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air quality

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

Texas to get VW settlement money

It’s something.

Volkswagen has agreed to pay Texas $50 million in connection with the German automaker’s admitted peddling of diesel vehicles rigged to surpass emissions limits, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Tuesday.

The partial settlement is part of a larger, multibillion-dollar agreement unveiled Tuesday that awards hundreds of millions of dollars to dozens of states and includes a $10 billion buy-back program to compensate consumers who bought the vehicles. Various media reports described it as the largest auto-related class-action settlement in U.S. history.

[…]

Paxton sued Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and parent company Audi of America in October in connection with the automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its diesel vehicles to circumvent emissions limits. The lawsuits alleged violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and clean air standards. They were among hundreds filed in the United States against VW by governments and consumers.

As part of the settlements announced Tuesday, VW agreed to pay Texas $50 million in civil penalties and attorneys’ fees for its violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which bans false advertising and sale of misrepresented products. About 32,000 diesel cars capable of emissions cheating have been sold in Texas, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. That’s compared to about 480,000 nationwide and 11 million globally.

“For years, Volkswagen intentionally misled consumers about the environmental and performance qualities of the vehicles they sold in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “When companies willfully violate the public’s trust, we will hold these entities responsible. This settlement will both compensate the victims of Volkswagen’s fraud and punish the company enough to deter future fraud.”

He noted Texas has not yet resolved claims that VW violated state clean air laws, and that Texas continues to pursue related penalties. A Paxton spokeswoman would not say how much those might amount to.

See here for the background on the Texas lawsuit, and here and here for more about the national case. It’s nice to see the AG’s office on the side of a worthwhile case for once, though honestly this was as close to free money as it gets. I mean, the initial suits were filed less than a year ago. VW had basically admitted fault, and they clearly wanted this to go away. Good on them for that, but boy do they still have a lot to atone for.

And they’re not out of legal trouble just yet:

Several local governments in Texas, including Harris County, have also sued VW — over objections from Paxton — but they were not included in the settlements announced Tuesday. The Harris County lawsuit is pending in Travis County district court.

See here and here for the background on that. I presume Paxton didn’t do anything beyond send a letter to the relevant county attorneys asking them to back off; if he did, I couldn’t find any mention of it. It seems likely to me that with the big settlement out of the way, these others will soon follow, but we’ll see.

New methane rules finalized

Gentlemen, start your lawyers.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued its final rule for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The rule limits methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure and requires operators to submit to semi-annual or quarterly monitoring, depending on the type of operation. In addition, the agency took another step toward drafting a rule that would apply to existing oil and gas operations.

“They will help keep the nation on track to help the us cut emissions from the oil and gas sector,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said on a call with reporters Thursday. The new rule will reduce emissions by 11 million tons per year of CO2 equivalent by 2025, she said.

The Obama administration has a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. Natural gas is 80 percent methane, while oil extraction processes also often release methane trapped underground. In 2012, 30 percent of the country’s methane emissions came from oil and gas operations.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span, so leaking methane can be a huge problem. While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaks in the system can eliminate the climate benefits. Scientists have found that in the United States, methane leaks and venting have nullified any emissions benefit from transitioning the electricity sector from coal- to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, the EPA recently found that the problem of escaping methane is even worse than initially feared. The United States currently gets a third of its electricity from natural gas, up from 24 percent in 2010.

[…]

There are, though, two key changes from the initial draft rule the EPA published last year that environmentalists welcomed. Under the new rule, natural gas compressors will be subject to quarterly monitoring — twice as often as under the proposal. In addition, low-production wells will be included in the rule. In its fact sheet, the agency credited the changes to the more than 9,000 public comments it received after the draft rule was published.

See here and here for some background. We all know what comes next, and we know it’s not over till the Supreme Court says it is. So sit back, pop open a cold one, and wait for the legal action to begin. Daily Kos and the Trib have more.

Houston’s anti-pollution ordinance killed by Supreme Court

Alas.

Bill White

Bill White

In passing two ordinances designed to regulate air pollution, the city of Houston overstepped its authority and illegally subverted state law, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday. The ruling is a victory for a coalition of industrial facilities whose emissions were subject to inspection and possible prosecution by the city.

The case pit the BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of companies including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company, and ConocoPhillips, against the city of Houston, which sought to penalize companies in criminal court when those companies violated state emission guidelines.

Attorneys for the city of Houston argued that the city was simply trying to enforce the standards set out by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, by putting in place a parallel enforcement mechanism that would impose fines on the companies even if the Commission chose not to act.

“If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” attorney Robert Higgason told the justices in September.

In an 8–1 ruling Friday, the justices made it clear that they disagreed – saying that if the Commission chose not to enforce any given law, that did not clear the way for Houston authorities to do so.

“By authorizing criminal prosecution even when the TCEQ determines an administrative or civil remedy—or even no penalty at all—to be the appropriate remedy, the City effectively moots the TCEQ’s discretion and the TCEQ’s authority to select an enforcement mechanism,” Justice Paul Green wrote. “This is impermissible.”

See here and here for the origin story, and here and here for the most recent updates. The Chron story adds more.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson issued a statement saying the court’s decision “will not dampen the city’s efforts” to assist the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with the enforcement of environmental laws. The statement said the city will employ “other legal mechanisms” allowed under state law to monitor and take action against polluters. A spokeswoman said the city hadn’t decided whether to appeal.

