The Texas governor talks green, but he walks with the industry giants
by Ken Silverstein
In May, Texas Governor George W. Bush staked his claim to be the second
"environmental president" in his family. The front-runner for the GOP
presidential nomination, Bush said that he didn't want his state to become a
"dumping ground" for toxic waste, acknowledged that global warming is a serious
problem, and declared that environmental issues are "incredibly important" for
the next century.
Yet for the past four years Bush has governed the most polluted state in the
country. Texas ranks first in the amount of cancer-causing chemicals pumped
annually into the air and water, the number of hazardous-waste incinerators,
total toxic releases to the environment, and carbon dioxide and mercury emissions
from industry. When it comes to environmental spending, however, Texas ranks
49th. A majority of Texans live in areas that either flunk federal ozone
standards or are in danger of flunking. Houston, the nation's oil- and
petrochemical-industry headquarters, is an ecological disaster, its coastal
waters fouled by chemical spills and its air quality the worst in the nation
outside of Los Angeles.
True, Texas was a mess before Bush's election, but critics charge that he's
missed nearly every opportunity to clean it up. Indeed, the primary obstacle to
writing about Bush's environmental record is trying to find one. His sole
high-profile action came last year when he killed a proposal to locate a
nuclear-waste dump in the poor West Texas town of Sierra Blanca-a plan he had
backed until it generated intense public opposition and national news coverage.
Even Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards seemed a bit flummoxed when I called to say
that I was coming to Austin to do a story about the governor's environmental
legacy. When she called me back a few days later with a list of achievements, it
extended only to Bush's request for new money for water-quality programs, a
legislative initiative on clean air, and his support for private-property rights
(a concern chiefly of right-wing landowners and a common cover for
Texas environmentalists, who've had a rocky relationship with the governor, are
cynical about last spring's greening, suspecting it's merely part of his
presidential campaign strategy of running as a "compassionate conservative" who
can appeal to the broadest spectrum of public opinion. "Bush never said anything
about defending our state's environment until he realized that the presidential
primaries were coming up," says Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice. "His
sudden switch to 'green' is bathed in an intense white light-emanating from the
But in Texas, even lip service to environmental issues is unusual, and
anti-environmentalism is reflexive for many politicians, Republican and Democrat
alike. At the federal level, the state has spawned figures such as House Whip Tom
DeLay (R), the former Houston pest exterminator whose chief mission in Washington
has been to squash environmental regulations and who once memorably referred to
the EPA as "the Gestapo of government." State politics aren't any better.
years back, Deputy Attorney General Drew Durham told a group of property-rights
activists that there were no endangered species left in Sterling County because
"We killed 'em all. Being the deputy attorney general . . . I'm also the chief
executioner." In May, Senator Buster Brown, chairman of the Natural Resources
Committee and a notorious shill for the nuclear industry, pushed a bill through
the upper chamber that allowed private companies to dispose of low-level
radioactive waste without a permit. (He also tried-but failed-to defund the
agency that oversees the permitting process.)
While the current crop of Texas politicians may be anti-environmental, their
constituents are not. During the 1970s, state residents were proud to have some
of the best regulatory programs in the country (like a tough, cradle-to-grave
hazardous-waste program), and they still take great pride in having some of the
nation's most spectacular parks. A March survey commissioned by the Texas office
of the Trust for Public Land found that 85 percent of state voters believe that
conservation of land and water resources is "very important" or "extremely
Seventy-six percent would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund a
state program to achieve that goal. Those numbers are actually higher than those
obtained in five other states-Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, and
California-where the Trust has conducted similar polls. "We're like everybody
else," says Rick Lowerre, an Austin environmental attorney. "We want clean air,
clean water, and clean food. We passed strong environmental laws in the past
because people recognized that we had an incredible number of problems to address
and we had real leadership from elected officials."
The governor's office in Texas is a relatively weak
position, a legacy from the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Most cabinet
positions are elected, and the lieutenant governor plays a more important role
than the governor in the legislative process. Which is not to say that Governor
Bush is powerless. He has made substantial use of a tool that is available to all
chief executives: the bully pulpit. When oil prices plunged on international
markets earlier this year, for example, Bush promptly led a successful campaign
for a $45 million tax break for the state's oil-and-natural-gas producers.
