hall added, scientifically.

The environmentalists were stuck in a world where a victorious day was one in which something had been stopped from happening.

To judge how badly things were going for the clean-air-clean-water crowd, you just had to look at Texas, where the torch had been passed on to Rick Perry.

One big difference between George W. Bush and his successor as governor was their perceptions of how the nation in general felt about the environment. When Bush began positioning himself to run for national office, he got greener. The man who, as governor of Texas, had once expressed serious doubts about the whole climate change issue announced as a presidential hopeful that after consulting some experts he had decided that yep, global warming was out there. Environmental groups were thrilled when his staff started asking the experts sophisticated questions about methane emissions and black carbon particles and the candidate himself announced he wanted to do something about controlling carbon emissions. It never came to anything, but still it did indicate that Bush felt you needed to at least go through the motions. Perry, who had won his first statewide office by opposing a rule requiring that farm workers be kept out of the fields when they’re being sprayed with pesticides, started out farther to the right on environmental issues, and when he began thinking about a national run, he only got more so.

Perry had an ongoing fight with Lisa Jackson, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency head, over air quality rules. (The EPA, Perry wrote in his campaign book, Fed Up, is “destroying federalism and individuals’ ability to make their own economic decisions.”) But it was once again on the issue of climate change that Texas really went to war with Washington.

Texas produces the most greenhouse gases in the nation, what with one thing (energy production) and another (energy use). All those cars aren’t just there for decoration. But Perry didn’t put any stock in climate change—an aide told the Austin American-Statesman that the governor was “not convinced that it’s an issue.” In Fed Up, Perry was a little more forthcoming, describing global warming science as “one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.”

During the George W. Bush presidency, the post-Whitman EPA had announced that it had no authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in order to halt climate change. Massachusetts and eleven other states filed suit, and in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases counted as pollutants. The states won; the EPA, after a fair bit of foot-dragging, including a totally futile attempt to find some scientific proof that greenhouse gas emissions were harmless, announced its regulatory plans. Texas was the only state that refused to join in the program. Instead, it led its own consortium of states in suing the EPA.

“Texas is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation,” Larry Soward continued. “We’re the—I can’t remember if it’s the eleventh or twelfth or whatever in the world—and nobody can reasonably tell me that if we didn’t reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere that it wouldn’t have a positive effect locally.”

Announcing the action, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott said the EPA was relying on global warming information that was tainted by “cover-ups and the suppression and destruction of scientific evidence.” In response, climate scientists from the state’s major universities published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle pointing out that no climate scientist in the state agreed with the suit’s premise.

“To me, it’s a sign of an extremely weak position, to start attacking the process. And if you read the petition—I was just amazed,” said Larry Soward, a former member of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who had been appointed by Perry, and who called the governor “a dear friend.”

At this particular point, Soward said, his dear friend was being “short-sighted.”

“Texas is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation,” he continued. “We’re the—I can’t remember if it’s the eleventh or twelfth or whatever in the world—and nobody can reasonably tell me that if we didn’t reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere that it wouldn’t have a positive effect locally.”

By the end of 2011, Perry took his anti-environmental regulation crusade national, through his much-ballyhooed, though ultimately deeply humiliating, presidential race. Meanwhile, Perry’s national ambitions were having an impact back in Texas, where the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality took a blue pencil to a 200-page scientific study it had commissioned on the deteriorating condition of Galveston Bay, editing out every mention of climate change and sea-level rise. Every scientist involved in the project demanded his or her name be removed.

“I like to tell people we live in a state of denial in the state of Texas,” said John Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University.

G

Excerpted from “AS TEXAS GOES: HOW THE LONE STAR STATE HIJACKED THE AMERICAN AGENDA” by Gail Collins, to be published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of  Norton  Company, June 2012. @ 2012 Gail Collins

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