Get Bush’s Environment Record Straight

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 25, 2000.
Texas, according to the Gore campaign and the environmental lobby, is nothing short of a post-apocalyptic ecological hell. Little children choke on the country’s deadliest smog and are cruelly denied health insurance. Toxic pollution has turned the countryside into a barren wasteland. Pollution controls are, believe it or not, voluntary. Reactionary yahoo Texans might think this is A-OK, but do the rest of us really want to live in such Dickensian squalor?

This attack on environmental quality in Texas is flagrantly dishonest. It’s also a perfect illustration of why people of goodwill cannot have a civil discussion about environmental policy: The political atmosphere is too poisoned by demagoguery for reasonable debate.

For example, consider the charge that Houston has overtaken Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in America. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is a lie. If we do what the Environmental Protection Agency does to determine whether a metropolitan area is in compliance with federal air quality standards—that is, tally up the number of violations at the designated “worst case” air quality monitor for each city—Houston violated federal ozone (smog) standards 11 times in 1995 (Bush’s first year in office), 15 times in 1996, 12 times in 1997, 10 times in 1998, 18 times in 1999 and 14 times so far this year. L.A. violated federal smog standards 65 times in 1995, 62 times in 1996, 30 times in 1997, 57 times in 1998, 35 times in 1999 and 17 times so far this year. EPA then averages the number of violations over a three-year period to determine whether an area is in or out of compliance. By that official yardstick, over the most recent three-year window, L.A. averaged 36 violations—33 more than the law allows—while Houston averaged 14. Data to the contrary naming Houston as No. 1 in smog is simply cooked and its methodologies deemed inappropriate and misleading by the EPA.

Despite this moderate trend upward in Houston’s noncompliance, pollution has not worsened in Houston under Bush. EPA data clearly shows that the emission of pollutants that contribute to smog have been trending downward in Texas since Bush became governor. Smog concentrations haven’t changed much recently, however, because the summers in Houston have been getting hotter, while it’s been cooler in L.A.

What about toxic pollution? Texas does indeed rank high on the list of states with the most toxic air, land and water emissions, but that’s because Texas is where 60% of the nation’s petrochemical companies happen to be, and they’re the biggest sources of toxic emissions simply given their chemical-intensive nature.

First, the petrochemical industry was in Texas long before Bush assumed the governorship; it didn’t follow him there. Second, those emissions—even according to the EPA—are well below the threshold of human health concern. Third, nobody’s breaking the law. Fourth, those plants have to be somewhere—otherwise, there would be no gasoline, no home heating oil, no diesel fuel—and whatever state those plants call home would sit at the top of any “toxic pollution” list. And finally, toxic emissions from major industrial sources in Texas have dropped a whopping 40% over the past decade.

But aren’t the pollution laws voluntary in Texas? No. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and all the rest of the monstrous federal environmental regulatory code applies to Texas just like every other state. There’s nothing voluntary about it. Bush indeed has put in place an incentive program to get industry to reduce pollution beyond federal standards, but why are regulatory “sticks” necessarily better than regulatory “carrots”?

On another front, Texas, like a number of other states, has a “self audit” program to encourage industry to report inadvertent violations of the federal environmental code that they would otherwise have legal incentives to conceal. If regulated entities come clean about inadvertent violations and negotiate remedies with Texas regulators, the state won’t hammer the rule-breakers into the ground. There’s nothing obviously anti-environmental about that.

But Bush hasn’t relied exclusively on carrots; he’s used the stick as well. In 1999, he supported and signed legislation to require Texas power plants to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions (a potential source of smog) by 50% and acid-rain-causing compounds by 25%—reductions far beyond those required by Washington.

None of this is to suggest I’m wild about Bush’s environmental record. He has been too reluctant to challenge reigning regulatory orthodoxy and has—like the rest of the GOP—shied away from innovative alternatives to the “command-and-control” regulatory state. But characterizing George W. Bush as some sort of pollution-loving “Snidely Whiplash” is ridiculous. And more important, those making the charge know it.

Jerry Taylor Is Director of Natural Resource Studies at the Cato Institute.