The governor has rarely displayed such vigor when it comes to promoting
environmental legislation. Take clean water, which spokeswoman Edwards
highlighted as a success story. More than 4,400 miles of Texas rivers-over
one-third of those monitored-are so polluted that they don't meet federal
standards set for recreational and other uses. And testing programs have been so
badly cut that there's no way to know the full extent of the problems. Between
1985 and 1997, the number of stations monitoring for pesticides in Texas
waterways fell from 27 to 2.
The budgets of almost all Texas environmental programs come from fees paid by
industry. Clean-air programs, for example, are funded by a per-ton charge leveled
on polluters-which guarantees a reasonably adequate level of support.
Water-quality programs, however, are funded out of general revenues and therefore
depend on the whim of the legislature. When a group of environmentalists met with
Bush and proposed that clean water be moved to the more stable, fee-based system,
he rejected the suggestion out of hand. "We couldn't even get a discussion going
with him because it was so far off his radar screen," says Lowerre, who took part
in the meeting. "It was a chance for him to take a leadership role, and he
wouldn't do it."
Another opportunity for Bush to show his environmental concern is in his
appointments to agencies like the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Bush's
appointed commissioners include celebrity lightweights such as Susan Howard, an
actress best known for playing Donna Krebs on the TV series Dallas (and less
known for being a board member of the National Rifle Association), and baseball
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. He also named Richard Heath, CEO of BeautiControl
Cosmetics International, whose chief qualification is being a major campaign
donor to Governor George W. Bush.
At the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the rough
equivalent of a state EPA, Bush's appointments have been even less inspired.
Barry McBee, his first chairman, was an oil specialist at a Dallas law firm and
former deputy commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture, where he led a
drive to gut "right to know" laws that protected farmworkers from unannounced
aerial pesticide spraying. An associate director of cabinet affairs under
President George Bush, McBee might well be the head of the EPA under his son.
Next up as chairman after McBee resigned was Robert Huston of the industry
consulting firm Espey, Huston & Associates, whose clients included Exxon,
Chevron, and Shell. Bush's other appointees to the TNRCC are Ralph Marquez,
former vice chair of the Texas Chemical Council's environmental committee and a
30-year veteran of Monsanto, and John Baker Jr., an agribusinessman who was
previously a director of the Texas Farm Bureau.
With that cast of characters, it's no surprise that TNRCC's rulings during the
Bush years have led environmentalists to dub it, in a twist of its acronym, the
"Train Wreck" agency. On Bush's watch, the TNRCC has tossed out a number of state
rules on the grounds that they were tougher than federal regulations and
therefore "excessive." Among these were standards on toxic air pollution and
permit requirements for cattle and hog feedlots. Bush's TNRCC also decided to
give industrial plants two weeks' notice before they are visited by state
On the rare occasion when Bush has ventured forth with an environmental
initiative, he's been careful to avoid treading on the toes of polluting
industries. Andy Sansom, head of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, was
appointed by Bush's Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards, but was retained by
Bush and has emerged as his point man on the environment. The governor, Sansom
says, has adopted a "paradigm shift" in policy, moving away from acquisition of
public lands and regulation of industry to cooperation and incentives. According
to Sansom, it's an approach that makes sense in the Lone Star State and at the
national level. "In Texas, we do conservation within the context of a limited
government philosophy or we don't do it at all," he says. "He's got a record that
works for the year 2000."
In practice, Bush's new paradigm looks pretty much like the old paradigm, where
industry calls the shots. It is exemplified by his approach to clean-air
legislation, which was passed by state lawmakers last May and which Bush calls
his "biggest environmental achievement." Bush's aim was to deal with factories
"grandfathered" by a loophole in the Texas Clean Air Act of 1971 that allowed 828
industrial plants to continue operating without obtaining air-pollution permits
from the state. Plants subsequently coming on-line were required to obtain a
permit, which is contingent upon the installation of modern pollution-control
devices. Today, the grandfathered plants-some dating to the 1930s-produce
hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic emissions per year, or one-third of Texas'
industrial air pollution.
