Cash and Carry
George W. Bush's environmental menace
By Jeffrey St. Clair
When George W. Bush made his first run for governor in 1994, he invited a posse of reporters to accompany him on a bird-hunting safari into the wilds outside Austin. The quarry was supposed to be the fearsome mourning dove. After tramping across a cornfield, Bush sighted his prey, leveled his shotgun and fired, nearly obliterating his catch. Upon inspection of the remains, however, the soon-to-be governor made a troubling discovery. He'd downed a killdeer, which, as any novice bird watcher knows, looks nothing like a dove--or any other game bird, for that matter. Indeed, in Texas the killdeer is listed as a threatened species. Needless to say, Bush wasn't punished for his crime. This act of savagery actually may have won him a few votes.
But with his presidential ambitions growing, says Jamie Newlin, an El Paso environmental organizer, "Bush has dressed himself up as a compassionate conservationist." Last summer, Bush finagled another photo-op in the great outdoors. This time he was more in his element. Bush tells his friends he's a bass man, and he wanted to make a stab against the use of toxic chemicals to control hydrilla--an aquatic plant that thrives in Texas reservoirs and consumes bass habitat. This also allowed Bush to plug a new "environmentally sensitive" contraption one of his buddies had developed, a kind of floating lawn mower that sells for $80,000 a piece. Bush took the helm of the machine for an hour, ripping up hydrilla for the cameras. But after the media were gone, the aquatic weed-whackers never took off. Chemicals are still liberally dumped by Bush's Department of Natural Resources in more than 85 lakes across the state.
There's little evidence that Bush has ever considered the environment anything more than a political obstacle. If his record as governor of Texas is any indication, a Bush presidency will more closely resemble the industrial free-for-all of the Reagan years than the more measured administration of his father, who at least pledged to be the environmental president and actually demonstrated a passion, of sorts, for the outdoors. On key issues, such as clean air, hazardous and radioactive waste, public land use and globalization, George W. Bush may easily rank as the worst of the candidates running for president. Already, Bush has surrounded himself with a claque of advisers on the environment whose views are extreme by almost any standard.
As governor, Bush has sedulously served the interests of the oil, chemical and corporate ranching industries, giving them tax breaks (notably a $45 million windfall for oil and gas producers), widening regulatory loopholes and going to bat against federal bureaucrats. By most standards, Texas ranks as the most polluted state in the nation, edging out Louisiana, with its "cancer alley," for the dubious honor. But unlike Louisiana, Texas is a wealthy state. Yet under Bush little of that money has been spent to clean up the toxic messes that litter the state. Texas ranks 49th in the nation in spending on the environment.
Bush has gone out of his way to protect the interests of noxious companies, such as TXI, which runs a mammoth cement operation in Midlothian. As investigative journalist Ken Silverstein reported in the November/December issue of Sierra magazine, the TXI plant is powered by a generator that burns hazardous waste. The company's own tests show that its smokestacks belch out four carcinogens at levels that greatly exceed EPA standards. Former Gov. Ann Richards tried to limit the plant's toxic emissions. But Bush has intervened on the company's behalf, approving a plan that allows TXI to pump 52 tons of toxic chemicals into the air every year. The TXI debacle is the rule in Texas, not the exception.
Consider the Superfund program, which has done little to clean up of the environment - but has put a lot of cash into Bush's campaign accounts. A new study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) shows that the 1998 rewrite of Texas' Superfund law eliminated several key provisions at the request of some of Bush's biggest financial contributors. Most notably, the new law limited the liability of polluters, leaving the clean-up burden in the hands of the state. Overall, the industries that benefited from the new Superfund law contributed more than $3.5 million to Bush's political coffers and include such toxic luminaries as DuPont, Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Temple-Inland Forest Products, Chevron and Enron. "Pollution policy in Texas has become a cash and carry operation," says Texas PEER Coordinator Erin Rogers. "If you have the cash, you can carry on as you like."
