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Book Excerpt: "Go Get Smart on Wind"

In 1996, then-Gov. George W. Bush shocked his Public Utility Commission chairman by endorsing wind power. A decade later, Texas would become the nation's top wind-energy producer. An excerpt from The Great Texas Wind Rush.

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This is the first of two abridged excerpts from Kate Galbraith and Asher Price's book, The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power, published by the University of Texas Press. It chronicles the run-up to the passage of Senate Bill 7, the massive 1999 electric deregulation bill signed by Gov. George W. Bush that, through a little-noticed renewable energy mandate, set Texas on course to become the top wind-power state.

George W. Bush was never the likeliest person to jump-start the renewable-energy movement in Texas. He grew up in the oil heartland of Midland, the son of a Yankee blue-blood who had moved there after serving in World War II, made a pile of money off drilling, and then turned to politics. As a boy in the 1950s, George W. Bush watched Texas suffer through its worst-ever drought, which devastated anyone making a living off farming. In his memoir Decision Points, Bush would remember that the ground around Midland was "flat, dry and dusty," but beneath it lay a "sea of oil." 

He followed his father to Yale, where he spent plenty of time boozing and not enough studying. It took meeting a librarian named Laura at a Midland barbecue in 1977 for him to get serious about much of anything. 

He certainly got serious about oil. He'd spent a youthful summer roustabouting on a Louisiana offshore rig, and in 1979, after a stint as a Midland landman, Bush set up an oil and gas exploration business of his own. He was drilling oil wells, some of them dry, when crude oil prices began their sudden collapse in the 1980s. His father, George H. W. Bush, was vice president under Ronald Reagan by then, and W. had a front-row view of the administration that some would blame for killing off the renewable-energy industry. 

By the time he beat out Ann Richards in what the New York Times deemed a "stunning upset" to become governor of Texas in 1995, Bush was a big believer in the free market. Government tended to get in the way, in the environmental field and everything else. He styled himself as conservation-minded, but during his governorship, he would repeatedly infuriate green groups, especially on air pollution, which was worse in Texas than just about anywhere else in the nation due to the near-ubiquity of heavy industry and a reluctance to force factories to clean up. When Bush was running for president in 2000, one leading environmentalist told PBS NewsHour that the governor had shown "a great deal of indifference to the environment," and another that he had "stood up for the polluters rather than the people" at every opportunity.

Given this record, what prompted an odd exchange with his top electricity regulator in early 1996 is unclear. Perhaps just one year into his governorship, Bush had begun to dream about the national stage, the one occupied by his father for only a single term. Or perhaps he was thinking back to his years in Midland, the place where he met and married Laura, the place where West Texas winds blew hot and dry and carried swirls of dirt over the oil fields. Bush, as an oilman, would have known that the small towns around Midland had faced shrinking production and would welcome the jobs a new industry could bring.

One day in 1996, Bush's 33-year-old chairman of the Public Utility Commission, a good-natured energy wonk named Pat Wood III, was heading out the door of the governor's office when he was stopped short by some unexpected words. "Oh, Pat, by the way, we like wind," Bush said. "We what?" Wood stuttered, dumbfounded. "Go get smart on wind," Bush replied.

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