AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Rick Perry likes to say the best way to promote economic growth is to reduce regulation. When it comes to the environment, Perry has made Texas one of the most industry-friendly states in the nation.
Perry has cut funding for clean air programs and sued the Environmental Protection Agency to avoid enforcing laws to make the air cleaner. As part of his Republican presidential campaign, he routinely blasts the White House for tightening environmental standards.
"As president, I would roll back the radical agenda of President Obama's job-killing Environmental Protection Agency," Perry wrote recently in an op-ed for the New Hampshire Union-Leader. "Our nation does not need costly new federal restrictions, especially during our present economic crisis."
Those positions get big applause at Republican debates and fundraisers, and also provide insight into how he would govern if elected, particularly when it comes to the EPA.
In Texas, Perry signed a state budget that slashes funding for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality from $833.3 million to $565.5 million over the next two years. In his budget proposal, Perry had provided even less: $552.5 million. Texas boasts the second largest environmental agency in the world, behind only the EPA; the state agency had requested $882.6 million just to maintain current programs.
The cuts were part of the governor's plan to slash $15 billion in state spending to cope with revenue shortfalls in the sagging economy. Environmentalists complained that the cuts will hurt the most effective clean air programs in the state, including ones that were helping to reduce auto emissions.
Perry used the EPA as his punching bag during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and he is using the federal agency as a foil again in the presidential race
Executives in the state's oil and gas industry, the nation's largest, say they have enjoyed a cooperative relationship with the Texas' environmental agency, despite tougher federal rules.
"Texas always has been, and has continued to be under Governor Perry, one of the states where it's a more friendly regulatory environment," said David Blackmon, director of government relations for Houston-based El Paso Corp. The national natural gas company operates the nation's largest interstate pipeline system, which runs through 29 states.
Federal regulations have increased under Perry's tenure, but Texas has implemented fewer new rules than most other states. Blackmon said the real difference between states is the administrative costs of obtaining permits.
He said the Texas agency has "reached out to business and found solutions that not only cleaned up the air, but did it in a way that has a minimal impact on our ability to do business."
Until recently, emissions from Texas refineries were aggregated across an entire facility, rather than having each smokestack inspected and rated individually to see if it complied with federal law. The Obama administration determined that the aggregated calculation allowed refineries to violate the Clean Air Act and ordered an end to the practice. Perry condemned the decision and the state filed suit.
Businesses frequently complain about regulation, but there is little evidence that it is any worse now than in the past or that it is costing significant numbers of jobs. Most economists believe there is a simpler explanation: Companies aren't hiring because there isn't enough consumer demand.
Larry Soward, a Perry-appointed member of the Texas agency's three-member ruling commission from 2001 to 2007, said the environmental agency's stance reflects the state's political culture.
"The oil and gas industry is the biggest of those industries and has a stature that gives them a lot more respect and influence than the public or the environmentalists," said Soward, who is now a critic of the agency.
Soward said that even though air quality in Texas has improved during Perry's tenure, the credit goes to increasing federal regulations, not state initiatives.
With the budget cuts, the agency "simply won't have the resources, budgetary or staff-wise, to really provide a rigorous scrutiny over air quality permits or more rigorous inspections or enforcement," he said.
The final budget reduced the number of assessments and inspections from 146,534 to 130,140 authorized, or 11 percent less than the commission recommended.
Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas environmental agency, said the commission will try to meet its original goals on air pollution, but assessing waterways may be more difficult.
The commission will also have to cut back on programs that promote cleaner motor vehicles by reducing the emissions from diesel engines and older cars and trucks, she said.
The reduced funding, as well as other legislative changes made to the incentive programs will result in fewer grants and emissions reductions, Morrow wrote in an email.
Cyrus Reed, the Texas legislative director for the Sierra Club, said the state may lose the progress it's made toward cleaner air.
"We've had to come forward with citizen suits to get the law enforced," Reed said. "It's not our job to launch citizen suits, but we've had to do it in Texas."
Another new measure made tightening air quality permits on the oil and gas industry more difficult. That law, which Perry signed in June, requires the Texas environmental agency to analyze the effect of new regulation on the economy – including how it might hurt a company – before implementation. The economic impact could override the environmental benefit of the new regulation.
The new law reflects Perry's contention that global warming is a questionable theory and that regulation always creates an adverse business climate.
During an August campaign swing through New Hampshire, Perry said of climate change, "I don't think, from my perspective, that I want to be engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven, and from my perspective, is more and more being put into question."
Texas releases more heat-trapping carbon dioxide – the chief gas in the greenhouse effect – than any other state, according to government data.
In February 2010, Texas became the first state to sue the EPA for declaring that greenhouse gases are dangerous and subject to federal regulation.A few months later, the EPA became so frustrated with how Texas was enforcing air quality laws that it took away the commission's authority to grant air pollution permits to some refineries. The state has filed suit to go back to the old rules.