Cleaning the Air About the Bush Environmental Record

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Texas is "[t]he Number 1 most polluted state in America - air, water and land," declared Vice-President Al Gore during an April "Earth Week" speech? Is this true? Has George W. Bush, allowed Texas to become the nation's toxic dump on his watch as Governor?

Gore cited two facts to support his claim: Texas ranks number one on the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI); and Houston recently surpassed Los Angeles as the city with the "dirtiest" air in the nation. These claims are misleading and ignore the environmental progress that Texas has made under Gov. Bush since 1995.

Texas did rank first on the TRI in 1997, releasing 261 million pounds of toxic chemicals - which is not surprising since Texas leads the nation in chemical production and oil refining. However according to the EPA, in 1998 four other states had surpassed Texas in toxic's released. Part of the reason for Texas's improved ranking was the fact that toxic releases fell by 14 percent in Texas from 1995 to 1997, compared to an average of 1.5 percent for all states. And during that period Texas reduced the amount of toxic chemicals released by 42 million pounds - more than all of the other states combined.

More importantly, the toxic release inventory is not a meaningful measure of the risk from chemical releases. Why not? Under the the EPA's accounting system for toxics a "release" includes shipments of chemicals from one company to another, shipments from a company to a landfill (even if required by law) and on- or off-site recycling or reuse of listed chemicals. Also, the EPA considers only the number of pounds of a chemical released, without regard to its danger. For instance, releasing 20 million pounds of acetone (used in nail polish remover) into the air would make a state's rating look worse than releasing 1,000 pounds of a poison gas like phosgene.

With 52 days of ozone violations, Houston was the smoggiest city in the nation last year, surpassing Los Angeles. However, Houston's 1999 record was an aberration, caused by unique climatic conditions and several unlawful industrial emission releases for which the companies in question face substantial fines. From 1995 to 1997 the number of days that Houston violated ozone standards fell 18 percent. And because Los Angeles also violates EPA standards for carbon monoxide and particulate matter, it still has poorer overall air quality than Houston.

Bush pioneered a voluntary plan that reduced air pollution from industrial plants and utilities in Texas. From 1995 to 1997: Nitrogen oxide emissions fell by 23.6 percent - second best in the nation; emissions of volatile organic compounds fell by 43.2 percent - fourth best among the states; sulfur dioxide emissions fell 17.1 percent - fifth best nationally; and carbon dioxide emissions fell 12 percent - 13th best among the states. In fact, of all air pollutants monitored by the EPA, only in particulate matter did Texas fail to surpass the nationwide reductions average from 1995 to 1997, although they did fall 11.9 percent.

Unfortunately, Texas's only PM non-attainment area - El Paso - shares a mountain basin airshed with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. El Paso would meet the EPA's particulate matter standard were it not for air pollution from Juarez.

In an attempt to further improve Texas's air, Gov. Bush signed legislation in 1999 making Texas the first state to require older utilities to reduce emissions. These plants had been exempted from emission restrictions under the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Looking beyond air quality, Bush signed other important environmental bills. Bush signed legislation deregulating the state's electric industry while requiring the second highest use of "clean" energy (i.e., renewable energy and natural gas) in the country. He also signed a bill creating the first-ever environmental education program in Texas - establishing the Texas Environmental Education Project Fund, a public-private partnership that raises money to carry out environmental education projects. In addition, with Texas's future water supply in doubt due to regular droughts and population growth, Gov. Bush signed a bill that for the first time established a comprehensive, statewide plan designed to balance the freshwater needs of wildlife, urban dwellers and rural water users.

Texas, like every state, has environmental problems. In response, Gov. Bush has pioneered an approach that enlists the private sector as an ally, rather than an adversary, in the effort to solve environmental problems. The result has been that the environment has improved even as the population and the economy of Texas have blossomed. Politicians like Al Gore may talk the talk about protecting the environment while growing the economy, but Bush has walked the walk.