Two years ago, Bush announced an initiative to close the loophole. But his plan
was strictly voluntary, with no penalties for companies that didn't seek a
permit. What Bush didn't say at the time-and what was revealed only after the
Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition (SEED) obtained a host of
confidential memos under the state's Freedom of Information Act-was that his
program had been secretly drawn up by the very companies that run the
Ralph Marquez of the TNRCC worked with the companies as they were crafting the
proposal and defends Bush's strategy. "I had to get the cooperation of those who
were going to be spending the money [on pollution-control equipment]," he
explained at the agency's office in Austin's outskirts. ("Pick important
problems. Solve them," read a sign on his wall.) "I didn't want to be fighting
Peter Altman of SEED, a New Yorker who moved to Austin nine years ago, has a less
generous interpretation. Over an early morning breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe, he
pulled out a briefcase full of memos his organization had acquired. They show
that Bush's plan dates to March of 1997, when he asked officials from Marathon
Oil and Exxon-both major campaign contributors-to "develop the concepts of a
voluntary program to permit grandfathered facilities." Two months later, those
two firms invited several dozen other grandfathered polluters to a meeting where
they unveiled their handiwork.
Jim Kennedy, an official at DuPont, prepared a
summary of the meeting, noting that about 40 people attended, mostly from the
oil-and-gas industry but from utilities and chemical companies as well. "The
'insiders' from oil and gas believe that the governor's office will [push
through] whatever program is developed between the industry group and the
governor's office," wrote Kennedy, adding that these insiders didn't see much
need to consult anyone else since they don't "have any real value for public
involvement." Furthermore, he wrote, the Marathon/Exxon proposal, which Bush
subsequently embraced, had "no 'meat' with respect to actual emissions
reductions. One of the [business] leaders actually stated that emissions
reductions was not a primary driver for the program."
If elected president, Bush will confront a similar federal loophole, one that
allows two-thirds of the nation's power plants to evade modern pollution
standards. For Altman, the governor's efforts at the state level hardly inspire
confidence. "Bush says he's an advocate of limited government, but I don't think
letting polluters write his policies is a good way of implementing that policy."
In the end, public pressure led the state House of Representatives to pass
legislation last May that was tougher than the bill favored by the governor and
industry if not as strong as environmental groups had hoped for. It requires
utilities, which produce about one-third of all grandfathered emissions, to
install up-to-date pollution-control equipment by 2003. Oil, gas, and chemical
plants that don't apply for a permit within two years will pay stiff fees on
annual emissions above 4,000 tons. That provision will not be broadly felt,
however, since only eight plants currently exceed the ceiling set by the bill. In
other words, many of the grandfathered plants will be great-grandfathered, and
will continue to operate without a permit.
Bush championed another piece of legislation that allows utility firms to charge
higher rates to pay off "stranded costs" stemming from overruns at nuclear
plants. That's a polite way of saying that electricity customers will be forced
to bail the nuclear industry out from under a mountain of up to $8 billion worth
of bad investments. The main beneficiary will be Texas Utilities-the single
largest producer of grandfathered emissions-which runs the Comanche Peak nuclear
plant near Fort Worth. An epic boondoggle, Comanche Peak was originally planned
to cost $800 million but came in years behind schedule at $11 billion.
Industry's satisfaction with Bush's environmental approach is reflected in
campaign-finance records. Since 1989, when poultry magnate Bo Pilgrim was spotted
handing out $10,000 checks on the statehouse floor, donations to state elected
officials have been banned while the legislature is in session. Nothing, however,
prevents them from giving to federal candidates-like presidential hopeful George
W. Bush. And give they have. Even as debate on the grandfathered plants raged in
Texas, industry groups with an interest in the measure poured at least $316,000
into Bush's presidential war chest. This largesse comes on top of the $1.5
million grandfathered polluters had already pumped into Bush's gubernatorial
Bush himself was unavailable, so the best person to talk to about the
candidate's eco-policies, spokeswoman Linda Edwards told me, was Andy Sansom at
Parks and Wildlife. Sansom has been something of a target for environmentalists,
perhaps partly because they feel that as a former head of the Nature Conservancy
in Texas he was once one of their own. As head of Parks and Wildlife, he's
accused of neglecting wildlife in favor of catering to hunters, even as their
numbers in Texas have dwindled to 5.6 percent of the population. To try to get
that number up, Sansom's agency has offered hunting-education instruction at
public schools and sponsored hunting trips for inner-city kids. Meanwhile, Texas
ranks 48th in the nation in per-capita spending on parks, and Sansom's agency has
made virtually no new acquisitions under Bush, who wants to see parks endowed by
A genial and highly likable man, the cowboy-booted Sansom defends his record and
is almost apologetic about his alleged shortcomings. He points out that 98
percent of land in Texas is held in private hands, far more than in most states.
