It would be comforting for liberals to think that the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry, is not completely irredeemable. But if ever there was an issue on which Perry seems irredeemable, it would be the environment. In Texas he has repeatedly sided with polluters, who often happen to be campaign contributors, and feuded with the Environmental Protection Agency. On the campaign trail he denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
The New Republic recently ran a piece hopefully explaining that Perry is actually not as bad on the environment as you might think. Of course Perry generally takes the wrong position, acknowledges the author, Erica Greider of The Economist. But that’s not out of any ideological conviction, she claims. Perry is just pro-business, and when the economy stands to benefit from environmental regulation, he’ll support it.
Unfortunately, this is untrue, according to Texas environmentalists and a closer examination of Perry’s record. Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, describes the piece as “overly generous.”
“Even during the boom years he was hostile to environmental protection in Texas,” says Jim Marston, regional director of the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund. “He doesn’t believe in the science, doesn’t want to know the truth about the science.”
Greider’s case rests on three examples. All three are flawed. “In every case large economic interests were behind Perry’s support as less costly or burdensome alternatives than the proposals being pushed by environmental organizations or the EPA,” says Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.
The first instance is Perry’s support for Texas’ policy of allowing polluters to reduce emissions in total rather than at every emission point. Perry credits this “flexible permitting” regime with an improvement in Texas’ air quality. The EPA, however, considers Texas’ actions to be a violation of the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists say that Perry’s policy did not cause the improvement in air quality but merely coincided with it. “The air got cleaner because of federal mandates and lawsuits,” says Marston. Kramer concurs that improved air quality is “primarily because of implementation of federal Clean Air Act and pollution controls for automobiles and trucks, which we have a lot of in Texas.” He also cites “bringing ‘grandfathered’ polluters who were not initially under the Clean Air Act from the 1970s finally into compliance.” Ultimately, he concludes, “it’s not something we would ascribe to Perry’s record or the flexible permitting system.” As Marston says, “Perry is like a rooster who thinks his crowing causes the sun to come up.”
Greider also points to Perry signing a bill requiring a minimal amount of the state’s electricity to come from wind power. But Perry was hardly a leader on the subject. Texas has ample potential for wind farming, and the bill was passed with overwhelming support in the legislature. To veto it would have been a far riskier move politically. “It was like signing a tax decrease,” says Marston.
Greider’s final example is Perry signing a bill requiring some disclosure of the chemicals being used in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. But even that bill was a weak compromise—it allows exemptions for chemicals that could be considered “trade secrets”–that EDF refused to support. Exxon Mobil, on the other hand, did support it, and it was passed by the Republican legislature. “It got watered down,” says Marston. “It was nothing to write on your tombstone about.”
“The fracking rule is not really something that Perry had any type of direct impact on,” says Kramer. According to Kramer the credit should go to Representative Jim Keffer. Keffer chairs the Texas House Energy Resources Committee and represents an area near Ft. Worth where citizens were concerned about the lack of disclosure in fracking materials. Seeing that it was in the best interest of the gas industry itself as well as his constituents, Keffer wrote and pushed the bill. “Perry made a big show of signing the legislation,” says Kramer, “but that was really more for the political benefit of attaching his name to something that was popular.”
Counter-examples abound, where Perry has sided against not only the environment but the economic health of his state out of fealty to existing business interests. Perry has prevented a solar energy standard similar to the wind power one from being passed by threatening to veto it. He has opposed safety standards on pesticides since he was in the state legislature and initially ran for Agriculture Commissioner just to stymie them. He approved a nuclear waste dump close to the nation’s largest aquifer after the staff that reviewed the permit suggested denying it.
The most telling example, though, might be his work on behalf of coal-burning electricity plants. In early 2006 Perry announced that by executive order he was fast-tracking the process of permitting eleven new coal power plants, short-circuiting the environmental review process. The beneficiary: TXU, an energy company, which has since been purchased and changed its name to Energy Future Holdings. Energy Future Holdings gave $425,000 to the Republican Governors Association while Perry served as chairman from January, 2006 to July, 2011, up from $35,000 in the previous five years. In total they’ve given $1 million to Perry and the RGA.
TXU’s plants would have contributed an estimated 78 million new tons of CO2 emissions per year, which is more than the total CO2 emissions of twenty-one different states. This was not, in fact, good for all Texas businesses or the state economy as a whole. Local businesses feared that the pollution would cause total emission levels to put it under federal remediation, exacting penalties on other local emitters, as well as the adverse economic impacts of high pollution generally. Business owners and executives organized a political action committee, Texas Business for Clean Air. Thanks to a coalition of business and environmental groups, TXU ended up only building three plants.
As a politician with an egregiously bad environmental record and national ambitions Perry has been promoting the story line in Greider’s article, that he is a reasonable-minded advocate of economic growth. “This is right out of the Perry campaign defense of what they’re doing,” says Marston. “[Greider] has clearly been lobbied behind the scenes and fallen for it hook, line and sinker.” But you shouldn’t.