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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 02:41 GMT 03:41 UK
Bush energy plan: Policy or payback?
Houston Texas
Houston is home to some Bush's biggest financial supporters
By Greg Palast in Houston

A new power plant every week for 20 years, new nukes, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge - is this an energy policy, or a payback for President Bush's big campaign contributors?

From the moment George W Bush announced he was running for president, $50m came in from Texas-based energy companies.

But they are hundreds of millions of dollars better off from his time as governor of Texas - and because of decisions taken in the first months of his presidency.

Worst polluter

When it comes to pollution, Texas is champ, the number one state in emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals.

A visit to the city of Houston is enough to confirm that status.

A 24 km (15 mile) wide forest of smokestacks stands on the edge of Houston, a place famous for pumping out pollution, profits and the political donations which put George Bush into the White House.

California electricity pylons
Power traders are accused of profiteering during the California energy crisis

There a mile long cloud of black smoke, with flames 60 metres (200 ft) high erupts out of a Houston cracking plant as a ruined batch of ethylene and other toxic chemicals is burned off after a hydrogen line snapped.

Such accidents are common on this side of Houston, where poisonous smoke rains on local neighbourhoods.

And it is not just visible emissions locals have to worry about.

Suspicions aroused

LaNell Anderson lived in the shadow of the Houston smoke stacks - her mother and father both died young, victims of bone cancer and lung disease, which made Ms Anderson suspicious.

She started taking air samples after an ethylene leak caused the local high school running team to collapse on the track.

Lab analysis of her bucket samples has found carcinogens in the air that are way above legal limits.

She has since found that local cancer cases are twice the normal rate.

Against regulations

Driving around the area it is possible to smell hydrogen sulphide in the air, a contravention of regulations.

"They're not supposed to be releasing anything, these are outside chemical impacts, that's not supposed to happen its supposed to stop at the fence," she says.

So how do the polluters get away with it?

Ms Anderson has her own theory about "vending machine governance, where the lobbyists put the money in and out comes slacker regulation."

Centre for petrochemicals

Texas is the centre of America's petrochemical industry - home to the nation's biggest refinery, Exxon's plant in Baytown.

President Bush
Mr Bush is axing funding for anti-pollution enforcement

Ms Anderson has Exxon in her sights, "they're the largest emitter in Harris County and they have the worst attitude of any corporation I've ever witnessed," she said.

Exxon would not accept her assessment and neither would George W Bush.

As Texas governor, Mr Bush quietly set up a committee led by Exxon, with other big oil and chemical companies, to advise him what to do about the state's deadly air pollution.

Regulators wanted compulsory cuts in emissions of up to 50% - this "secret" committee instead proposed making the cuts voluntary.

Mr Bush duly steered the polluters plan through the state legislature.

Huge donations

Texas anti-corruption law made it illegal to donate money to Mr Bush as governor whilst such legislation was under consideration.

But that month, Mr Bush declared for his candidacy for president - making the $150,000 donated by committee members and their representatives completely legal.

The bill passed and pollution did go down - by just 3% - saving the companies hundreds of millions of dollars compared to the compulsory cut.

And there has been a bonus for chemical industry donors since Mr Bush became president.

The BBC's Newsnight programme learnt he is quietly restricting public access to estimates of the number of people who will burn or die in the event of a catastrophic explosion near these plants.

Biggest funders

A walk through downtown Houston takes you past the headquarters of some of Mr Bush's biggest campaign fund donors.

The El Paso Corporation, which gave $750,000 to the Republican campaign, is now under investigation for manipulating the California power market.

Other big contributors include Dynegy, which gave $300,000 and Reliant, which gave $600,000.

And the Enron Corporation, America's number one power trading company, has given more money than any other to Mr Bush's political campaigns.

William S Farish, president of W S Farish and Co, gave $140,000. Mr Bush subsequently made him ambassador to Great Britain.

Under investigation

Investigations are proceeding into profiteering by power traders during the California energy crisis and blackouts.

Biggest industry donators to Bush campaign
Enron $1.8m
Exxon $1.2m
Koch Industries $970,000
Southern $900,000
BP Amoco $800,000
El Paso Energy $787,000
Chevron Oil Corp $780,000
Reliant Energy $642,000
Texas Utilities $635,000

The state of California has accused the El Paso Corporation and Dynegy of deliberately restricting the flow of natural gas through the pipeline from Texas creating an artificial shortage which caused prices to go up ten-fold.

President Clinton ordered an end to speculation in energy prices in California, which bit into the profits of El Paso, Reliant, Enron and Dynegy.

Between them the four companies gave $3.5m to Mr Bush and the Republicans. Three days after his inauguration Mr Bush swept away Mr Clinton's anti-speculation orders.

Profits for these four power traders are now up $220m in the first quarter.

And protection against pollution is set to weaken further, the BBC's Newsnight programme has discovered that deep in Mr Bush's new budget, the million-dollar fund for civil enforcement to deter pollution will be axed.

In the future law enforcement will be left to locals.

Click here to watch Greg Palast's report

See also:

17 May 01 | Business
Bush unveils energy plan
17 May 01 | Americas
Energy tops Bush agenda
22 Apr 01 | Americas
EU presses on with Kyoto
30 Mar 01 | Americas
Kyoto: Why did the US pull out?
29 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Anger at US climate retreat
26 Apr 01 | Americas
US debates nuclear expansion
15 May 01 | Americas
US attraction to nuclear power
09 May 01 | Americas
Clash over Arctic reserves
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