The Magazine

Smoke and Smearers

The Gore campaign has maligned the Bush environmental record

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH SR.
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In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore is returning to the theme that Texas has become an abysmal place to live under Governor George W. Bush. It is a hard case to make -- Texas is today the fifth-fastest growing state and fifth in net influx of Americans from other states, and Bush is one of the nation's most popular governors.

Gore's earlier attacks on the governor's education record were set aside following the release in July of a comprehensive RAND study showing that student proficiency in math and reading has been improving more in Texas than in any other state. His subsequent assertions about the number of Texans lacking health insurance seem to have fizzled as well (it turns out that the number of uninsured has been falling in Texas while rising in the nation as a whole). That leaves environmental quality, where the vice president and his ad writers have leveled a fusillade of dramatic allegations about increasing pollution in Texas's cities and streams. But the ecoscare attacks are as unfounded as the others.

Environmental quality presents rich opportunities for misleading data and rhetoric. Measuring air and water pollution involves a host of variables: One can measure pollution by emissions or by the quality of the air and water, and measurements of air and water quality depend on the placement of monitors, the use of peak versus average levels, and adjustments for population exposure and for the widely differing health and amenity effects of different kinds of pollution. Rankings of states are much more problematic than rankings for school performance or health care, because all states that are more urbanized and industrialized have higher pollution levels. Texas accounts for 60 percent of the nation's petrochemical production capacity and 25 percent of its oil refining, and it is the only state with two metropolitan areas among the nation's top ten (Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth). Measured by simple gross quantities, Texas, California, and New Jersey will have "more pollution" than most other states under any circumstances; the rest of us can enjoy the products of their industries without having to bother so much with the pollution-control challenges.

Gore's charges exploit these opportunities to the hilt, combining misleading statistics with a few outright fabrications to create an impression that bears little relationship to reality. The charges, however, are easy to debunk, and it is surprising that they have been reported with little scrutiny by media that have otherwise grown wary of the vice president's loose ways with facts.

The Gore campaign's favorite charge is that Houston has passed Los Angeles to become "the smog capital of the United States," "No. 1 in air pollution," and "the dirtiest city in the nation." (We will ignore Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew's claim that Houston has become "the dirtiest city in the world," which was evidently uttered in a fit of enthusiasm for the latest party line.) The charge is false. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, air quality in Houston is improving and is unambiguously better than in Los Angeles, and is also better than in many other cities.

The Houston charge is based on 1999 city data on ambient levels of ozone -- one of six "criteria" air pollutants regulated under the national Clean Air Act -- as measured by numbers of days of "exceedences" of the EPA's national standard. Ozone levels are highly sensitive to weather conditions, especially temperature. They have been essentially flat in Houston in recent years (and other southern cities such as Atlanta), but they fell sharply in Los Angeles in 1999 because of unusually cool summer weather. As a result, Houston topped Los Angeles (and all other cities) in ozone exceedences -- but its air quality was nevertheless better than L.A.'s. Houston's ozone level was 10 percent higher than that of Los Angeles, but its particulates level was 20 percent lower (particulates are the other major component of "smog," and according to the EPA a far more serious health risk than ozone; there is no separate measure of "smog"). Houston did vastly better than L.A. for three of the four other Clean Air Act pollutants: 63 percent lower for nitrogen oxides, 64 percent lower for carbon monoxide, and 78 percent lower for lead (the cities' sulfur dioxide levels were identical). While Houston was out of compliance with EPA's national standard for only one pollutant, ozone, L.A. was out of compliance for three: ozone, particulates, and carbon monoxide.