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Texas pollution is a liability for Bush


LA PORTE, TEXAS -- The Texas Independence Trail, a dreary stretch of road on the outskirts of Houston, is inspiring in name only.

Lined with some of the state's largest oil refineries and petrochemical plants, the trail ends in the murky town of La Porte at the monument to the Battle of San Jacinto, an obelisk which, from afar, is virtually indistinguishable from the dozens of smokestacks that dot the skyline.

In the smog that often hangs over this hallowed ground, it is hard to conjure up images of 1836, when Texan soldiers crying "Remember the Alamo!" defeated the advancing Mexican army.

If Al Gore has his way, this place will generate a new rallying cry in the closing months of the 2000 presidential campaign: "Remember La Porte!"

In its bid to undermine George W. Bush's record as governor of Texas, the Gore campaign is painting a grim picture of the state's environmental woes on Bush's watch.

Listening to the criticisms from several environmental groups, you might think that Texas's rivers are awash in industrial waste and its cities choked with pollution as bad as that of the old Soviet block.

In a recent letter printed in several national newspapers, a Sierra Club official thundered: "Voting for Bush is the kiss of ecological and planetary death! To do so is to risk the lives of our children and our future."

Should Bush become president, he is unlikely to be the earth's destroyer. Still, he hardly bills himself as its savior, either. On the campaign trail, offering himself as a "Reformer with Results," he perks up when he discusses education reform and tax cuts in Texas, yet rarely mentions the environment.

Even his aides admit it has never been exactly at the top of his agenda. The Gore camp sees this as a chink in his armor, and will no doubt run ominous advertisements -- or give a wink and nod to ads run by others -- about billowing smokestacks and miles-long traffic jams in the Lone Star State.

Are things in Texas really that bad? And is Governor Bush to blame? To the first question, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

As the heart of America's petrochemical and oil-refining industries, Texas puts more chemicals into the air than any other state, and by most rankings is the state with the worst toxin level in the atmosphere.

Were Texas a country in its own right, it would be the world's seventh-biggest national emitter of carbon dioxide -- even though the latest data from the NAFTA Environmental Commission show that Texas's toxic release levels actually declined by 15 percent from 1995 to 1997.

The largest problem is the dangerous amount of nitrogen oxide (which mixes with vehicle-exhaust gas to create ozone, and then smog) coughed out by the state's industrial plants.

Last year, when Houston surpassed Los Angeles as the country's smoggiest city, Texas had the nation's 25 highest ozone measurements and 90 percent of the nationwide readings deemed "very unhealthy" by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since Bush took office, the number of days when Texan cities have exceeded federal ozone standards has doubled, and Houston and Dallas currently face federal deadlines to make sharp cuts in air pollution or risk losing federal money for their roads.

As pollution gets worse, environmentalists are constantly knocking heads with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state's environmental regulation agency. They accuse the agency's officials of deliberately delaying plans to clean up the air, in part because of lobbying by oil-industry executives.

The officials reply that Rome was not built in a day, and they cannot be expected to clean up Houston overnight: after all, it took 30 years to get that way. The dramatic growth of Texas's cities over the past decade, they add, has not exactly helped.

But critics point to other cities that have grown as quicky as Houston and Dallas with improved air. Jim Marston of the Texas chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund is scathing: the agency people "pretended like [air pollution] wasn't happening, then shrugged their shoulders and said it wasn't their fault."

Texas's woes are not Bush's creation. It needed a lot of years (and several governors) to create an air pollution crisis, and Bush inherited most of the trouble.

Yet, even if he is not responsible for the problem, he has not been notably energetic in looking for solutions to it.

Bush is fond of saying that you cannot regulate or sue your way to clean air and water. It is a nonchalant way to approach the issue.

And he faces, in Gore, an opponent who has every intention of making the most of Texas's environmental troubles.

If the Gore dagger strikes home, Bush may feel like the disobedient son haunted by his father's words.

In 1988, George Bush senior went to Boston Harbor and attacked the environmental record of his opponent in that year's presidential race, Michael S. Dukakis: "My opponent has said that he will do for America what he has done for Massachusetts. That's what I fear for my country."

This article first appeared in the Economist.

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