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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Candidate Profile: George W. Bush

Air Date: Week of

As governor of Texas, George Bush has instituted a controversial program of voluntary compliance with air quality regulations. Is it an approach that could work nationally? Reporter Janet Heimlich (HIME-lick) looks at Bush's environmental philosophy.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Voters are finally getting set to weigh in on the presidential candidates. The Iowa caucuses are on January 24th. A week later, New Hampshire holds the first primary. There's been a lot of talk about taxes among Republicans especially, but so far the environment has yet to surface as a burning campaign issue. Texas Governor George W. Bush is quick to say he cares about the environment, but critics say he's been slow on providing a detailed agenda. As part of our continuing election coverage, we delve into the environmental record and platform of George W. Bush. Janet Heimlich has our profile.

(Typing on computer keyboard, beeps, a modem)

HEIMLICH: Tap into the George Bush website and you can catch a glimpse of the man who calls himself a "compassionate conservative." Part of the pitch is a speech about conservation, where Mr. Bush talks about the economy and the environment.

BUSH: As an avid outdoorsman, I know all our prosperity as a nation will mean little if we leave the future generations a world of polluted air, toxic waste, and vanished wilderness and forests...

HEIMLICH: In the speech, Mr. Bush supports using federal oil royalties to fund conservation programs. Also, he endorses the current moratorium on offshore oil drilling in California and Florida.

BUSH: As president, I will build conservation partnerships between federal and state governments, local communities, and land owners to protect and conserve our natural resources. Our legacy should be an unwavering commitment to preserve and conserve our treasured lands. A commitment I intend to keep.

HEIMLICH: But details are hard to come by, leaving many observers wondering how committed this man from the heart of the Texas oil patch truly is. The Bush website contains only six bullet points on the environment, and they reveal a cautious approach. For example, he concedes global warming is a serious problem, but opposes ratifying the Kyoto treaty on climate change and offers no alternative proposal of his own. With so little to go on as to what Mr. Bush might do as president, most people have been focusing on what he's done in the past, as governor of the nation's second largest state.

(Country music: "God blessed Texas with his own hand, He brung down angels from the promised land. He gave them a place...")

HEIMLICH: This song, which candidate Bush often played while running for governor, embodies the pride Texans feel for their wide open prairies, rolling hills, and beautiful rivers.

(Music continues: "God bless Texas.")

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Now let's check traffic and weather every ten minutes.

ANNOUNCER 2: We've got some big slowdowns on the west side to watch out for.

TRAFFIC REPORTER: (Over radio with static) Expect delays starting from…

HEIMLICH: But Texas is also home to some of America's worst environmental problems. With 13 million vehicles and three of the nation's largest cities, it's awash in traffic and urban sprawl. On average, 16,000 acres of farm land are paved over every month.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: ...again heavy from 549 out toward Jones Road in the Jersey Village area...

HEIMLICH: Texas is also ground zero for big oil. Its coastline is peppered with foul-smelling refineries. By many accounts, Texas is the country's biggest air polluter. Houston recently surpassed Los Angeles for the dubious honor as America's smoggiest city. Mr. Bush didn't create these problems, but Texas environmentalists claim he hasn't done much to solve them, either.

KRAMER:When George Bush took office as governor in January 1995, everyone's expectations in the environmental community, I think, were pretty low. And basically, he has lived down to our expectations.

HEIMLICH: Ken Kramer directs the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. He says Mr. Bush rarely reaches out to environmentalists for advice, and looks instead to industry.

KRAMER: He grew up in an area of Texas where oil and gas was the major industry, where the politics was extremely conservative, where you didn't have very much in terms of diversity of political or other viewpoints. And I think that is reflected very strongly in the way that he approaches things.

HEIMLICH: As an example, Mr. Kramer points to one of the governor's most important personnel decisions. One of the people he chose to oversee the state's environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, was a lobbyist from the chemical industry. As a result, say critics, the commission has grown soft on polluters, assessing 60 percent fewer penalties in the past three years. Stuart Henry is an environmental attorney in Austin.

HENRY: The attitude of the agency used to be that we're going to regulate the industry, and we're going to prevent the natural resources from being violated. But we're going to do it in a way that we don't run business away. The ethic in Texas now is not to do anything that prevents the growth, even if it means allowing more insults on the environment.

HEIMLICH: The agency says that's wrong, it is aggressively enforcing the law, and one reason why fines are down is because industry is cleaning up. But activists respond that's hardly evident by breathing the Texas air. The Sierra Club has been hammering Mr. Bush with radio ads that feature an asthma-stricken child named Billy Tinker. (Commercial music: piano. Voice over: "In the four years George W. Bush has been governor, the number of smog alert days in the state's major cities increased dramatically. The health of more kids has been put at risk. And 11-year-old Billy Tinker's asthma got worse. Call George W. Bush..."; Fade to smokestack sounds)

HEIMLICH: One reason Texas has dirty air is a loophole that's allowed hundreds of factories, refineries, and other businesses, like this aluminum plant near Austin, to operate without air quality permits. Until recently, facilities built before 1971 were grandfathered under Texas law. These businesses generate a third of the state's industrial air pollution. In this State of the State speech a year ago, Governor Bush promised to do something about it.