Bush's appointments to environmental rule-making boards and commissions also have showed a typical lack of zeal, amounting to little more than a clique of celebrities, industry hacks and financial patrons. Some of the headliners: Nolan Ryan, former ace pitcher of Bush's baseball team, the Texas Rangers; Donna Howard, actress on the TV hit Dallas and flack for the NRA; Richard Marquez, a former Monsanto executive; cosmetics mogul Dick Heath, who has raised $127,000 for the governor's political campaigns as a member of the Bush's "Pioneer Club"; and oil industry lobbyist Robert Huston, whose clients include Chevron, Shell and Exxon. Not surprisingly, Bush has garnered millions of dollars from oil and gas interests during his political career, but the governor doesn't see these financial inducements as problematic. "There's no such thing as being too closely aligned to the oil industry in West Texas," Bush has said.
Still, Bush has not adopted the chest-thumping rhetoric of the wise-use movement, as Bob Dole did in 1996. Bush has recognized that global warming may be a problem. He says he's for clean air and water and the great outdoors. And, after testing the popular winds, he did oppose the nuclear waste dump slated for the predominantly Latino town of Sierra Blanca on the Mexican border. Of course, a few weeks later he gave his support for a new dump in Andrews County, near New Mexico. For Bush, the issue was neither the environment nor public health - just craven politics. Bush's march to the White House depends on him getting the Latino vote in the general election.
When studied more closely Bush's record and environmental philosophy, if you can call it that, fit smoothly into the trend toward market-based and anti-regulatory approaches that began during his father's tenure as president and accelerated under Clinton and Gore. But there are distinguishing characteristics to Bush's environmental platform. Where Gore would loosen environmental regulations, Bush seems more than willing to throw them out altogether. Gore might consider leasing the profitable concessions at national parks such as Yosemite or Grand Canyon to corporations; Bush appears open to the idea of selling entire parks off to the highest bidder. Gore might waive punitive fines against violators of the Clean Air Act; Bush has already told companies in his state that compliance with that law should be voluntary.
Bush needs to be spoon-fed his political philosophy, particularly on matters as arcane as environmental regulation. So last May he convened a summit of his environmental advisers, a roster of pro-industry spin-doctors who view environmental laws as a bothersome impediment to the growth of the Dow Jones industrial average. Christopher DeMuth of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, is a typical right-wing think tank policy wonk, forever babbling on about the heavy-handed tactics of the federal environmental bureaucrats. Under the rubric of "local control," DeMuth wants to devolve federal environmental law to the states, to ease what he calls the "regulatory burden" on corporations and allow the market to "allocate the use" of natural resources like oil and timber.
Bush also has huddled with Fred Krupp, director of the conservative Environmental Defense Fund, which has been pushing market-oriented ideas, such as pollution credits, for years. EDF helped fashion the Clean Air Act revisions of 1990, which President Bush cited as one of the cornerstones of his presidency. This spring, Krupp advised the younger Bush on sweeping changes to Texas clean air standards, which for the first time attempted to regulate emissions from old, "grandfathered" power plants. In describing the bill, Bush said: "I believe government and industry, jobs and the environment can coexist. The old command and control school is not what I am for. I'm for setting standards and letting industry comply." But Bush left out a key word: "voluntarily." Those old power plants are on the honor system when it comes to meeting the new air standards, and there are no penalties for violating the rules.
Another influential Bush adviser on environmental matters, particularly on wildlife and public land issues, is Mark Racicot, Montana's Republican governor, who is said to be at the top of Bush's list of candidates for Interior Department secretary. "Racicot talks like Babbitt, but walks like Watt," says Steve Kelly, a Montana environmentalist. "The governor likes process and consensus groups and all of these approaches that the Clinton team has perfected. But he uses them to advance the interests of corporations and his political backers."
When he served as attorney general, Racicot wanted to restart the hunting of grizzly bears in the northern Rockies, arguing that selling grizzly hunting tags would create a "financial incentive" to protect the bears. As governor, he convened a consensus group to try to keep the bull trout from being listed as an endangered species. He also orchestrated the bloody campaign to gun down bison that stray from the boundaries of Yellowstone Park. In each of these matters, Racicot has faced off against the federal government, arguing that states and local communities should be in charge of environmental standards and wildlife laws.
