Interview with George P. Bush on Environmental Policy

Candidate George P. Bush speaks at the Republican State Convention on June 5, 2014.
Candidate George P. Bush speaks at the Republican State Convention on June 5, 2014.

Here's a transcript — edited for length and clarity — of The Texas Tribune's in-depth interview with land commissioner candidate George P. Bush, in which he lays out his positions on environmental policy.  

Texas Tribune: Commissioner [Jerry] Patterson has talked about, as part of his legacy, promoting the development of renewable energy on some of [the] land [managed by the General Land Office, or GLO] … that’s a way of diversification, and you never know what’s going to happen to the price of natural gas or with the shale boom. Is that something that you’re interested in and plan to continue?

George P. Bush: Absolutely. I’m not an expert on our power grid, but in our hot summers we’ve come close to capacity on several occasions and have been on the verge of rolling blackouts. So the message is clear that we need all forms of energy. In the short term, it’s hydrocarbons. In the medium term, I think we eventually transition to a natural gas-based energy economy and then in the long term, renewables.

In Texas we produce the most amount of wind energy on private lands, and on public lands we’re one of the largest public developers that you’ll find in North America of electricity generated by wind power. But it’s a two-way street, in terms of energy development. Renewables need to be developed in an environmentally responsible way. And, you know, I frankly have heard criticisms from even environmentalists saying that some wind farms impact gaming and fishing patterns, whether it’s offshore or onshore. The GLO just signed one of the largest offshore wind farm development leases with Siemens very recently. And, you know, I’ll look to continue these programs, but it has to be done in a responsible way.

TT: I wanted to pick up on something that I thought I heard you say: This transition that we’ll be making to a natural gas-based economy and then renewables. Is that how you see Texas’ energy future?

Bush: I do. You know, I think if you look at the available shale reserves of natural gas … an excess of 120 years of current supply, and within a generation having the ability to export natural gas through the Texas Gulf Coast … you know, I’m a big proponent. It would help to mitigate some of the volatilities that you see in global pricing in natural gas.

But more importantly, it’s been proven to result in less CO2 emissions, as far as our vehicles, [and] in terms of our power plants. Regardless of your politics, the EPA is regulating coal and rationing down of its overall usage in our electricity grid. In my opinion, one of the big stories of this century will be natural gas filling in that void, because it’s readily abundant.

TT: I think you may be the first Republican politician running in Texas to ever talk about reducing CO2 emissions.

Bush: [laughs]

TT: Is that something you plan to talk about more during your campaign, or as land commissioner?

Bush: Well, I do … Absolutely. It’s funny because I mentioned [former Texas Land Commissioner] Garry Mauro at the outset and he had an interesting book that he wrote about his experiences after serving as land commissioner.

And he says — and I find the greatest irony in it — that in the '80s he worked with T. Boone Pickens at the time, during the initial blueprint of the Pickens Plan, to basically help America wean itself from foreign services of oil and gas with pretty much a focus on using natural gas for industrial vehicles, for individual consumer vehicles, for industrial fleets and for power plants.

And here we are 35 years later and we’re still at this crossroads, and regulation prevents us from being able to export, or [we’re] lacking ingenuity to use natural gas more for our power plants or for our vehicles. Now, I’m not saying that there hasn’t been progress — there has been. And the GLO has managed Department of Energy grants that help build out infrastructure so that people can use more natural gas for their vehicles.

But yeah, it is going to require a land commissioner that understands those issues, and goes out and is willing to commit themselves to it.

TT: Since we’re on the subject, what do you think of the EPA’s carbon regulations plan, that they announced in June?

Bush: Well, you know, my viewpoint is that states can regulate best. I think you touched on one of the bigger issues in my mind — and that’s making sure that you’re hedging against wild swings in oil and gas and other feedstocks for your power plants. And that ultimately would have more impact. I think we as Americans, we as Texans recognize we can always do better as it relates to cleaning our environment and finding ways to emit less.

TT: We’ve gone to a lot of meetings held by folks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Public Utilities Commission on the new EPA regulations. And the sense that I’ve gotten from them is: This is a war on coal and we should fight it in every way possible, and if anything maybe we shouldn’t even follow [the rules]. Their faith in natural gas does not seem to be what yours is. Would you say you disagree with them on their approach to the carbon regs?

Bush: Well, I would say that there is a responsible way to develop our natural resources that we have right here and right now. And I think if you take a look at, especially in Texas, our available natural gas shale reserves — that there isn’t any reason, especially as cheap as it is right now, not to utilize them more.