Adrian Shelley, executive director of the advocacy group Air Alliance Houston, said the decision was “not the least bit surprising” but dismaying nonetheless.

“It’s pretty in-keeping with both previous judicial decisions and the direction in which our state government is moving,” he said. He cited the state Legislature’s passage of a bill last session that caps the amount local governments can collect through environmental lawsuits, Gov. Greg Abbott’s filing of a brief in support of the industry advocates in this case, and a prior legal case that made its way to the Texas Supreme Court.

“There will be more polluters who pollute with impunity,” Shelley said. “There will be a little poorer public health in the city as a result.”

Houston battled smoggy skies for decades and has failed to comply with federal ozone standards. The 10-county area includes the largest petrochemical complex in the country, hundreds of chemical plants and a bustling port.

Under the ordinances, the city collects registration fees from companies in order to investigate potential violations of air pollution laws.

City officials have defended the ordinances since their passage in 2007, arguing they helped fill an enforcement gap created by understaffing at TCEQ, the state agency responsible for monitoring and punishing polluters.

The city said legal mechanisms it could use against polluters include requesting that TCEQ investigate suspected polluters, seeking injunctive relief and penalties in civil court against suspected violators and notifying TCEQ of violations deemed to be criminal in nature.

Former Mayor Bill White pushed for the ordinances after growing frustrated with TCEQ. He and City Council members voted to amend a 1992 ordinance and start requiring businesses to pay registration fees based on their size and emissions. The fees range from $130 for a dry cleaning plant with fewer than six employees to $3,200 for plants emitting more than 10 tons annually of airborne contaminants.

The ordinances also authorized city health officers to seek civil, administrative and criminal sanctions for violations that can be prosecuted in municipal court, with fines of up to $2,000 per day for repeat violators.

The ordinance was based on the premise that these facilities are outside Houston’s boundaries, but their emissions directly affect the city and its residents, not to mention Houston’s non-compliance with EPA regulations. The Supreme Court wrote that allowing such ordinances might lead to uneven enforcement around the state. I can see the logic of that, but as is so often the case with the TCEQ, if they bothered to enforce the law in the first place, the city wouldn’t have passed that ordinance. It’s the same impetus that drove Denton to ban fracking, and as was the case there, it’s the same impulse to squash inconvenient expressions of local control that led to this result. How long can you hold your breath, Houston? The Press and the Observer have more.

Pity the poor utilities

Sorry, but low electricity prices, especially when they are aided by record amounts of wind power generation, are good news.

ERCOT

Texas’ national lead in cheap wind power, combined with near historically low natural gas prices, mild weather, an abundant power supply and slower growth in electricity demand, can work to the detriment of power companies.

The combination weighed down wholesale power prices last year to their lowest averages since 2002. And the effects are only becoming more dramatic in 2016, even creating bizarre instances when, in the abstract at least, providers are paying to put electricity on the market.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Michael Ferguson, associate director at Standard & Poor’s covering utilities and infrastructure. “It’s a bad situation for gas generators, but for coal generation, it’s even worse.”

Texas’ wholesale power prices averaged $26.77 per megawatt-hour last year, down nearly 35 percent from $40.64 per megawatt-hour in 2014. The cost was more than $70 as recently as 2008.

While now is a good time for consumers to lock in cheaper electricity prices, well more than 25 percent of the state’s power plants are operating at a cash loss, especially the older coal-fired plants, power executives and analysts estimated. That’s before more stringent federal emissions regulations go into effect in coming years

Until coal plants start shutting down or the state tweaks regulations to artificially inflate prices, power companies will struggle, executives said. A new Moody’s Investors Service report concluded that Texas “power prices are unlikely to climb out of their doldrums.”

Already, less than a quarter of Texas’ coal fleet is operating early this spring, as more generators simply take their coal plants offline until the summer heat brings more demand, analysts from Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. noted.

In March, wind added to the grid more than coal power for the first time ever for a full month. Wind contributed 21.4 percent of the grid’s overall power, compared with 12.9 percent from coal, which used to be the dominant source of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electricity load.

“Ultimately, something is going to have to give here,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine Corp., the largest power generator in the Houston region and owner of the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired power plants.

[…]

Texas is home to nearly 20 coal-fired power plants and the near future of at least six of them are considered at risk.

They will require expensive upgrades to meet federal standards, according to a recent ERCOT analysis, and the costs could outweigh the benefits of keeping them open. That’s not even counting the effects of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is pending in court.

“Ultimately, we think the market could be a lot tighter than people think, particularly if people start mothballing or retiring units,” said Hill, whose Calpine would stand to benefit because it doesn’t own any coal plants.

At-risk plants include Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake coal plants in East Texas, half of Luminant’s Sandow plant east of Austin, NRG Energy’s Limestone plant east of Waco, and Engie’s Coleto Creek plant near Victoria that’s being bought by Dynegy.

It’s fine by me if those coal plants go the way of the dodo. It’s long overdue, and their demise will make meeting the Clean Power Plan benchmarks even easier. More investment in solar energy will help mitigate the low-wind periods and ensure demand can be met in the summertime. What’s not to like?

Find those leaks

I don’t care how.

A pair of state and federal government inspectors spent two weeks traveling around northern Colorado’s oil and gas fields in early 2012, filming with an infrared camera.