BUSH: I believe business and a healthy environment can coexist. I look forward to working with Senator Brown and Representative Allen on legislation to make our Texas air cleaner, by significantly reducing emission from older, grandfathered plants.

HEIMLICH: But while the governor clamped down on some plants, he's allowing many facilities to make a choice. A new law, which was largely written by an industry lawyer, says that factories can voluntarily apply for permits or continue as they have been. Those that don't seek permits can be fined. But under the governor's program, they can't be shut down. The Sierra Club's Ken Kramer.

KRAMER: We have no guarantee that all the grandfathered plants will come in the permitting process and have to meet modern pollution control requirements. And that means that Texas citizens are going to continue to have to breathe dirty air because of that.

HEIMLICH: But Bush supporters disagree, and embrace the voluntary approach to reducing pollution. State Representative Ray Allen, who worked with the governor to pass the grandfather law, says there's an incentive for industry to do the right thing. He points out that the state's environmental commission, known as the TNRCC, is listing the worst grandfathered polluters on the Internet.

ALLEN: They don't want environmentalists screaming at them. They don't want TNRCC to target them particularly, to be watching everything they do, because they're big polluters. They want the positive PR of having voluntarily gone out and done something that's good for the community.

HEIMLICH: So far, according to the TNRCC's executive director, Jeff Saitas, the voluntary program is working. Nearly 200 businesses have committed to obtaining permits.

SAITAS:I think it goes straight to human nature. I think every one of us was brought up thinking you can get more with sugar than you can with vinegar. I think the same applies when you're dealing with something like cleaning up the air, cleaning up the water, or cleaning up the land.

HEIMLICH: Saitas and other Bush supporters cite examples where they claim the governor's focus on volunteerism has cleaned up contaminated land and protected wildlife. It's unclear, though, how the Texas approach might work nationwide. Mr. Bush has yet to reveal a detailed environmental strategy, and he declined our request for a formal interview. Still, he has been busy behind the scenes. Last spring Governor Bush flew in a dozen free-market policy analysts for a private environmental conclave.

ANDERSON: It began with the governor very pointedly saying, "I'm going to be the next president of the United States. You tell me how, when I am finished, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and the environment will be healthier."

HEIMLICH: Terry Anderson is the executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He advised Mr. Bush that locally-adapted strategies, like the Texas focus on limited government, voluntary compliance, and industry incentives, will lead to cleaner air and water. Dr. Anderson is convinced Mr. Bush is sincere about wanting to safeguard the environment.

ANDERSON: It was obvious that this was not something a staffer had prompted, but rather was something that he had focused on and wanted to know more about. And I was extremely impressed that a busy person like him, and he was right in the middle of the Texas legislative session at that time, had taken the time to do his homework.

HEIMLICH: At the same time, though, Dr. Anderson is disappointed the Bush campaign isn't stressing the environment.

(Various voices: "George, they've been waiting for you...")

HEIMLICH: In New Hampshire, Governor Bush has said virtually nothing about his feelings about conservation. Even when cornered inside a barber shop, he avoided specifics.

REPORTER: Governor, the people I've talked to here say that the environment is very important to them, but they're not really sure how you stand in terms of various environmental issues. Are you going to be releasing some kind of detailed plan?

BUSH: Absolutely. I'd be glad to share the philosophy that I have... HEIMLICH: Mr. Bush explained his philosophy involves setting federal standards, but avoiding federal command-and-control dictated from Washington. But when confronted with criticism that he's avoiding saying much more, he began to bristle.

BUSH: I think the environment is incredibly important. And I can't tell you how wrong it is for people to assume that because you've got Republican by your name you don't care about the environment. It's quite the contrary. I mean, I think Republicans oftentimes have the best plans to make sure we have clean air and clean water.

HEIMLICH: For some Republicans that may be all they need to hear.

(Milling crowd and country music)

JOHNSON: It's just wonderful. I think we've got ourselves a very good candidate.

HEIMLICH: What is it you like about Mr. Bush?

JOHNSON: I like his sincerity, and I think he has a great deal of integrity.

HEIMLICH: Mary Ellen Johnson says she came to Keene, New Hampshire, for a first-hand look at, as she puts it, the next president.

(To Johnson) I wanted to ask you about the environment.


HEIMLICH: He did not mention anything about the environment in this talk. Does that concern you at all?

JOHNSON: Yes it does, and I think he will do more about that as we get down the road. But I think we're waiting on that.

HEIMLICH: How long Ms. Johnson will have to wait is uncertain. It's possible she and other Republican voters concerned about the environment may be casting their ballots without knowing precisely where George W. Bush stands. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich with the Bush campaign in New Hampshire.



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