Perry’s “Bad or Awful” Environmental Record

Published September 7, 2011

I’m disappointed in this Erica Greider piece at the New Republic – titled, “Rick Perry’s Record on the Environment: Is It Bad, or Awful?” – for a number of reasons. Greider has been an otherwise impressive journalist in covering Perry (she understands him more than other reporters, both for what he is and what he is not) in her time at The Economist. But the framing of the issues in this piece are simply not accurate.

Greider writes: “Perry’s record on the environment has seemed pretty unambiguous: He has come out against nearly all environmental regulations.” But this flies in the face of the fact that the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has been one of the busiest agencies under Perry, and at least as recently as a few years ago was the world’s second-largest environmental regulatory agency after the EPA (given the sheer amount of petrochemicals Texas produces, this is hardly surprising – 60% of all the nation’s petrochemicals, 1/5 of the natural gas, 1/4 of the refined gasoline…). The Clean Air Act is administered by TCEQ, and for most of the past decade, they’ve had a good amount of discretion in how it goes about its business.

What Perry has opposed, and strongly, is federal, one-size-fits-all, cost-is-no-consideration environmental regulations. Within his own state, his more flexible approach has reaped rewards: while business in the state is thriving, the air is actually getting cleaner (though the recent fires will likely change some of that). Lower level of air pollutants in major cities is just one aspect. As of last year, Texas’ approach over the course of Perry’s tenure had achieved a 22 percent reduction in ozone and a 46 percent decrease in NOx emissions, dramatically outpacing an 8 percent reduction in ozone and 27 percent in NOx at the national level. Their reductions in carbon dioxide – second most in the country prior to the recession – comes in the context of vast population growth and significant increase in business activity. You want trendlines? Check these

The point is, Perry’s conflict with the EPA over Texas’s flexible permitting is not “a bit of a non sequitur” – this whole fight takes place within the context of the Clean Air Act and how Washington mandates states respond to climate change. Perry maintains the EPA has been on a major power grab, ditching whole sections of the Clean Air Act (which reserves for the states the right to make policy choices over permitting). For their part, EPA has pushed back hard on sources using the more flexible permits in attempts to end the program.

The states have always played the front-line role in controlling air pollution and implementing environmental regulation. Perry’s position has been that this is the right way to do things. If anything, this is an example of the consistency of his viewpoint on the proper understanding of federalism, and the data bear out his argument that the states can handle this better than the feds.