Air pollution was rising in the region, and attention was turning to the rapid increase in drilling activity. The inspectors focused on Houston-based Noble Energy, one of the state’s largest drillers with about 7,000 wells in the suburbs and countryside north of Denver.

With the naked eye, there was nothing to see at the nearly hundred sites they visited. But when observed through the infrared camera, again and again they saw plumes of gas radiating from the top of storage tanks near the wells.

“The infrared camera does not quantify emissions, but you can say that’s a small leak versus a big leak. And these were big leaks,” said one of the inspectors, Cindy Beeler, an energy adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Colorado. “When we showed our findings to Noble, they were surprised.”

As the Obama administration accelerates its campaign to blunt the effects of climate change, federal regulators are turning to infrared technology to seek out emissions leaks in the country’s oil and gas fields. With state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental groups embracing the technology, drillers are increasingly finding themselves staring down the lenses of infrared cameras.

Beyond government inspections, many companies are worried they soon will be required to do their own infrared scans and make what they fear will be unnecessary repairs across the country’s more than 1 million oil and gas wells. Industry lobbyists are already challenging the devices’ effectiveness.

“Part of our concern is that it really locks us in to this technology at a point in time the understanding of these fugitive emissions is really in its childhood,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The presumptive starting point for the EPA is requiring infrared.”

[…]

For decades, companies and government inspectors relied on hand-held sensors to tell them if gas was leaking. But without a means to see the emissions, one was left to guess where to hold the sensor on a drilling site that can run the size of a football field – “like trying to pin the tail on the donkey,” Beeler jokes.

Then in 2011, the EPA decided to try infrared technology, which uses variations in temperature and other environmental measures to form images – capturing everything from a mouse on the ground to escaping gas.

At the time, the primary mission was reducing the release of volatile organic compounds, a key contributor to smog, which has long been linked to asthma and lung disease in humans. But federal attention is now turning to methane, which makes up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has an impact on global warming 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

The oil and gas industry is pressuring the EPA to look away from infrared at other cheaper technologies, like methane sensors, that would automatically detect leaks as they occur but are still in development. In a memo to EPA in December, the IPAA raised several issues about the infrared devices, including concerns about whether smaller companies could handle the cost – $100,000 each – and whether they were reliable.

“The results of the camera, the ‘pictures,’ are difficult to interpret and subject to misinterpretation, e.g., what appears to be a leak could simply be a heat plume,” the memo stated.

EPA officials countered that infrared is one of a variety of tools for gathering evidence in emissions cases that often was supported by data from the companies themselves.

“Infrared allows us to see hydrocarbons,” said Apple Chapman, associate director of EPA’s air enforcement division. “It’s a faster screening tool and a faster investigative tool.”

I don’t care what technology gets used, as long as something gets used that can reliably detect these leaks. I doubt I have to explain why some kind of voluntary compliance program is worthless. If the industry has a viable alternative to infrared that they don’t mind being required to use, then fine. If not, then infrared it is. Whatever gets the job done.

New EPA rules for methane coming

You know what will follow.

Building on already pending rules to cut methane leaks from both new oil and gas wells and those on federal lands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now plans to bring to the oil sector the tough emissions standards it previously applied to automobiles and power plants.

The change would bring federal pollution rules in line with President Barack Obama’s earlier stated promise to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas drilling at least 40 percent by 2025, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

“Based on this growing body of science, it’s become clear it’s come time for EPA to take additional action,” she said in a news conference Thursday. “We’ll start this work immediately, and we intend to work quickly.”

The EPA said it was only just beginning to put a rule together and would be reaching out to oil and gas companies next month to request emissions data, to get a better handle on the scale of the problem and the costs of fixing it.

But based on the methane rules, already pending, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across Texas and the country are likely to be required to invest in technology like infrared cameras and methane sensors to seek out and repair natural gas leaks in their pipelines and storage tanks.

[…]

A recent study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund puts the cost of reaching Obama’s goal at 1 cent per Mcf of natural gas – less than 1 percent at current prices – when factoring in current lost revenues from escaping natural gas.

But in a conference call with reporters Thursday, Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said costs were likely to be far higher.

He said the industry would need to see the final rule before deciding whether to take legal action, as states and coal producers have done over Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“We’re keeping all our options on the table,” Isakower said. “The administration is catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.”

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. While the many, many lawsuits filed over Obama’s environmental regulations have in some cases delayed implementation for awhile, in the end the EPA and everyone who likes clean air and water has generally prevailed, as the Supreme Court has upheld the EPA’s authority to set and enforce these rules. I see no reason why this time should be different. Think Progress has more.

Checking in on Garcia v Green

An update on how the biggest primary fight in the county is going.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

U.S. Congressman Gene Green has taken Texas’ 29th District Democratic primary to television, leveraging his substantial financial advantage over challenger Adrian Garcia to pour more than $240,000 into network and cable advertising over the next three weeks.

Green’s English- and Spanish-language ads focus on his involvement in the community, providing a contrast to Garcia’s more aggressive negative messaging about the incumbent.

Seeking to fend off his first primary challenge in two decades, Green is relying on his war chest and deep roots in the 77-percent Hispanic district that curls around eastern Houston from the near north side to the Hobby Airport area.

