Texas Comptroller Susan Combs

“We’re the Good Guys”: Conservatives Make the Case for Free-Market Environmentalism


Above: Susan Combs

There’s something peculiar about a discussion framed as “Can the Free Market Protect the Environment?” that includes virtually no discussion of how to protect the environment. Instead, at one of the final panels of the corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation conference—a must-attend event for many in the Capitol crowd—the panelists mostly mulled the meaning of “liberty” and ran through a bill of particulars against the EPA, bureaucrats and “the Left.”

“We’re not here to talk about grass and critters and trees and such, so much as liberty,” said Becky Norton, a former Reagan administration official now with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“The Left for far too long has monopolized the debate over the environment and has successfully, but wrongly, painted conservatives as enemies to the environment.” Principled conservatives, she said, are “better stewards of the environment because we care about people first.”

Norton and her fellow Heritage think-tanker on the panel, Robert Gordon, flogged a slick Heritage publication laying out “eight principles of the American Conservation Ethic” that argues for complete inaction on global warming and the weakening of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The most successful environmental policies emanate from liberty,” said Gordon. “We choose liberty and there is a statistically demonstrable positive correlation between the quality of our environment and freedom.”

Having principles is the most important thing, he argued.

“With principles that are consistent with your overall worldview you can argue with confidence,” said Gordon. “None of us can master all the facts, you must have solid ground to return to.”

(Among the corporate donors to Texas Public Policy Foundation are: Koch Industries, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Crownquest Oil & Gas, TXU Energy, CenterPoint Energy, San Antonio Steel Co., Direct Energy, Texas Wester Energy Corp., Jones Energy, NRG Energy, the American Coalition for Clean Coal, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, Petroleum Strategies Inc., Texas Association of Manufacturers and Oncor.)

Providing a bit more of a concrete demonstration of how environmental policy is informed by Liberty was TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. The two mainly complained about federal meddling in Texas’ affairs. Describing a “federal power grab,” Shaw reviewed the state’s battle with the EPA over Texas’ flexible permit program and the cross-state air pollution rule, which was struck down by a D.C. court in August.

Combs stuck to her environmental wheelhouse: endangered species. Or as she put it dealing with the “incoming SCUD missiles known as [endangered species] listings.”

The comptroller helped lead efforts in Texas to avoid the listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard, a skittish lizard that lives partially in the West Texas oil patch. The Endangered Species Act, Combs said, “ain’t working,” pointing to the meager two percent of a number of species that have recovered enough to be de-listed. (Some might argue that that fact militates for strengthened protections; one might also ask what species avoided further degradation, or even extinction, from the protections afforded by the Act.)

Wildlife champions, Combs complained, have too much power under the Endangered Species Act. Opponents of listing new species can only sue after such a designation is made. Of the plains spotted skunk, which is under federal review for endangered or threatened status, she joked: “Who the hell knows about the skunk? We shoot ’em in West Texas.”

Despite the bravado, the panel was pretty glum about the appeal of liberty-emanating environmentalism. “We are losing the battle, we are absolutely losing the battle,” one audience member told the panel. He complained that federal drinking water standards are making it expensive to treat new groundwater resources in West Texas.

“At what point in time do we… stand up and say ‘we no longer will comply’ and find out what the federal government is going to do?” the man asked. “I don’t think they have enough troops to move in and make us comply.”

But the event closed on a positive message, courtesy of Kathleen Hartnett White, the gum-champing former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now bears the preposterously-long title of (deep breath) Distinguished Senior Fellow-in-Residence & Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“We’re right,” she said. “We’re the good guys.”