The Magazine

Smoke and Smearers

The Gore campaign has maligned the Bush environmental record

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH
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We hasten to add that we are comparing Houston with Los Angeles only to demonstrate the falsity of Gore's allegation. If Houston is not No. 1 in air pollution, neither is it No. 2 or even No. 6 (Houston is the nation's sixth-largest metropolitan area). According to the EPA Air Quality Index, which aggregates levels of all six air pollutants and weights them according to the health risks of each, air quality in Houston is better than in ten other metropolitan areas. Houston also bests ten other cities on a separate EPA index of ozone alone. (These data are for 1998, the most recent year available; rankings for 1999 and 2000 will probably be similar.)

A related charge, and a particularly egregious falsehood, is Vice President Gore's assertion that Governor Bush "made key air pollution rules in Texas voluntary." In 1999, Governor Bush signed two laws concerned with "grandfathered" sources of air pollution. Under the Clean Air Act and almost all state air pollution programs, old power plants and industrial facilities are subject to much more lenient emissions standards than new ones. It is a serious loophole that has been bad for the economy as well as the environment -- inducing firms to maintain old facilities (both less efficient and more polluting than new ones) for longer than they otherwise would, and leading to protracted litigation over the difference between renovating an old facility and building a new one. Under the 1999 legislation, Texas became one of the first three states to begin closing the loophole through tighter standards for old facilities. The step was praised by environmental groups and helped coax Gore, who had not previously confronted the problem as a legislator or vice president, to propose a national program of his own for old power plants. (Bush has also advanced a national proposal.)

But there was a wrinkle in the Texas initiative: The law covering utilities enacted mandatory standards (which will result in huge reductions in power plant emissions over the next three years), but the law covering industrial facilities enacted a "voluntary" compliance schedule coupled with increased fees for noncompliance. There is legitimate disagreement over just how effective the fee-incentive program will turn out to be; there have been some initial reductions in the first year, apparently of about 25,000 tons of air pollution, but it is too soon to estimate likely future reductions. What is not in dispute is that both the "mandatory" and "voluntary" prongs of the Texas program constitute an extension and tightening of air pollution controls -- and an innovation that powerful business opposition has thwarted at the national level and in most states. Nor is it disputed that the use of economic incentives rather than regulatory mandates may significantly improve the effectiveness of our environmental laws and deserves a try; indeed, that is precisely the approach of the vice president's national proposal for old utilities, which consists not of mandatory standards but of "voluntary" tax incentives.

For Gore -- a self-described environmentalist and reformer -- now to turn on the Texas reforms and describe them as having weakened pollution standards ("Bush made key air pollution rules voluntary") is an act of striking mendacity. Gore's latest campaign ad adds a particularly ruthless twist: It couples the "made voluntary" fabrication with the Houston air quality fabrication to produce a triple falsehood -- that air pollution got worse in Houston because Governor Bush weakened air pollution standards.

The vice president's most plenary charge is that, under Governor Bush, Texas has become "last among all states in air quality," "No. 1 in industrial air pollution," and "No. 3 in water pollution." Although the Gore campaign has occasionally relied on newspaper articles and rankings produced by environmental groups, its primary and only official source for these claims is an EPA compilation called the Toxic Release Inventory. The TRI, however, is not a useful measure of air or water pollution and is not a measure of environmental quality at all. Instead, it measures "releases" of certain substances that the EPA classifies as toxic -- and "releases" includes not only those that pollute the air and water but also those that conform with EPA-approved hazardous waste management and water treatment practices. The agency's annual TRI reports warn that its estimates "reflect releases and other waste management activities of chemicals, not exposures of the public to those chemicals," and that they are not sufficient to determine exposure or harm to the environment or public health.