In terms of coal, I’m not sure that really anybody can agree with the total eradication of coal. I think when you’re talking about these huge ideas and movements in terms of the largest line item for the consumer — and that’s energy — you can’t just overnight, just ratchet down coal. I think people see increasingly the benefits of using natural gas as a feedstock. Whether it’s in the development or usage of it. But, you know, there’s a long way to go. It’s not going to happen overnight. [Transitioning away from coal is] going to have more impact honestly in the Adirondacks and the mid-Atlantic than it will in Texas, just because more of our capacity is natural gas-driven.

TT: Do you mean we’ll have an easier time [than other states] following the [carbon regulations] if we decide to?

Bush: Yes, exactly.

TT: It sounds like you’re saying, though, we shouldn’t end coal tomorrow. But there will have to be a gradual move away from it.

Bush: Yes — absolutely, I think there is a way in which we’ve got to move towards … leading the rest of the world honestly, here in the U.S. in terms of our responsible energy policy and how we develop it.

TT: So, because you talked about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, what’s your view on climate change?

Bush: Well, I think people can agree that there has been warming, you know, in recent years. The question is whether or not it’s 100 percent anthropogenic, which means man-made. So I’ll leave that to the experts to discuss on that. But as it relates to the coast, you’re absolutely right, the studies show in the last few years that we average about 4 feet of erosion per year. Some counties are experiencing as high as 20.

And the GLO is involved in examining that, and assessing ways in which we can leverage federal dollars, state dollars, county dollars, to mitigate some of these more problematic areas. Whether it’s jetty development, beach mitigation, working with A&M Corps of Engineers to relocate impounded sand. We’re trying to do that right now in South Padre Island, which is a tourist capital and hugely relies on its beaches ... it’s going to be a challenge.

Also, dealing with recovery. I mean, how do we respond in an effective way to hurricanes, or the next category 3, 4 or 5 [hurricane] that hits the greater Houston metropolitan area? I mean, that’s something that honestly keeps me up at night. And you know, oil spills. We’re the first responder on those as well. So definitely a lot going on on the Gulf Coast that more Texans should know about.

TT: The argument from a lot of scientists is that we could be taking a different approach in Texas [regarding climate change] — politically and policy wise. [According to scientists], we could get out there in front of the issue and say, ‘This is important. We could be a leader in the U.S. in reducing our CO2 emissions.’ I’m wondering, what do you think of that? Do you think Texas should get out front and center on that issue?

Bush: Well, you know it’s interesting, because Houston is recognized globally as the energy leader of the world. I just had the chance to visit with … an international energy company from the Middle East and they said, you know, ‘Go to Houston because it’s the New York of energy.' But consistent with that, there also has to be a public policy impact.

I don’t know how … in what form that manifests itself. There’s good organizations like the Tribune that have led the effort in the discussions on these public policies. But … I think that Texas has been a leader. Maybe I think within Texas we sometimes lose sight that people really look closely to how we pronounce our beliefs and how we design our blueprint.

TT: The state has never funded a comprehensive study on the effects of sea-level rise on the Gulf Coast. Is that something that you hope might change if you take office?

Bush: Well I’d be willing to examine any ideas, because you’re right … the agency is at a crossroads for examining ways in which we can continue to maintain a Gulf Coast that Texans are proud of. That’s interesting because I’m a Fort Worthian, and most registered voters honestly are not on the coast, even though 25 percent of the state’s population is on the Gulf Coast.

But yeah, I think whether it’s examining ways in which we can increase tourism, mitigating our beaches and malnourishment, designing ways in which we can mitigate against the next hurricane … and … looking at … erosion is one way in which we can be a part of ensuring multigenerational benefit and understanding the coast.

TT: More generally, do you think that we’re doing enough with coastal protection here? I was at a hearing recently in Galveston, and a gentleman got up and said, ‘Texas is one of the few states that doesn’t have a real coastal management plan.’ Do you think that we could be doing more?

Bush: Yeah … again, we’re constrained by, as a lot of agencies are, money. I think there are some really exciting ideas that county judges have presented to the GLO that I’ve heard about, that I’ve read about, that I’ve I also had the chance to get to know firsthand during my travels, during my campaign on the Gulf Coast. But having a more comprehensive beach mitigation plan would be ideal.

