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Rick Perry and the Environment: Three Things You Need to Know

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rick perry environment texas
Texas Governor Rick Perry
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

You gotta love Rick Perry's swagger.  The Texas Governor is out there in the Iowa cornfields, unabashedly going to toe-to-toe with President Obama, doing his best to instantly cast himself as the big dog in the Republican pack.

He's got a lot going for him: cowboy boots, oil and gas money, Ken-doll hair and a GI Joe name.  Most of all, he has a vision for America's energy future that is so blindingly nostalgic and aggressively anti-science that it makes George W. Bush look, in retrospect, like a commie tree hugger.

To understand Perry's views on energy, you really only need to know three things:

First, Perry has a sentimental attachment to the romance of the Texas wildcatter.  This is not terribly surprising, given that he grew up poor in a dusty little town near Abilene during the glory days of the Texas oil boom.  He saw men – and they were all men – shove drill bits in the ground and get rich.  From watching this, he learned that cheap oil drives the development of shopping malls, that cheap coal means that people can have three big plasma-screen TVs and not flip out about their electric bill – both key features of late 20th-century American life that many 21st-century American voters are still deeply attached to.  Perry also understands that fossil-fuel money fuels American politics.  Since his political career began in 1998, Big Oil has been his biggest campaign donor, contributing more than $11 million – including $186,188 from Exxon Mobil and $116,000 from Koch Industries.

Second, government is evil.  In his view, the government's role isn't to protect public health or stimulate new energy innovation.  It's to stand aside while corporations have their way with us.  The other day, during his bus tour in Iowa, Perry called for "a moratorium on regulations across this country," then singled out the EPA for "killing jobs all across America."  Bashing the EPA has become a new sport among Republican candidates, all of whom have seem to have forgotten that the whole idea of a government agency to help protect the public health of American citizens to prevent the rape and pillage of our natural resources was, in fact, a Republican idea (thank you, Richard Nixon).  But Perry actually has street cred on this: when the U.S. Supreme Court found that the EPA had a duty to regulate carbon pollution, Perry's administration brought a lawsuit against the EPA to stop it (he failed).  He also fought against the agency's attempt to crack down on air pollution that drifts across state lines, calling it "another example of heavy-handed and misguided action from Washington D.C."

And as for cracking down on natural gas companies who are endangering drinking water supplies in New York and Pennsylvania with toxic chemical injected during hydraulic fracking operations – well, forget that, too.  These are the new wildcatters, trying to get fuel out of the ground to power America!  In Perry's view, the idea that these operators are polluting drinking water supplies for millions of people is just another example of the Obama administration "trying to scare people."

Finally, Perry believes that climate change – without a doubt the central issue of our time – can be solved with prayer.  No politician who aspires to the Oval Office has shown any courage when it comes to talking frankly about climate change – President Obama won't even say the words.  But Perry's view that the consequences of a changing climate – such as the hot, dry weather that has devastated farmers and ranchers in Texas and driven wildfires that have burned up millions of acres – is best handled by praying to God for relief puts him in a category of his own.  Craven political move or sign of a return of the Dark Ages?  Either way, it's safe to say that a man who believes he can solve drought with prayer is not going to be big on pushing any kind of government action to reduce carbon pollution.  "If Perry was President, one of the things I'd not worry about is a carbon tax," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.  "I'd worry about big spiders eating New Jersey first."

To fend off accusations that he is a fossil-fuel troglodyte, Perry often points to the fact that Texas is a leader in wind energy – the state gets more than six percent of its power from wind, more than any other in the nation.  But credit for that belongs largely to George W. Bush, who passed a renewable portfolio standard in 1999 when he was still governor of Texas.  A tougher version was passed in 2005, when Perry was governor, but according to Jim Marston, the regional director in Texas of the Environmental Defense Fund, the best that can be said of Perry is that he didn't veto it.  "Neither Governor Perry nor his people were involved in the writing or passage of that bill," says Marston.  "He has done nothing significant to advance the course of wind energy in Texas – it was all done by others, and Perry has just taken credit for it."

Ironically, Perry's biggest political problem when it comes to talking about energy may be convincing Republican primary voters that he's a backward-looking as he presents himself to be.  After all, in 1988, when Al Gore was talking about the dangers of global warming and the need for a clean-energy revolution and ramping up his run for President, Perry was his Texas campaign manager (Perry was a Democrat for the first six years of his political life, then switched parties in 1990).  Perry now claims he didn't agree with Gore on these issues, and has gone out of his way to distance himself from Gore.  "I certainly got religion," Perry said in 2007, using the language of a born-again hack for Big Oil,  "I think he's gone to hell."

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