Guest Editorial: If air is important, the choice for Texas governor is clear

June 4th, 2010

If air is important, the choice for Texas governor is clear

Posted Thursday, Jun. 03, 2010



The sudden flare-up of hostilities between the EPA and state environmental regulators should make for a clearer choice in November’s election for Texas governor.

If you’re a refinery manager or a petrochemical plant owner, Republican Rick Perry is the candidate for you. Caricature of the rough-ridin’ Texan that he has become, the nine-year governor has gone to battle against “Washington’s command and control approach” and make it easier for you to poison the air.

Democrat Bill White — while his campaign has been slow to seek any real leverage from it — was an environmental crusader during his six years as Houston’s mayor. He fought for stronger regulations to reduce toxic emissions from the massive refining and chemical plants in and near the city.

The difference couldn’t be more clear.

The EPA said last week that it will take away the state’s ability to issue operating permits for heavy industries because the process followed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

The Washington agency delegated its permitting power to the state in 1992, but since then Texas has changed its plan more than 30 times with no formal federal approval or disapproval. The EPA said there had been “lingering disagreements with Texas because of potential inconsistencies with federal air permitting regulations.”

The feds stepped up their complaints in 2006 under President George W. Bush. Perry blames an Obama administration “campaign to harm our economy and impose federal control over Texas.” Apparently Barack Obama was able to exert extraordinary influence on the Bush administration well before there was an Obama administration.

Then a group calling itself the Business Coalition for Clean Air, along with the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Oil and Gas Association, sued the EPA, seeking relief from the regulatory purgatory that had sprung from years of negotiations between the EPA and TCEQ. The business folks wanted the feds to hurry up and get out of the way.

The EPA agreed to hurry things along. In September, the agency published a notice in the Federal Register citing 17 points of law under which it planned to formally reject TCEQ’s permitting plan. It has continued negotiating with TCEQ, but the expedited schedule calls for the state to submit a plan to comply with the Clean Air Act by June 30.

So Perry’s in a tizzy. It’s all “a blatant example of obsession with red tape” and “yet another federal power grab.” It’s “on the verge of killing thousands of Texas jobs.”

He cites ways in which Texas air quality has improved since 2000, but they all have to do with lower levels of ozone and its precursors.

There’s more to air pollution than that, and White has seen it big time. Perry is right to say Texas refines more than 25 percent of the nation’s fuel supply and manufactures roughly 60 percent of the chemicals used in the U.S.

But while White was mayor, Houston issued a report showing that Texas has almost 50 percent of the nation’s carcinogen emissions related to petroleum refining. Texas refineries, the report said, emit more cancer-causing benzene per barrel of oil produced than those in any other state.

Last year, White fought renewal of an operating permit for Houston Refining, which he said emits more benzene into the air than any other refinery in the nation. TCEQ had amended the permit 17 times without full public input. It did so again this time, albeit with a long list of new emission caps.

Who can guess what would have happened if White had not spoken up? I can.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram/ Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County.