These are wise investments. They’re not glamorous … so you’re going to need a land commissioner that’s kind of creative, that’s going to spend some time in D.C. My hope is, once I get past the political stage, is to find these sources of capital at the federal level, because … the state can leverage by a 3-to-1 ratio … For every dollar that the state spends we can get three from the feds, roughly speaking.

TT: I am really struck by some of the things you said about climate change, or CO2 emissions, and even talking about leveraging federal funds. Most Republican politicians in Texas run away from all of those subjects. Do you think those are going to help you or hurt you as you continue in your political career?

Bush: Well, you know, I’ve said to myself, to my family, to my friends from day one, that I was always going to run based on my principles. During the primary campaign, for, I think it was 18 months, I said that I’m working hard to be your candidate, to be an effective land commissioner, the best land commissioner that the state has seen. And, you know, I’m just going to put aside a lot of the arguments and do what’s best for the state.

And if you look at the facts at hand, whether it’s beach mitigation issues or dealing with future generations so that they enjoy the Gulf Coast, I think most Texans will recognize that these investments are the prudent thing to do …

Having said that, my overall goal is to make the agency more effective, to generate even more revenue. We are the only cash flow-positive state agency you’ll find in Austin. And to do so potentially with less human resources, less full-time employees, that’s my goal. And if we could do that, meanwhile leveraging knowledge and wisdom from others, let’s go ahead and do it.

TT: But these aren’t the first issues that you bring up. [You focus on] the conservative-friendly issues — you’ve got the private property rights, leveraging oil and gas, reducing the size of the government, having a smaller General Land Office. Maybe climate change isn’t the first thing you’re going to talk about in a speech, right?

Bush: Yeah that’s….yeah, that’s true. [Laughs] I will admit that.

TT: As someone who describes yourself as a conservative Republican and wants to continue your political career past this, do you think that your family name and family legacy gives you an opportunity to talk about these issues, [whereas] someone who is unknown may not … [because] they’ve got a challenger there who can just wipe them out?

Bush: You know, I think that my name has certain blessings on a net basis. You know, it’s benefited me, and I’m not afraid to admit that, and it’s something I’m proud of and respectful of. In terms of the profile my family name brings to the campaign, it’s truly a blessing.

TT: I wonder if also you think about these issues because there is a family legacy of caring about these kinds of issues. Of course your father, [former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida], has talked a little bit about sea level rise, and has worked on those type of issues a lot on the Gulf Coast. [He] is seen by a lot of conservationists as someone who is a champion for those issues. Do you think that some of the things [your family has done] have made you think about those issues more?

Bush: I think so. Whether it was … the big Everglades undertaking that my dad worked with, again, partnering [with] state and federal entities to conserve it for future generations in South Florida. Or the work that my grandfather did when he was in office. You know, I think there is a lot to build upon, there are a lot of market-based solutions that we can come forward with, I think, through this agency, where we can do more to conserve.

I think there is more that we could do in the state in terms of conservation easements, where you have a variety of ranchers and farmers that would love to continue a family legacy by giving to the state, or at the very least restricting development for generations so that future Texans can enjoy and benefit the great resources that we have … That’s ... an aspect of the office that I hope to ramp up, to inform more Texans of and to find more funding for it. 

TT: So when you talk about some of these programs … You’re talking about convincing very conservative Republicans in the Texas Legislature to spend more money. When you talk about things like CO2 emissions as well, or even that transition from natural gas to renewables that we will eventually go through — again, not something that every Texas conservative Republican would agree with. How do you think you’re going to get that legislative agenda through, when it seems as though we’re getting to be a more conservative Legislature here and there is a lot of rhetoric against those ideas by fellow conservatives?

Bush: Well … I think it’s foreseeable and it’s going to require a lot of hard work and some arguments — some arguments, honestly, public arguments, to say: ‘Look, if I get elected, if I’m privileged to serve, I got elected on a mandate where we develop on an increased basis our natural resources that generates more revenue for public schools and for the agency itself. I will be doing my part to help fund education here in the state, so you guys need to help me on some of these critical programs to make long-term, cost-effective investments on the Gulf Coast.'

It’s said that once you win an election, that you win political capital and that’s kind of my intent, is to spend political capital on the Gulf Coast, among other areas. I think we can also do more in terms of serving our veterans and … continuing [reforming] education. That’s more of a rhetorical debate that I’ll be helping out with when the Legislature deals with education funding, as I’m sure they will in the upcoming session. But as it relates to the Gulf Coast … I like to say that happens more in Washington, D.C., where people make trades — 

TT: Not right now.