"Texas is different," he says. "We're very frugal when it comes to public
spending, and there's a belief in private property that transcends anything I've
Sansom points to the issue of endangered species as an example of how he's tried
to be effective but respectful of property owners. During Bush's tenure, his
agency has opposed endangered listings for the jaguar, the Arkansas River shiner,
the Barton Springs salamander, and the swift fox. In the latter case, Parks and
Wildlife has allowed continued hunting of the fox even though it doesn't know how
many are left.
"The law says that the public owns the animals but the landowner
owns the habitat," he says. "I understand that listing raises the public profile,
but preserving these species is the outcome I'm primarily after." Hence, in 1996
he instituted a program that pays landowners up to $10,000 per year for
protecting endangered species on their property. Parks and Wildlife has
subsequently signed 14 such agreements. Sansom says that landowners who were
previously reluctant to acknowledge that they had an endangered species on their
property, for fear that it would lead to government regulation, are now
voluntarily stepping forward.
That's fine, says Scott Royder, former communications director of the Sierra
Club's Lone Star Chapter, but "we don't think the public should be paying
landowners to do what they should be doing anyway." He also says the deals
negotiated by Sansom are toothless, particularly because they don't set hard
targets to ensure the recovery of endangered species.
The broader problem at Parks and Wildlife is that Sansom and his boss are
petrified of offending conservative landowners. In 1995, Bush signed a
property-rights bill whose primary backers included a group called Take Back
Texas Inc. That outfit was headed by a farmer named Marshall Kuykendall, who
during debate on the legislation described President Lincoln's decision to free
the slaves as a past example of the federal government taking private property
To prevent that sort of thing from happening again, the
bill allows landowners to sue if government action reduces the value of their
property by 25 percent or more (for example, by restricting construction that
threatens to destroy important habitat). The next year, Parks and Wildlife
dissolved Texas' Natural Heritage Program, which cataloged rare species on
private and public lands. Property-rights groups have targeted Heritage programs
across the country (almost all states run one) on the grounds that they might
lead to regulation of private land under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Texas is the only place they succeeded.
Biologist Dean Keddy-Hector is one of a number of Parks and Wildlife staffers
who've left in frustration in recent years. He was forced out after charging that
the agency was manipulating data and deliberately underestimating the impact of
industry on endangered species. Keddy-Hector doesn't write off Sansom's
contention that "Texas is different," but says Parks and Wildlife under Bush has
gone to extremes. "The agency can't simply please landowners, but has to act as
the taxpayers' servant," he says. "When they start messing with scientific
information for convenience's sake, things have gone too far."
The Bush administration has been far more vigilant in protecting private
landowners from government regulation than in protecting state residents from
private polluters. One of the main beneficiaries of this approach is TXI, a
company that operates a giant cement plant in Midlothian, population 5,000, about
30 miles southwest of Dallas. The plant accounts for one-quarter of the area's
total industrial pollution; its pollution-control systems date to 1972. I meet
Jim Schernbeck, the red-haired, goateed leader of a community group called
Downwinders at Risk, at his home office-or office home, as his humble abode is
completely overrun with piles of material on TXI.
Midlothian, he says, bills
itself as the "Cement Capital of America," and I soon see why. On the way to TXI
we pass Holman Cement, where three smokestacks, ringed yellow from sulfur dioxide
emissions, rise above mountains of black coal; a slight detour takes us past the
equally grim North Texas Cement Company. Schernbeck explains that TXI, unlike its
two nearby competitors, generates energy by burning hazardous waste produced and
trucked in by firms from the surrounding area-a "win-win" solution for TXI,
Schernbeck points out, because the company not only saves itself the expense of
coal or natural gas to fire its kilns but makes money by charging to dispose of
other firms' hazardous waste.
For nearby residents, it's a less attractive proposition. Chemical odors are
sometimes so strong that people are kept trapped in their homes. According to the
Dallas Observer, scientists don't even have names for some of the substances
coming out of TXI's stacks, and a University of Texas study found that people
living near the plant are three times more likely to have respiratory problems
than people living upwind. An unusually high number of babies born in the area
have Down's syndrome, and dog breeders complain of strange illnesses, birth
defects, and premature deaths among their litters. Back in 1991, TXI took air
samples near the plant, confident that they would prove it was safe. Instead, the
company discovered-and tried to suppress-that levels of at least four
carcinogenic compounds were far higher than those considered safe by the EPA.