“Welcome to my office. To solve problems, you have to get out in the community,” Green says in an ad that is set to begin airing Wednesday on Comcast. “That’s how we turned a cantina into a thriving clinic expanding access to health care.”

Green has spent $141,000 on cable ads running in the North Houston, Baytown, Pasadena and Pearland areas, and another $100,000 on ads set to begin airing on KHOU-11 next week, records show. The campaign expects to spend a total of $350,000 on television advertising by the end of the week, including on Spanish-language channels.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

“Getting people’s attention is going to be hard,” Green consultant Robert Jara said, noting that the presidential race soon will hit Texas in full force. “We wanted to make sure we got things locked in before the presidential candidates started moving into Texas.”

[…]

Comcast and Federal Communications Commission files for major Houston-area channels had no record of advertising purchases by Garcia’s campaign.

Instead, Garcia, who was sitting on just $73,000 in his campaign account at the end of last year, has focused on free media, sending near-daily campaign announcements and news releases, many of which attack Green on issues ranging from gun safety to the environment.

“Benzene Gene is not for District 29,” read a Garcia press release emailed Tuesday afternoon.

For what it’s worth, I think both candidates have run the kind of race they’ve needed to run (yeah, there’s a third candidate, but he’s not done much of anything). Green has rolled out a bajillion endorsements, and now he’s hitting the airwaves to remind people that he’s good at his job and they’ve never had any complaints about him before now. Garcia has been busy attacking him on issues like marriage equality, gun control, and the environment, where Green’s record is not exactly in line with many primary-voting Democrats. He’s also made the pitch to be the first Latino member of Congress from the Houston area – this Trib story from a few days ago sums up that aspect of the race well – and has thrown in some economic inequality stuff as well. It’s all what I’d have done if he’d have asked for my opinion.

The identity politics stuff is interesting and necessarily dominates the discussion. It may work well in this race, though it will be hard to tell exactly by how much. I’m more intrigued by the issues arguments. A few years ago I had a conversation with the founder of a lefty 527 PAC, who wanted to pick my brains about finding someone to challenge Gene Green from the left. I told him that wouldn’t be easy, for all the reasons you’d expect – Green was well-liked, he performed very well in elections, all of the potential challengers you could think of were allied with him, etc – and also noted that CD29 wasn’t exactly a hotbed of liberal agitation. Green’s more conservative record, on the issues mentioned above and on other things, was in line with the district, I said. The question now is whether that’s still the case. Nationally, the Democratic base has shifted to the left – one need only look at the Presidential primary to see that. That doesn’t mean that said shift is uniform, or universal. CD29 is the kind of place where you might not see such a difference – it’s blue collar, working class, and heavily dependent on the oil patch for its jobs. Yet that’s part of what’s driving this race. Whether that will have any effect one way or the other on the outcome, and whether that effect will be part of the postmortem, is unclear to me. But it is happening, and we should keep an eye on it.

Environmentalists petition EPA to strip Texas of some authorities

This unfortunately is not likely to go anywhere, but I relish the idea anyway.

Alleging that Texas has dramatically eroded its safeguards against air and water pollution, two environmental groups are asking the federal government to step in.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Caddo Lake Institute are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to strip Texas of some of its authority under the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The nonprofits asked the agency to “review and withdraw its delegations of permitting authority to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality” — the TCEQ — arguing that Texas lawmakers, by gradually cutting funding and passing more industry-friendly laws, have effectively rendered the agency toothless.

The commission panned the petition. “Texas law has and continues to meet federal requirements – to suggest otherwise is misleading to the public,” spokesman Terry Clawson said in an email. “We expect EPA to reject this frivolous petition.”

And the EPA on Tuesday said it was “not aware of significant deficiencies in TCEQ-delegated environmental programs at this time.”

“We will carefully review and consider claims raised by the environmental groups and respond accordingly,” Melissa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in an email.

[…]

As it has in other states over the past four decades, the EPA has given Texas the authority to permit and enforce a variety of air, waste, water and mining programs after lengthy and complex negotiations.

The federal agency rarely — if ever — has completely revoked a state’s permitting authority. But there have been close calls.

In 2013, for instance, Arkansas lost some of its Clean Water Act authority after its legislature passed a bill changing requirements for discharging minerals into streams. Lawmakers fixed the legislation after several permits were routed to the EPA.

Experts can’t recall an example where the agency took away Texas’ authority, but the state has faced similar issues.

About five years ago, the state refused to follow regulations involving greenhouse gas permits, delaying dozens of energy projects and prompting a major outcry from the industry. The Legislature relented in 2013 and directed TCEQ to begin issuing the permits.

You can see a copy of the petition here, and a copy of the EDF’s press release here. The move was in response to the many awful, anti-environmental bills that passed during the last legislative session; you can read the Trib story for an accounting of that. The EPA doesn’t sound particularly enthusiastic about picking this fight, and given how often they’ve had to defend themselves against lawsuits filed by Texas, I can’t blame them for being leery. I still hope they’ll at least put enough thought into this to deliver a scare to everyone who deserves it.

Yet another lawsuit by Texas against the EPA

So what else is new?

In another lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Texas is taking aim at tightened standards on ground-level ozone — President Obama’s effort to cut down on smog that chokes the nation’s skies.

