The conservative Club for Growth is readying an attack on Jeb Bush for spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to restore the Florida Everglades, an early indication of how the former governor's green legacy could haunt him on the road to the White House.
The club, a major player in grassroots conservative political organizing, is sifting through the records of top Republican 2016 contenders, and it views Bush's work on environmental conservation as a red flag, a spokesman told National Journal.
"In our research for Governor Bush, which we'll be releasing soon, we did see hundreds of millions in state spending on Everglades restoration and environmental land purchases, and we will definitely raise that as a point of concern with his record," said Doug Sachtleben, the Club for Growth's communications director.
That shot across the bow highlights Bush's vulnerability to conservative attacks on his environmental record as he steps onto the campaign trail. While serving as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush fought drilling off the Florida coast and supported a massive restoration effort aimed at protecting the Everglades, positions that put Bush squarely at odds with the "Drill, Baby, Drill" mantra and fiscal restraint of the modern-day GOP.
Bush's green skeletons also could be used as ammunition for conservative critics who want to attack the former governor as excessively moderate. Bush has attempted to ward off some of the potential criticism by throwing red meat to the Republican base, attacking the Obama administration's zeal for environmental regulation, and plotting out a carefully crafted position on biofuels.
Bush is a fan of oil drilling. But as governor, he fought to keep it away from Florida's shores.
Bush squared off with the fledgling administration of his brother—President George W. Bush—over federal plans that Jeb believed let drilling rigs much too far into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The plan was scaled back to keep leases at least 100 miles from shore.
But a few years later, Bush supported a House Republican bill that would open much more of the Gulf to oil drilling, while providing a long-term 125-mile buffer. The final House-Senate deal, signed into law in 2006, had more protections for Florida—it provides a buffer until 2022 of greater than 200 miles off the Gulf Coast in some locations.
Longtime Florida environmentalist Frank Jackalone gives Bush a "D" grade on offshore drilling, arguing he was "willing to make a compromise that didn't need to be made" in supporting the House plan.
On the flip side, Bush's record on offshore drilling could create problems on the campaign trail.
So far, Bush's middle path on offshore drilling hasn't bred the kind of ire on the right that Bush faces on his immigration views. Dan Holler of the influential conservative group Heritage Action declined to address whether Bush's drilling history could be a liability, but he said there's an opening for all the candidates to make their case.
"The country hasn't had a robust debate on energy policy since his brother was in the White House. Most of the policy debate, if you can even call it that, has been focused on very narrow issues, be it Keystone, RFS, or the EPA's power plant rules," he said.
"In some ways, the lack of debate will give every candidate a chance to roll out a new vision for our nation's energy policy," Holler added. "Of course, given the experience with job creation due to fracking, most primary voters won't tolerate sweeping restrictions on exploration."
In addition to pushing back against offshore drilling, Bush backed an $8 billion partnership with the federal government aimed at restoring the Everglades while serving as governor. Environmental groups later accused him of backtracking on the effort, but Bush has touted his involvement with the project, which opens him up to criticism from fiscally minded conservative groups eager to ding him for excessive spending.
Overall, Bush is firmly in line with the GOP on most high-profile energy priorities. He has repeatedly endorsed the Keystone XL oil pipeline and lauded the onshore hydraulic-fracturing boom that has boosted natural-gas production to record levels and crude-oil production to near-record levels. In a speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association in San Francisco early this year, Bush quipped that "it is not cool in San Francisco" to talk about the boom.
"It's cool in places like North Dakota and West Texas. It's cool because it creates significant economic activity," Bush said, according to a transcript. He lauded jobs and argued that the boom is saving consumers billions of dollars at the pump and on power bills.
In the same speech, Bush said Washington "shouldn't try to regulate hydraulic fracturing," but that it should be done "reasonably and thoughtfully to protect the environment."
The comments put Bush at odds with Democratic efforts to boost federal oversight. The Interior Department is preparing to release final regulations to govern fracking on public lands, while EPA is planning new methane emissions standards for new oil and gas development nationwide.
Bush has also lobbed attacks at the Obama administration's environmental regulations, a common refrain among likely Republican presidential contenders. He called EPA "a pig in slop" at the Iowa Agriculture Summit earlier this month and called for action to "rein in this top-down regulatory system."
That stance is likely to play well with conservatives. "Going after the EPA and connecting its actions to harming jobs and economic growth goes a long way with Republican primary voters across the board," veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
As a self-described "skeptic," Bush is a far cry from a climate champion, but he also has called on the Republican party to shed its "antiscience" image.
A majority of Republican primary voters do not believe in global warming, according to a national survey conducted by Public Policy Polling last month, and among that skeptical majority, Scott Walker is the front-runner, with Bush trailing far behind.
The challenge Bush faces will be to find ways to appeal to the conservative base on climate change and greenhouse-gas curbs while not backing himself into a corner as an anti-climate-science candidate, a position that would open him up to attack in the general election.
Bush already is attempting to walk a fine line on biofuels, an issue near and dear to many deep-pocketed GOP donors.
At the Iowa Agriculture Summit last weekend, Bush appeased biofuel backers by saying that the renewable-fuel standard—a policy that requires refiners to blend ethanol with gasoline—"has worked" to help America cut reliance on foreign oil.
But Bush was far less supportive of the policy than many would-be GOP 2016 contenders and said that ultimately the market should decide the issue, a potential bid to build up his conservative credentials. "His position of letting the markets decide pushes him center-right," Iowa Republican strategist Craig Robinson said.
That stance could help Bush win support from Iowa donors and conservative primary voters. At the same time, it opens him up to attack from more full-throated backers of the mandate, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and leaves him vulnerable to criticism from a Democratic challenger who could paint him as ready to eliminate a mandate that has become the lifeblood of Iowa's ethanol industry.