Before she left the governor's office, Ann Richards proposed tightening the rules
on what TXI could burn at its Midlothian facility. Her proposal was shot down by
a lobbying campaign led by hired guns for TXI and the chemical industry-including
Ralph Marquez, Bush's appointee to the TNRCC. After Bush took office, TXI sought
permission to increase the amount of hazardous waste it burns from 100,000 tons
to 270,000 tons per year. Downwinders at Risk organized a grassroots campaign to
block the permit, but couldn't match the clout of TXI, which gave Bush a total
of $10,000 for his re-election campaign.
"We started asking for a meeting with
Bush almost from the day he took office," Schernbeck says wistfully as we pull up
in front of the plant. "We never got a foot in the door." By now, there's little
point in trying. Last March, Marquez and two other TNRCC commissioners gave the
go-ahead to TXI, which is now authorized to pump 52 tons of metals-including
arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead-into the air annually, making it the largest
hazardous-waste incinerator in the country.
Schernbeck points out a row of semi trucks lined up at concrete silos dispensing
cement powder. It's a drizzly, overcast day, and smoke belching into the air from
TXI's four stacks blends in with low-hanging clouds that hover over the plant,
along with a distinctive chemical odor. Schernbeck turns up a dirt road that runs
behind TXI, and we look down upon a vast hole the company cut into the earth to
extract limestone for manufacturing its cement. A bit farther up the road we pass
a sign nailed to a wooden post-atop it perched an ugly buzzard spreading its
wings-that announces a "Future Rock Quarry." We stop on a hilltop with an
expansive view of the area. The TXI case, says Schernbeck, is Bush-as-usual:
"He's not an anti-environmental crusader, but he won't do anything to tie the
hands of business."
Gazing down over the polluted landscape, we could be looking at the country's
future under President George W. Bush.
Messing With Texas
Texans love to talk about how their state has the biggest this and the most that,
but here are some records that George W. isn't likely to crow about:
Since 1995, Texas has led the country in toxic releases to the environment. In
1997, 260 million pounds of toxic pollution were released in the state. That
translates to 10 pounds per Texan.
This year, Texas has had the worst air pollution in the United States. The
worst air in Texas is in the Houston-Galveston-Texas City area, which has had
seven out of the ten worst air pollution days in the country.
Texas ranks first in the nation in total toxic air emissions from industrial
facilities. Of the 50 largest industrial facilities in Texas, 28 violate the
Clean Air Act.
Texas ranks first in the nation for toxic chemical accidents. Of all reported
chemical accidents, 20 percent happen in Texas. It also has the worst accident
potential in the country, with Houston at more peril than any other city.
All the Governor's Environmentalists
In Texas as elsewhere, many of the most critical decisions are made not by
politicians but by their political appointees. If you're wondering how green
President George W. Bush would be, a look at some of his picks for Texas
environmental commissions might give you a clue.
Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission Barry McBee-
An oil specialist at a Dallas law firm, McBee was Bush's first chair of the
TNRCC. According to the Texas Observer, McBee "limited citizen input and reduced
enforcement against polluters."
Before replacing McBee, Huston was an environmental consultant for industry.
Who's he working for now? In June he wrote the EPA protesting its tough
eight-hour ozone standards.
Formerly of the Texas Chemical Council and Monsanto, Marquez allowed polluters to
write the new (voluntary!) regulations governing antiquated pollution-spewing
John Baker Jr.-
A former board member of the Texas Farm Bureau, since his appointment to the
TNRCC in 1995 Baker has voted routinely to deny affected citizens public hearings
for new industrial plants.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Richard Heath-
Chief executive officer of BeautiControl Cosmetics International, Heath's primary
qualification is being a major fund-raiser for Bush's gubernatorial and now
Former pitcher for the Texas Rangers, a team Bush partly owned. A measure by Ryan
allows ranchers to trap and pen wild deer on their land in order to establish
More famous as Donna Krebs on the TV series Dallas, less so as a national board
member of the National Rifle Association, Howard's primary interest in wildlife
is its huntability.
Ken Silverstein also writes for The Nation, Mother Jones, and Harper's; his book
on what became of the covert operators of the Cold War, Private Warriors, will be
published next spring by Verso.