An ozone standard finalized in October shrank the previous 75 parts per billion limits on ozone to 70 parts per billion, putting pressure on some regions in Texas that struggled to meet the previous standards. The rules aim to crack down on pollution coming from factories, power plants and vehicle tailpipes.

Ozone forms when emissions from cars and industrial plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight, and it can worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

Though the new regulation is more lenient than what environmentalists called for, Texas leaders quickly joined with industry in blasting the regulation, arguing that it will cost billions of dollars to invest in cleaner technology that will yield fewer health benefits.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. We all know the drill here. There will be much sound and fury, and in the end the state will most likely lose. It’ll take awhile and cost a lot of money, and we’ll all try to pretend that this is normal. Wake me when it’s over in a couple of years.

More rules against polluting your neighbors proposed

Good.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tougher new limits on Tuesday on smokestack emissions from Texas and 22 other states that burden downwind areas with air pollution from power plants they can’t control.

At the same time, the EPA moved to remove two states — South Carolina and Florida — from the “good neighbor” rules, saying they don’t contribute significant amounts of smog to other states.

[…]

The EPA’s proposal on downwind pollution follows a federal appeals court ruling this summer that upheld the agency’s right to impose the clean-air standards, which block states from adding to air pollution in other localities. Some states and industry groups had argued that the rule was overly burdensome.

The rule applies mostly to states in the South and Midwest that contribute to soot and smog along the East Coast.

Under the EPA’s proposal, states would have to comply with air quality standards for ozone, or smog, set by the George W. Bush administration in 2008. Current rules are based on pollution standards developed in the late 1990s.

“This update will help protect the health and lives of millions of Americans by reducing exposure to ozone pollution, which is linked to serious public health effects including reduced lung function, asthma … and early death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

The proposal reinforces the obligations states have to address air pollution that is carried across state lines, McCarthy said.

See here for the background. The ruling in question struck down some earlier regulations, but affirmed the EPA’s authority to set regulations on this. I won’t be surprised if there’s another lawsuit over these rules, but one way or another in the end there will be new rules.

No idling

From the inbox, from last week:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council today approved two significant ordinances that will improve Houston’s quality of life and protect public health: an anti-idling ordinance for motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 14,000 pounds; and a commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.

“Adopting these ordinances are more key milestones for my administration,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “While we are excited to join the ranks of other Texas cities that have also passed idling reduction policies, we are proud to be the first city in Texas that has adopted a commercial PACE program. We all have to work together in improving our air quality and quality of life.”

Idling Reduction:

Idling is one contributor to air quality issues in the region. Nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (PM) are emitted from vehicle engine exhaust and can form ground-level ozone, or smog. Diesel engines emit hazardous air pollutants which have been linked to serious illnesses, including asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and cancer. Children, elderly, and those with asthma and other chronic health problems are especially vulnerable to the health dangers of exhaust.

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE):

PACE is financing that enables Houston owners of commercial, industrial and residential properties with five or more units to obtain low-cost, long-term loans for water conservation, energy-efficiency, and renewable retrofits.  In exchange for funds provided by a private lender to pay for the improvement, the property owner voluntarily requests that the local government place an assessment secured with a senior lien on the property until the assessment is paid in full.  The benefits of PACE are multi-faceted, leading to a win for all stakeholders.

“We applaud Mayor Annise Parker and Houston for passing landmark environmental legislation that improves our quality of life,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “Commercial PACE will make it easier for building owners to reduce energy and water usage and the anti-idling ordinance will clean the air and protect the health of families. It’s a double win.”

“These two ordinances have the potential to make a big impact on air quality and quality of life in Houston,” said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston. “Reducing idling and conserving energy and water help protect public health, as well as save money. We appreciate Mayor Parker’s significant commitment to improving our environment.”

This ordinance follows numerous other air quality initiatives and programs including:

  • Investing in electric vehicles and hybrids and a fleet sharing program
  • Investigating emissions from metal recyclers
  • Retrofitting over 6 millions square feet of municipal buildings to improve energy efficiency
  • Purchasing 50% green power for city operations
  • Retrofitting 165,000 streetlights to LED technology
  • Expanding bike share and bike facilities across the city

The Chron has a bit more about the anti-idling ordinance.

The anti-idling ordinance prohibits drivers of vehicles with a gross weight of more than 14,000 pounds from idling for more than five minutes when the vehicle is not in motion.

The law, however, exempts vehicles being used by military, emergency or law enforcement personnel, vehicles in the process of being loaded or unloaded, cars sitting in traffic jams, people defrosting their windshields, and various vehicles that must run heat or air conditioning for health and safety reasons.

Transit vehicles carrying passengers can idle for up to 15 minutes to use the heat or air conditioning.

Good. As we know, Houston has longstanding air quality issues, and as federal clean air standards have tightened we have been in greater danger of not being in compliance. There isn’t one single thing that can be done to fix this problem, but there are a lot of little things that can be done to move us in the right direction. This is one of them. Kudos all around for getting it done.

Thanks but no thanks, Ken

Harris County will continue to pursue its own lawsuit against VW.

Harris County has responded to Ken Paxton’s request to drop its lawsuit against scandal-plagued Volkswagen. Its answer? A polite no.

[…]

In a reply to Paxton dated Oct. 15, [Harris County Attorney Vince] Ryan wrote, “we were pleased to learn that the Office of the Attorney General has joined Harris County” in the claims against Volkswagen. “We look forward to working together once again in connection with this important effort.”

