In an ordinary year, the news that Houston has become this year's US Smog Capital would merit just a few headlines - and perhaps a ticker-tape parade in Los Angeles, the usual titleholder.
But this is the year of presidential campaigns, and presiding over the dirtiest air in the country could become a black mark for front-runner Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
While supporters and critics spar over whether Governor Bush's preference for corporate "self-regulation" has been good or bad for the air, it's clear that his overall environmental record is steeped in a certain Texan tradition - one that says more about Lone Star attitudes toward jobs and commerce than it does about the ideology of one man.
"There's a strong antigovernment sentiment in general, and when you're talking about environmental regulation, you're talking about government," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "Although we've had Democratic governors, you'd have to say they were of a piece with the conservative center of Texas politics."
On paper, Bush's environmental record does not look especially strong. After measuring higher than usual levels of ozone, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide in Houston, federal authorities declared the city's air-pollution problem "severe" and bumped up Dallas's designation from "moderate" to "serious." To avoid losing federal highway funding, Dallas and Houston must come up with a plan to reduce pollution by a staggering 88 percent and 90 percent, respectively.
In his defense, Bush typically points out that the state has already reduced air pollution by 10 percent since 1994 and cut toxic pollution by 14 percent since 1995 - even though many of these reductions were enacted by Bush's Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards.
But the achievement that Bush considers the cornerstone of his environmental philosophy is a voluntary program that encourages polluters to find their own path to reducing emissions, without the help of state regulators.
Under this law, hundreds of oil refineries, electric utilities, and chemical plants are required to reduce toxic emissions, but they get flexibility in figuring out how to reach this goal. So far, companies holding about 15 percent of the 760 so-called "grandfathered" plants have signed up for this voluntary program.
"I believe we are doing things right in our state," said Bush, in a recent campaign speech in Dallas. "We have high standards, abut we are also proving that government and citizens and business need not be enemies in the work of safeguarding our environment."
Two kinds of business contributions
For many critics, Bush's environmental record shows an all-too-cozy relationship with Texas industries, many of which have become Bush's top campaign contributors. According to government and internal corporate documents obtained by environmentalists, Bush invited some of the state's biggest polluters - including Exxon and Marathon Oil Co. - to write the voluntary emissions-reduction legislation. By some counts, Bush's campaign has since then racked up $2.5 million in contributions from affected industries.
"There's a pretty solid record showing acts by Governor Bush that made it harder for the state to reduce emissions," says Peter Altman, director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, which obtained the documents. Bush's voluntary compliance plan has allowed industry to write the rules and stall for time, he adds.
That said, some environmentalists say Bush's pro-business approach is par for the course for most Texas governors, Democratic or Republican. Former Governor Richards, the tart-tongued darling of liberals, was also aggressive in attracting business to Texas, occasionally to the dismay of environmentalists.
It was Richards, after all, who approved the controversial plan to reprocess flammable napalm at a Houston-area plant; to dump New York City sewage in Hudspeth County in west Texas; and to dump nuclear-waste products from Vermont and Maine in an underground Hudspeth County facility. Bush eventually stopped the nuclear-waste project.
Some critics say the pro-business climate is present in the very state agencies that regulate industry. All three of Bush's appointees to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which regulates industrial emissions and water quality, come from the oil and petrochemical industry. TNRCC commissioner Ralph Marquez, for example, is a former executive from the Monsanto Corp.
Houston-area environmentalist LaNell Anderson says she gets frustrated that local voters seem more interested in protecting jobs than in protecting the environment. But ultimately, she blames city and state leaders, Democratic and Republican, for not taking a tougher stance with industrial polluters. "We're the unwilling participants in a big laboratory," says Mrs. Anderson, who blames pollution for the premature death of her father, mother, and an infant granddaughter in the industrial suburb of Channelview.
Brandt Mannchen, an outspoken Houston air-quality inspector, says regulators need to "start the sanctions clock against Houston" to get industry to start complying with the Clean Air Act. "Houston is supposed to be a 'can-do city,' but when it comes to smog and nitrogen oxide, we say, 'Oh, we can't stop that.' "
But the pro-business stance that works in Texas may not go over well on the national political stage. "I was surprised that [Bush's advisers] didn't have him take a more aggressive stance on the environment" during the last legislative session, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "Just remember what Bush's father did to Mike Dukakis with the Boston Harbor."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society