CREDIT: flickr/Gage Skidmore
George Prescott Bush, the 38-year-old son of Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, has brought the Bush dynasty into a new generation by entering his first political race this year — what appears to be a relatively easy march to becoming Texas Land Commissioner. While the race may be low-profile, especially for someone whose uncle and grandfather both served as President of the United States, it is significant for several reasons beyond the familial name recognition.
Not only does this initial race give rise to speculation about Bush’s political future — which could rise quickly — but it also gives rise to the opportunity to consider what the land commissioner actually does: a position that bestows great power and responsibility when it comes to energy and environmental issues covering one of the nation’s largest and most fossil-fuel endowed states. The lengths of this reach are already showing through in Bush’s campaign, with a recent analysis by Al Jazeera finding that individuals tied to energy companies have contributed at least $450,000 to Bush’s campaign.
Based on reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission and compiled by The Texas Tribune, Al Jazeera found that:
Anne Marion, heiress to the fortune of Fort Worth–based Burnett Oil Co., gave $50,000. Jan Rees Jones, wife of Trevor Jones, president and CEO of Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas provided another $50,000. James Henry, a longtime veteran of the oil industry and chair of Henry Resources LLC, another oil and gas exploration firm, lent $40,000 to the effort. Syed Javaid Anwar, president of Midland Energy, kicked in $40,000.
George Bush and Jeb Bush and Associates, LLC, also gave $50,000 each, with George P. Bush bringing in well over $3.5 million to date.
— Blue DuPage (@BlueDuPage) May 5, 2014
Texas is different from many states in the West in that it doesn’t have much federal land. Most oil and gas leases are either made on private property or state land, which is overseen by the land commissioner and includes 13 million acres of property across the state, including offshore lands up to 10.35 miles from the coast — an amount that is nearly the size of West Virginia and twice the size of Maryland. The Texas Land General Office was created in 1837 before the Republic of Texas joined the United States, and Texas manages its offshore coastline up to 10 miles offshore rather than the standard 3.5 miles thanks to a special exception in the the Submerged Lands Act of 1953.
“The Texas Land Commissioner has the twin responsibilities of both promoting oil and gas development on state lands and waters and ensuring oil and gas companies are paying Texas taxpayers every penny of royalties they owe,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow specializing in public lands and energy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “A good commissioner has to be a tough and independent watchdog for taxpayers.”
The money that the land commissioner’s office collects, which recently has a approached a million dollars annually, goes into a fund for public education. Oil and gas firms pay 20 to 25 percent in royalties, and since its inception the land office has put around $11 billion into finance that goes to K-12 and secondary schools in the state, according to Al Jazeera. Being an effective land commissioner in Texas means both accepting money from oil and gas companies on campaigns and taking it from them on the job.
“Whenever someone who is supposed to be regulating an industry is also taking major campaign contributions from that industry, it’s going to raise some eyebrows,” said Lee-Ashley. “Taxpayers expect people in those kinds of positions to be independent both in practice and appearance.”
Current land commissioner Jerry Patterson has had his hands full with this, saying in 2012 that unpaid royalties could total over $100 million. He didn’t attribute this to intentional evasion, but more to the complexity of the system.
On his campaign website, George P. Bush says he aims to increase energy production and fight excessive federal regulation as land commissioner while also supporting responsible stewardship, saying that his goal for the state is for it to “once again become the energy leader of the world. Nothing more, and nothing less.”
Forrest Wilder, associate editor of the Texas Observer, told ThinkProgress that there is nothing particularly exceptional about George P. Bush in his obeisance to his funders.
“Commissioners, at least for the last decade or so, have rarely said anything critical about the industries they oversee, even as fracking has raised a host of concerns from the public, including in urban and suburban areas with little to no experience of drilling,” said Wilder in an email. “There is nothing particularly exceptional about George P. Bush in his obeisance to his funders. He’s run a carefully state-managed campaign and said very little of substance about any of Texas’ pressing issues.”
In a state already feeling the effects of climate change, such as drought, sea level rise and extreme weather events, George P. Bush could do something more when it comes to managing the state’s share of the responsibility for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. If inclined, George P. Bush could help capitalize on Texas’ great renewable energy potential.
Renewables are already expanding rapidly in the state. Austin and San Antonio are among the top cities nationwide in installed solar capacity. Texas actually leads the nation in installed wind power generation at over 10,000 megawatts, and wind power has provided the largest share of electricity generation capacity growth in the state since 2011.
“The balance that needs to happen especially with new concepts like fracking is to make sure it’s done in an environmentally conscious way,” John Cook, former mayor of El Paso and the Democratic nominee for Texas Land Commissioner, told ThinkProgress. “One thing that concerns me about my opponent is that he is heavily funded from the oil, gas and mineral industries.”
Cook said he issued a challenge to other candidates that they not accept any campaign contributions from anyone who would benefit directly from the commissioner’s decisions. So far he is the only one to take up the challenge. He says he is running a David vs. Goliath campaign and that Bush doesn’t even need the money he’s raising.
“I want to make sure that when we negotiate leases with people who benefit that there’s no conflict of interest, especially with campaign contributions,” said Cook.
This post has been updated to include John Cook’s comments.