In other words: No, thanks.

By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential damages on the table.

That’s because under state law, when local governments file such suits, the state is required to join as a “necessary and indispensable party.” In these types of cases, the counties and state split any money.

But the counties would not directly get a share of any damages in the suits Texas is leading.

Any civil penalties recovered in Paxton’s environmental lawsuit would flow into the state’s general fund, while penalties from the consumer protection case will go to the Texas Supreme Court’s judicial fund for programs that provide legal services to poor people, said Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for Paxton’s office. Any other “meaningful restitution” she added, would go directly to consumers duped by Volkswagen’s emissions software.

Ryan’s letter to Paxton noted that, in 1998, Harris County, along with other counties, recovered about $2.2 billion from the tobacco industry through litigation — on top of the billions that the state recovered for itself.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Ryan’s letter. I’m not an attorney, but as I said before I don’t see why Harris or any other county that wants to pursue its own lawsuit should bow to Paxton’s request. It doesn’t make good financial sense to do otherwise, if a county has the resources to handle the litigation itself. Many counties don’t, but Harris does, and that should be good enough. Stick to your guns, Vince.

Paxton wants to sue VW all by himself

Really?

Seeking to fight scandal-plagued Volkswagen alone, Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking two Texas counties to halt their lawsuits against the automaker — a move highlighting friction between Texas and local governments pursuing tens of millions of dollars in court.

The Republican made the request in letters sent Friday to top attorneys in Harris and Fort Bend counties, both of which beat Paxton to the punch in filing lawsuits over the company’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to sidestep emissions limits.

“The alleged violations by VW harm Texans throughout the state, and a separate Harris County lawsuit undermines the ability to achieve a comprehensive and just statewide resolution of this matter on behalf of Texas,” Paxton wrote in a letter to Vince Ryan, the Harris County attorney. “The Office of the Attorney General requests that the county stand down on its claims and cooperate with the Office of the Attorney General in pursuing the state’s interests – which includes Harris County’s interests – on matters arising from VW’s wrongful conduct.”

Paxton used similar language in a letter to Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes, Jr.

Paxton wrote that both counties failed to communicate with his office before filing their suits, and he knocked them for hiring outside legal help, saying the move “appears to be an unnecessary expense.” The Texas Tribune obtained unsigned copies of both letters.

By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential winnings on the table.

“Harris County, Texas wants a place at the table. That’s why we’re first in line and the first government in the world to sue Volkswagen,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office. O’Rourke had not yet seen Paxton’s letter.

“We’ll look at whatever General Paxton’s request is and evaluate it with sincerity,” he added.

In Fort Bend, Randy Morse, the assistant county attorney, said his office could not comment because it had yet to receive the letter.

[…]

Last week, the city of Dallas announced it planned to sue Volkswagen, but it reversed course on Monday, saying Paxton’s statewide suit would do the trick.

“We look forward to the state taking action in the upcoming months to require Volkswagen and Audi to bring the affected vehicles into compliance with state environmental laws and improve air quality in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and we urge the state to do so in an expeditious manner and at no cost to affected motorists,” the city said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. Personally, I don’t know that I would trust the state to look after my own interests as well as I would in a case like this. Pursuing environmental justice is not exactly one of Ken Paxton’s strong points. If I were in those County Attorneys’ shoes, my reply would be to suggest that Paxton file a brief with the judge in my case stating his position, and let the judge decide the best course of action from there. The Press and the Chron have more.

State of Texas sues VW

Bandwagon time!

Following in the footsteps of Harris County and the city of Dallas, the state announced Thursday it is suing Volkswagen in connection with the German automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to circumvent emissions limits.

Attorney General Ken Paxton announced two separate lawsuits against Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. and subsidiary Audi of America, alleging violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and clean air standards.

“The lawsuits allege the companies misled Texas consumers by marketing and selling diesel vehicles as ‘clean’ while knowing that these vehicles were designed to meet emission standards only when being tested,” a news release said. “Outside of the testing station they would emit up to 40 times the allowable standard for certain pollutants.”

About 32,000 diesel cars capable of emissions cheating have been sold in Texas, the release said, citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. That’s compared to about 480,000 nationwide and 11 million globally.

“For years, Volkswagen intentionally misled consumers about the environmental and performance qualities of the vehicles they sold in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “When companies willfully violate the public’s trust, a penalty must be paid, and we will hold these entities responsible.”

See here for the background. Again, I don’t know why any government entity wouldn’t file suit against VW. They’ve already admitted liability – this is as close to a slam dunk as it gets in civil litigation. How long it takes and how much you ultimately get are open questions, but the winning and losing part isn’t. And hey, now we know what it takes to get Texas to enforce environmental standards. It’s a win all around!

County sues VW for $100 million

Good.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Harris County on Tuesday set in motion a $100 million environmental lawsuit against Volkswagen, claiming emissions from 6,000 diesel cars circulating on roadways in the region have caused harm to the population. County Attorney Vince Ryan said his review of filings indicated this could be the first government suit against the car company since the executives admitted to cheating on emissions monitoring in diesel cars released since 2009.

Commissioners Court approved the suit Tuesday morning and hired three law firms to handle the matter on a contingency basis. The county plans to file the suit Tuesday afternoon, according to Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney.

