Wake Up Rick Perry — And Smell the Fumes

If Rick Perry wants to lead America to energy independence, he should clean up his act at home

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Tuesday night’s Republican debate featured a Rick Perry who was told to get more sleep. If he did, it didn’t work. He still looks bobbleheaded. (While Jon Huntsman looks more like a plaster bust every week. Stately — as befitting the smartest of the group — but bemused, as if wondering how he got shelved with the plastic tchotchkes.) Perry’s going to have plenty of naptime soon. As a Presidential candidate, he’s running out of fuel — even though fuel is the only thing he’s excited about.

The Texas Governor is this year’s “Burn, Baby, Run; Drill, Baby, Drill” candidate (though it’s Michele Bachmann who looks like she’s become Palin’s stunt double. And was Romney actually testing out Bachmann’s VP potential?) The economic plan Perry nudged onto the table addresses a critical issue that no one else touched: energy independence. But Perry has nothing refined to say, just “open up the treasure trove this country is sitting on.”

I’m all for energy independence. I wish Perry had spent the last decade leading Texas, where I lived for five years, to becoming a world-class model for a vibrant energy mix, transitioning to sustainable new (and abundant) sources like wind and sun, while cleaning up the classic (and abundant) sources we currently rely on — and must, for decades longer — coal and oil. It hasn’t happened under Perry’s leadership. But we have a clear picture of America’s energy future under President Perry.

Filthy.

Texas’ Governor needs to wake up to his enormous and lethal air pollution problem. It flies in the face of his claim that he’ll always come down on the side of life. The people who suffer most from air pollution are the unborn, and children. That’s why even evangelical Christians are coming out in support of strong mercury regulations.

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To be sure, Texas’ skies — America’s skies — are cleaner today than they were 40 years ago. Perry’s willing to take credit — but it has happened, in spite of his obstacles, because of the federal regulation Perry threatens to repeal: the Clean Air Act. Perry campaigns on abolishing the EPA and has cynically, but successfully, twinned “job-killing” with “regulations,” even though that’s false, as forty plus years of growth, with EPA in place, have proven.

Texas has long had a large number of oil refineries, chemical plants, cement kilns, and other dirty industries. Seven of the country’s 25 worst mercury-emitting power plants are in Texas. Less than one teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a twenty-acre lake. One plant in East Texas — the country’s worst polluter — emits 2660 pounds a year.

Mercury comes out of those smokestacks, lands in water, converts to toxic methylmercury, and accumulates in fish. Mercury damages fetal brain development. Pregnant women ingest it in contaminated food (large predators like tuna, swordfish, among others) — that’s why doctors recommend limiting consumption. Mercury passes into breast milk. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxicant that causes behavioral and neurological problem in young children.

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Asthma attacks are triggered by air pollution: asthma rates are on the rise in Texas, and are especially bad in areas with heavy industry. Asthma is the number one reason children miss school.

Researchers are circling in on higher incidences of childhood leukemia in areas with higher air pollutants, like benzene; a study in Southeast Texas, in neighborhoods surrounding Houston, showed disturbing correlations.

At the end of last week, the EPA — presumably pushed by the President’s office, which is desperate to look conciliatory, though why anyone would give in to pressure to let polluters poison our children is beyond me — proposed giving ten states, including Texas, more flexibility in applying important new Cross-State Air Pollution Rules. Those regulations would help protect states whose air is dirty because of the pollution blowing in from their neighbors. Texas polluters want those rules gone.

It’s Texas children who suffer. They are caught in a hard place: between Perry’s bullying distortions on behalf of the coal and oil industries, and Obama’s weak knees, buckling at confrontation. Dangerous pollution wafts across those big Texas skies — and more than 1 million children in Texas are uninsured, the highest number in the country.

Perry may be down for the count — this time around. But he’s young; this is a warm-up act. He’ll be back. If he wants to prove he can lead America to energy independence, then he should clean up his act at home.

He can get more sleep when Texans sleep better, knowing their children can breathe safely.

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