Bush: [Laughs] Yeah ... but that’s kind of what I’m getting at. If I get elected, that’s the mandate that I’m bringing to Austin. Hopefully in time for the next session.

TT: Are you concerned about the political environment you're operating in? Whether it’s Austin or D.C.?

Bush: Well, I am more concerned with what is happening in D.C. than of what is in Austin. I think most Texans recognize that Democrats and Republicans actually work together during the legislative session. I’m not a legislator. I’ve never been a lobbyist, I’ve never worked a session before, but based on my conversations with leadership in the Senate and the House, I get the general sense that people want to work together to make things happen.

I think part of that is driven by the fact that you're not really a career politician here in state government in Austin. You actually have to go back to your district and live under the laws that you passed. And that requires sensible deal-making. Whereas in D.C., I genuinely get the sense that there is a level of divisiveness nowadays that really, you score more points politically by being divisive, by putting on an extreme show and spouting off as opposed to proposing substantive proposals and striking deals.

You can be ideological, you can be passionate about your issues — I’m all for that. And there are some issues I refuse to give in on. But for the state to function, for government to function, there has to be some level of deal-making.

TT: It sounds like in some ways you’re talking about working with the federal government … Would you say that’s something that you think is important?

Bush: Well, we’re going to work together on these important issues. The coastal preservation issues, on economic development questions … but we’re going to be opponents on others. The Bureau of Land Management issue on the Red River, there’s going to be issues with respect to the EPA, or the … definition of endangered species and threatened species. The definitions that the EPA presents, you know, on some of our emissions, which I think sometimes go a little too far.

But again, you’re right. There’s campaign trail rhetoric and then there’s governing. And, you know, there’s a time and a place for both. And so, if I’m privileged to serve, if I win — especially if I win by a large margin — I want to bring that positive message that I’ve brought to voters … here to Austin … So we’ll be partnering with the feds on a lot of things, but … we’re going to be potential enemies on others.

TT: Do you plan to serve more than one term as land commissioner?

Bush: I would like to serve, I’ve told voters, two terms. But first things first, I’ve got to win this race. And if privileged to serve, I want to bring some of these ideas to the agency. Candidly, you know, I am going to learn more, obviously, as I get into the role, and there will be other issues that come to light that haven’t presented themselves and aren’t immediately apparent that I’ll need to address. But I’m not even thinking beyond four years. I’ve said two terms more in the context of limiting myself. You may have followed that there was a term limit proposal during this last legislative session. I believe in that, honestly. I think if you’re in there for two terms, then, for a statewide position, maybe you should probably consider something else. And I’m a lifelong business guy who is not afraid to go back to the private sector.

TT: Do you feel that the Republican Party has gotten too conservative or too anti-federal government to the point when there just hasn’t been anything getting done? It sounds like that’s what you’re saying.

Bush: Well, you know, if there is a quote that has been taken out of context the most in my campaign, it relates to Newt Gingrich, where I said the Republican Party at the time [of Gingrich] was known as the party of ideas. It seems when he was Speaker of the House, he obviously had his very simple, essentially Ten Commandments of what brings Republicans and conservatives, moderates and the equivalent of then-Tea Party folks together. We need that similar viewpoint where we need a united party.

[U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan] has recently talked about this, [along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio] … and other presidential candidates as well for 2016. So that’s my concern. As a party, we’ve fallen ... we’ve become more susceptible to the idea of being contrarian rather than being a ‘logitarian,’ as I call it. Being a reasonable party that comes forward with sensible, pragmatic solutions to the big issues. Energy independence. How do we make schools more competitive? How does the U.S. remain more competitive vis-a-vis the world on the global stage in today’s day and age?

TT: It sounds like you’re not thrilled with the Ted Cruz style of governing?

Bush: [Laughs] Well, you know, I can’t cast dispersions to one individual or the other, but I just think that there is a golden opportunity here to lead as Republicans … The issues leading up to the recess. That’s a perfect example … in this month alone, after the recess, voter after voter telling me, ‘How is it that Congress gives themselves a five-week vacation?’ Now, they will dispute the fact that it’s a vacation, because they’re back with constituents, but how do they do that and ignore the big issues of the day? So I think a lot of voters are fundamentally upset with an inability to move forward very important ideas that need to be moved.