The county does not have Volkswagens in its central fleet, according to Dre Dupont, who oversees the vehicles. Instead, the focus of this suit will be on the extent to which the car company and its affiliates violated Texas emissions standards, creating a public health hazard for everyone within the borders of Harris County.

The Press is pretty snarky about this, but as Judge Emmett noted in the Chron story, VW has already admitted liability. Why wouldn’t we sue? I don’t know what the likelihood is of collecting a substantial sum, and it may be that our suit gets consolidated with the many others already out there, but VW deserves all the trouble it’s going to get. Good for Vince Ryan for taking the initiative.

Houston pleads its case to the Supreme Court

We’ll see how they did.

Bill White

Bill White

“The point of all this is to protect the public and the environment, to have clean air, and the TCEQ, for the Texas Clean Air Act, envisions that it be vigorously enforced,” [Houston attorney Robert] Higgason said. “This is what the statute makes reference to — cities being allowed to enact and enforce their own ordinances to achieve the goal of the Texas Clean Air Act.”

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil, the Dow Chemical Company and ConocoPhillips, has sued to strike down the ordinances, arguing Houston is exceeding its authority under state law.

“The Legislature has already addressed what cities can do to address this problem…and they’ve turned what should be an administrative and civil regime, that should be consistently applied, into a local criminal statute,” BCAA attorney Evan Young argued. “To convert it from something very different from what the Legislature intended degrades and erodes the meaning of the act.”

[…]

Higgason repeatedly argued that it was incumbent upon cities like Houston to enforce the clean air act where the state agency is unable to do so. “If the TCEQ is letting something go, and not enforcing its own standards, there’s something wrong with that,” Higgason said.

Justice Eva Guzman, a former Harris County district and appellate judge, challenged his stance, asking if local actions might compromise the TCEQ’s right to use discretion in enforcement. She said the TCEQ’s sluggish ability to respond to air pollution violators was not necessarily Houston’s concern.

“When cities exercise their own discretion, that discretion could or could not be consistent with what the TCEQ would have done under their regime,” Guzman said. “It seems to me like that defeats your argument.”

Young emphasized that Houston was indeed allowed to enforce the state’s regulations — so long as it used the state’s preferred method of civil enforcement actions in civil courts.

In contrast, the Houston ordinances allow polluters to be charged in criminal courts, with convictions leading to a range of penalties including fines up to $2,000 per violation for repeat offenders.

“If we’re going to have a statewide, uniform comprehensive regulatory regime that actually gives predictability, it is essential that the TCEQ be involved in that decision-making,” Young said. “If a city wants to enforce the regulations in court, it can do that — by bringing a civil suit.”

See here for the background. The Press, which takes a closer look at the plaintiffs in this action, notes that the stakes are higher than they might appear.

What’s intriguing about this case is that the outcome might ultimately do more than just decide whether Houston has the right to regulate its own air quality. The case gives the Texas Supreme Court the chance to wade into a seldom-explored area of law looking at whether cities have the right to enact local regulations without clashing with state law, according to Law360. Should the high court decide in favor of Houston’s ordinance, that, for instance, could potentially give the city of Denton some legal legs to bring back its anti-fracking ordinance. (Hester, however, contends the chances of that happening are still slim.)

But a ruling against Houston would limit the city’s ability to enact environmental regulations and that would mean the TCEQ would be the agency deciding how to penalize companies that pollute in Houston. “It’s really a question of who gets to make the call on what type of enforcement should take place,” [Tracy Hester, an environmental law professor at University of Houston] says. “If the ordinance is upheld and the city feels like an enforcement action doesn’t address their concerns, then they will be able to have their own enforcement actions.”

So there’s that. Doesn’t make me feel any more optimistic about the likely outcome, that’s for sure. Hope for the best, of course, but I’m not expecting it.

Houston’s environmental protection ordinances go to the Supreme Court

Where, sadly, they’ll likely get killed.

Bill White

Bill White

State environmental regulators don’t adequately enforce air pollution laws, the city of Houston believes, and on Wednesday it will ask the state’s highest civil court to let it keep trying to do the job itself.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging a pair of ordinances the city enacted in 2007 and 2008 requiring industrial polluters within Houston to register with the city, and subjecting the polluting companies to fines if they operate without registering.

BCCA Appeal Group, a coalition of industrial facility owners including ExxonMobil and the Dow Chemical Company, sued the city seven years ago, claiming the ordinances improperly preempt state law. The First District Court of Appeals has already weighed in on Houston’s side, finding in 2013 that the Legislature had not foreclosed such local regulations with anything resembling “unmistakable clarity.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, BCCA argues that the city is allowed to enforce air regulations only if it uses the weaker enforcement tools laid out by the state.

But Houston, and a host of environmental groups filing amicus briefs in the city’s support, say it is perfectly within its rights to enforce state laws using alternative regulatory strategies, including levying fines where the state won’t.

“The city’s looking for accountability, and this is a streamlined way of trying to do that,” said Rock Owens, who co-authored an amicus brief submitted by the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “There should be something that happens if you don’t follow the law, and the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] isn’t in a position where they can provide enforcement. They don’t have the resources, or, frankly, the will.”

Owens said he believes the Houston ordinances simply put some muscle behind the regulations the commission laid out. “It’s just a matter of layering — a matter of making the law effective,” Owens said.