This position closely mirrors Bush's own approach to endangered species: He has vigorously opposed plans to add the jaguar, Arkansas River shiner, and Barton Springs salamander to the federal endangered species list. He also has failed to protect endangered sea turtles on the Gulf Coast. "Texans know best how to protect our environment and conserve our own natural resources," Bush wrote in a 1998 letter to Rep. Don Young, the fire-breathing Alaska Republican who heads the House Resources Committee. "The heavy-handed approach of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in implementing the Endangered Species Act has only served to strengthen that belief. ... The Endangered Species Act must be carefully enacted and administered to minimize the potential impact on private property rights and private property must never be taken by government regulation without just compensation to the property owner."
Bush has already made clear that his views on endangered species won't change if elected president. On a fundraising spree through Oregon and Washington last summer, Bush told reporters that he would not countenance any plan to breech dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, the last hope to save dwindling runs of salmon and steelhead trout. Instead, Bush said he would capture the salmon, load them into barges and haul them around the dams.
Several of the intellectual gurus behind Bush's environmental agenda have done time at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, one of the kookier outfits in the West. This think tank is a Petri dish for "new resource" economists, free-market environmentalists and property-rights zealots. But the PERCies also are astute poll diviners who recognize the importance of spin. They know that the American public overwhelmingly desires stronger environmental safeguards and the preservation of public lands. And they understand that a presidential candidate who campaigns against the environment will never unpack in the White House. "If you talk about the environment the way the Republican Congress did," PERC executive director Terry Anderson says. "This will be a losing issue."
After several briefings with PERC, Bush began to come around. "We presented him with the seeds of a positive, constructive agenda that can move environmentalism away from our current gridlock and toward a win-win improvement," Anderson says. "He's astute enough that he's going to at least embrace some of the ideas that were put forward."
What is that agenda? First, PERC wants to downscale federal environmental laws and regulations. Then they call for eliminating most, if not all, federal financial support for environmental protection, allowing market incentives and property rights to dictate how pollution is controlled and rare wildlife species are protected. And the mavens at PERC want to fund the national parks and national forests by charging user fees for hiking, camping, hunting and bird watching. This bottom-line approach already has been implemented in Texas, where the state parks are required to be self-sufficient. Under Bush, the parks receive no funds from the state general fund, but rely exclusively on park fees and a modest slice of a state sales tax from sporting goods sales.
Texas ranks 49th in the nation in park funding. Facilities are in disrepair and use is down, as lower income families have been priced out of the "park market." A 1998 audit showed that the Texas park system faces a $186 million funding backlog. And that's with a miserly management approach that has seen no new park land acquired since Bush became governor. There are no additions planned for the future either. "Under the Bush/PERC plan, the national forests and national parks will be operated by concessionaires, meaning entertainment companies, such as Disney and Time Warner," says Scott Silver, director of Wild Wilderness, an environmental group based in Bend, Oregon. "If a given national park doesn't make a profit, it could be shut down or sold off."
In fact, Anderson and his colleagues at PERC call for the privatization of all federal lands. "We offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years," Anderson writes in a paper recently published by the Cato Institute. "Both environmental quality and economic efficiency would be enhanced by private rather than public ownership."
The upcoming election will be a crucial one for the environment: The Endangered Species Act is in limbo, the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty remains mired in international squabbles, and the oil companies are poised to pounce on the last reserves on public lands. A recent survey by Republican polling whiz Frank Luntz shows that more than 70 percent of Americans want environmental laws strengthened; they also want less logging and more wilderness, fewer hazardous waste dumps and more wolves.
Yet these voters have been left with a grim and unsatisfying choice: Gore's rhetoric sounds green enough, but his record as a senator and vice president is one of unceasing capitulations to big timber, oil and sugar. Bush is predisposed toward indifference on the environment, but his financial backers include some of the world's most extravagant and unrepentant polluters. If we know anything about Bush, it is that he is a faithful servant to his financial masters. "Everyone is talking about the earth dying," says David Brower, head of Earth Island Institute. "Well, the earth isn't dying, it's being killed."
George W. Bush is a hired gun.
Jeffrey St. Clair is a contributing editor of In These Times.