The Green Dilemma

Congressman Gene Green, D-TX, with President Obama

Congressman Gene Green, D-TX, with President Obama

The fate of the Waxman-Markey energy bill will likely be decided by House members like Rep. Gene Green, an Oil Patch Democrat from Texas. Together with more conservative Blue Dog Dems, and one Republican, Green is one of a dozen members of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment who have not declared for or against the bill.

His dilemma points to the struggle ahead for many of his colleagues as the climate bill works its way through the sausage factory of Congress.

“I’d like to vote for a bill,” Green told a reporter for the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday. “But I’m not going to vote for one unless I think it’s going to be good for the area I represent.

He’s talking about Congressional District 29, which includes industrial parts of Houston and other areas of Harris County, TX. The district is home to five oil refineries and, as Green puts it, “more chemical plants than I can count.”  Most jobs in the district are tied to the oil and chemical industries, in one way or another.


This heavy industrial presence may help explain why a 2005 study found that Harris County leads the nation in releasing cancer causing agents into the air — 2.5 million pounds, nearly twice the amount released by the #2 county in the nation (Georgetown, SC). Harris County also ranks #1 in the nation in production of chemical waste in general, creating 1.3 billion pounds of it a year.

The predominantly Hispanic area is also locked in a battle with poverty. One in five families in the district lives below the poverty line, more than double the national figure. If all this sounds pretty bleak, that’s because it is.

Tough town, tougher decision

“This is a hard town,” Houston attorney Jim Blackburn, an environmental advocate who has worked for years to improve the district’s air quality, tells the Sun. “Look, I’m 100% for the climate bill, but I understand where Congressman Green is coming from.”

When Green talks about needing a bill that’s “good for the area I represent,” Blackburn gives a sharp edge to that vague description: “He’s talking about employment. He’s talking about jobs.”

Jobs — the issue of the day.

It’s more than that, of course; it’s the issue every day for people who just lost their job, haven’t had one in a long time, or fear that the one they have is in danger of slipping away. It means food on the table, education for the kids and a sense of worth. For any family grappling with a chronic disease, a job with health insurance can be the difference between illness and health. Sometimes, a job is the difference between life and death. This is as real as it gets in America in 2009.

And therein lies the Green dilemma. Congressman Green’s situation is a good example of the problem, but it applies equally to anyone who understands that the future requires us to build a green energy base — clean, renewable and domestic.

For those looking for easy villains and heroes, it’s tempting to toss Rep. Green into the first group. Surely, he’s an anti-environmental, union-busting lackey of big (dirty) business, right?

The facts are somewhat more complicated.

For starters, Rep. Green is pretty…um, green. In 2008, he voted with the League of Conservation Voters on key issues 85% of the time. In the 32-member Texas House delegation, only two of Green’s colleagues earned higher scores (and they represent liberal strongholds).

It’s just as hard to pin the “anti-union” label on Green, as our analysis of his campaign donations shows.

Green donations

Green donations

Unions have been the largest donors to Green’s campaigns over the years. They’ve given more than twice as much as oil & gas, electrical utilities and chemical manufactures combined.

We often assume that unions and management are going to be on opposite sides of every issue. They’re not. Do corruption and sweetheart deals sometimes play a part in the cozy relations between unions and companies? Of course. Why would these two groups be immune to the kind of betrayals that are found in politics, health care, the media and every other sphere of human activity?

But, again, the hunt for an easy villain leads away from a far larger problem. Both businesses and workers have an interest in maintaining the status quo, especially when change appears to be another word for lost revenue, declining incomes and agonizing layoffs.

“Houston is dominated by the interests that will be regulated by this bill,” points out attorney Jim Blackburn. “That includes the labor unions.”

It’s easy to bash Green over this, from a safe distance. He’s supposed to be a leader. Why doesn’t he lead?

Blackburn, who has taken on all the power brokers in this powerful town for years, has this answer:

“When people like Green vote their conscience on issues like this, they take a big hit. That’s just the reality of politics here. It’s a very, very difficult thing for him to do.”

And that’s Green’s dilemma, playing soon at a district near you.

Next up: Real world solutions for breaking this impasse.

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