[…]

Given how political tides recently have turned against local efforts to police industries, Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said he isn’t optimistic about the city’s chances in front of the state’s highest civil court.

Shelley cited House Bill 40, signed by Abbott in May, which preempts local control over most oil and gas activity, as one reason for his concern.

“I think it needs to be said that there’s a larger trend here — a problematic trend — and that’s bad for public health in Texas,” Shelley said. “We’re likely to lose this case.”

See here and here for some background on this, which was an initiative of then-Mayor Bill White. I’m sure I have more entries on this, but my older archives aren’t quite as organized. I wish I was more optimistic about this, but I think Shelley nails it. As the story notes, Greg Abbott supports the BCCA, because of course he does. Local control only matters to Abbott when the locals are doing things he approves of. We should know in a few months how the Court rules, and I guess you can add this – “what, if anything, should the city do to improve air quality if the Supreme Court invalidates the city’s air quality ordinances of 2007 and 2008?” – to the list of questions that we ought to be asking the Mayoral herd. See this op-ed by Adrian Shelley and Jen Powis for more.

ERCOT acknowledges that meeting EPA clean air requirements won’t be that big a deal

From Texas Clean Air Matters:

ERCOT

Well, it didn’t take long before the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released, at the request of Texas’ very political Public Utilities Commission, another report about the impacts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rules designed to protect public health.

This time ERCOT, which manages 90 percent of Texas’ electric grid, looked at the impact of seven EPA clean air safeguards on the electric grid, including the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), the Regional Haze program (all of which go back before the Obama administration), the proposed Clean Power Plan, which would set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and others. What was surprising to learn, though, is that after power companies in the state start complying with EPA’s other clean air protections, the proposed Clean Power Plan poses a minimal incremental impact to the power grid. We would only have to cut 200 megawatts of coal-fired generation, which equates to less than one coal-fired power plant.

For as much doom-and-gloom we heard last month in ERCOT’s report about the Clean Power Plan, they certainly seem to be singing a different tune this go-around. The new report shows that Texas can go a long way toward complying with the Clean Power Plan by meeting other clean air safeguards, for which Texas power companies have had years to prepare.

Very soon power companies in Texas will install control technologies to reduce multiple – not just one – pollutants, thereby making compliance with EPA’s subsequent regulations easier and more cost-effective. In the end, Texas will only need to take a minimal amount of additional aging coal plants offline by 2029.

Plus, other energy resources, like energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and demand response (which pays people to conserve energy when the electric grid is stressed) are gaining ground every day in Texas. They have proven to be vital resources on the power grid that help reduce electricity costs for Texas homes and businesses.

Energy efficiency, in particular, provides significant reductions in power plant emissions, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone-forming pollutants, and has a four-to-one payback on investment. This is the type of performance worth investing in.

See here for the background, and click over to read the rest. In addition to what the EDF says above, complying with the new regulations would also save a ton of water, which is a pretty big deal in and of itself. So let’s have less whining – and fewer lawsuits – and get on with the compliance. It’s a win all around.

Here come the new ozone standards

I have three things to say about this.

Over the objections of Texas officials, the Obama administration on Wednesday proposed a long-delayed rule to slash levels of ozone – a smog-forming pollutant known to worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

The regulation is the latest example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s use of the Clean Air Act to crack down on the pollution wafting from factories, power plants and tailpipes.

“Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information and protect those most at risk,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA’s responsibility.”

The agency plans to hold three public meetings and open up a 90-day commenting period before finalizing the rule by Oct. 1, 2015.

Bucking the scientific community’s consensus, Texas environmental regulators have suggested that the proposed limits on ozone — which forms when emissions from cars and coal plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight — may not improve public health. They have pushed back against any efforts to lower the standard, suggesting such a move would cost too much.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the EPA has proposed these new, short-sighted regulations,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “Environmental regulations should be based on good science, common sense and the certainty that they will achieve the stated health benefits. The EPA proposals fail miserably at meeting any of those metrics.”

[…]

Depending on the severity of their ozone problems, regions would have to meet the lower standards by anywhere from 2020 to 2037.

But scrubbing more ozone from the air — through extra pollution controls, air monitors and retrofitted industrial plants — could cost trillions nationwide, industry-funded studies have estimated.

“This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America, and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing,” Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement.

Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, is among those who question whether lowering ozone levels would improve public health.

“After an in-depth review of the EPA’s analysis, as well as a thorough study of the relevant scientific literature, the TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current [ozone] standard,” Honeycutt wrote in an article for the TCEQ’s October newsletter. “Why regulate something that is not really going to have a benefit?”

For instance, Honeycutt argues that ozone levels have gone down dramatically in the past two decades, but asthma diagnoses have gone up. In Texas hospitals, Honeycutt said, asthma diagnoses actually increase in the winter when ozone levels are relatively low.

Several other scientists who reviewed his article have called it a misleading effort to equate correlation and causation.

1. I’m sorry, but the TCEQ and the industries that it coddles have no credibility on this. Neither the public interest nor objective fact are the TCEQ’s concern. It may be that the EPA is being too aggressive in combating ozone, and it may be that the likely benefit of doing so is not worth what the cost will be. I’m not qualified to evaluate that. What I do know is that no one should take the TCEQ’s word for it.

2. