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EPA and TCEQ settle lawsuits over flex permits

One less court fight for us and the feds.

The EPA and Texas on Wednesday said they have reached a deal over state permits for industrial air pollution, ending a four-year fight that to some had become a symbol of regulatory overreach by the federal government.

The agreement comes after the federal agency initially rejected Texas’ permitting system, which allows some operating flexibility to oil refiners, chemical makers and others to meet emissions limits.

Despite the EPA’s earlier reservations, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s permit system appears largely unchanged – leaving environmentalists disappointed.

Ilan Levin, an Austin-based attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said the system has the same potential loopholes as before. “The flexible permit program has a long history of abuse, and a lot of the damage is already done,” he said.

But Bryan Shaw, the TCEQ’s chairman, said the agreement shows that the federal government “now understands why the program is legal and effective.”

The EPA invalidated the flex permit system in 2010, and later that year threatened crackdowns on plants that didn’t meet federal standard. All of the flex-permitted plants agreed to abide by federal standards in 2011, but in 2012 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – yes, them again – ruled that the EPA had overstepped its authority. The EPA chose not to appeal that ruing, and this settlement is the conclusion of that litigation. The Sierra Club statement on this agreement sums it all up nicely.

“The history of TCEQ’s flexible permitting program in Texas has been almost 20 years of confusion and litigation. As TCEQ itself has acknowledged, every single former holder of flexible permits has now received new standard permits, without a single plant closure or loss of a single Texas job, contrary to the heated rhetoric we got from Chairman Shaw and Governor Perry several years ago.

“Moving forward, if TCEQ stays true to the wording of the new program and only issues flexible permits to truly minor facilities, we don’t foresee major problems.

“However, if our large refineries and chemical plants once again try to hide their emissions with unenforceable flexible permits, we’ll have another 20 years of confusion and litigation.”

Scheleen Walker
Director, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter

The details always matter. Having the right people at the TCEQ, people who will care about those details, matters as well. TCEQ members are appointed by the Governor. Consider that yet another reason to vote for Wendy Davis this November.

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