Lawmakers urge state, EPA to settle air pollution squabble

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
HOUSTON CHRONICLE

A House subcommittee urged the EPA on Thursday to resolve its differences with Texas over the unique way the state regulates industrial air pollution.

The bipartisan push came at the end of a hearing in Houston convened by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee to review the impact of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent actions in Texas.

The EPA and Texas are at odds over several issues, but much of the talk focused on the federal agency’s rejection of the state’s use of so-called flexible permits for refineries, chemical and plastics makers and other facilities.

Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat whose district includes the Houston Ship Channel, said industry needs regulatory certainty to grow, not lawsuits. “They just can’t have fighting between the EPA and the state,” he said.

“These issues should be resolved,” agreed Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington. “I can’t stress enough that we have an environmental program at the state and federal level that people can believe in.”

Difficult to negotiate

The permits in question require refineries, chemical plants and other facilities to meet an overall emissions cap but allows them to choose how to do so. Federal rules, however, require plants to limit emissions of certain pollutants from each source within a facility.

The single overall cap, the EPA argues, makes the Texas permits unenforceable and allows plants to emit more than similar facilities in other states. But Texas officials say the system cuts red tape and pollution without violating federal law.

Texas has filed suit to block the EPA’s disapproval of flex permits, asserting that there is no legal or technical justification for the agency’s action, which affected about 130 facilities statewide.

All but a few companies have informed the EPA that they will bring the state-issued flexible permits into compliance with federal law within the next year.

But Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the subcommittee he is concerned that the change in permits may hamper the state’s efforts to improve air quality. He noted that Texas reduced emissions despite gaining population during the 16-year history of flexible permits.

Shaw also told the panel there is “not a lot of fertile ground for negotiation” with the EPA over the permits.

Not just the wording

Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s air chief, said the agency wants a resolution with the state, but the differences are philosophical — not just over wording in the permits.

For example, McCarthy said, the state’s emissions limits are based on generous, industry-supplied estimates that allow a plant to make major modifications without public scrutiny. The EPA requires the use of actual emissions in writing permits, she said.

“Texas rules have allowed some industrial sources to say ‘trust us’ to protect public health without giving EPA, Texas or citizens the chance to verify,” she said. “No other state allows this.”

McCarthy also reminded the subcommittee that the Bush administration’s EPA raised similar concerns about the Texas regime, adding that the agency doesn’t believe the state’s improved air quality can be attributed to flexible permits.

Jed Anderson, a Houston attorney, said he is hopeful that the two sides will come to an agreement on flexible permits – even if it requires a push from Congress or the courts – because his industry clients want them.

“They would go back to flexible permits” if they had the opportunity, he said.

matthew.tresaugue@chron.com

5 Comments

  1. gr

    “These issues should be resolved,” agreed Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington. “I can’t stress enough that we have an environmental program at the state and federal level that people can believe in.”

    No, Joe…we have a system that needs revamping, a system that allows those to pollute the world- with the blessings of Texas Conservatives.
    Sadly, no good change will come- until……….

    #1
  2. Thomas S.

    According to this article:
    The Texas system allows the company to decide what works for them to meet the EPA guidance.
    The Fed system is a one choice system that the company must follow.

    HELLO OBAMACARE!

    The issue, we have the Feds and States both implementing systems. We pay for both. The way things are being done now is like when I go on a business trip, I would have to fly in 2 planes, take 2 cabs & stay in 2 hotel rooms. GENIUS!

    #2
  3. Diogenes

    “Lawmakers urge state, EPA to settle air pollution squabble”

    I agree. I urge all Texas legislators to enact laws that criminalize the EPA and any action it takes and direct Texas law enforcement officers to prosecute any agent of the EPA who attempts to enact or enforce any of it’s illegal and unconstitutional mandates in Texas. There, problem solved. Squabbles ended.

    #3
  4. Ivar

    “All but a few companies have informed the EPA that they will bring the state-issued flexible permits into compliance with federal law within the next year.”
    ===
    So if Texas just does what the other 49 states do, the issue will be over.

    #4
  5. Oldcheme

    So what if one of the facilities that can’t comply is where YOU work. I guess the recession just turned into your depression!
    For the rest of us, for each manufacturing job, there are probably about 10-20 supporting jobs in the local economy. For example, a 2 billion dollar refinery only employs about 500 people directly; indirectly, they eat, shop, invest, pay insurance, hire lawyers, buy cars, etc.. This refinery would also spend about 100 million annually into the local economy for various support services which employ even more people in the engineering, contract maintenance, waste dispoal, accounting, laboratory, instrumentation, electrical, industrial gases, equipment manufacture, steel, construction and many other areas. Do you work in any of these industries?

    So the point is, we’ll all feel it.

    #5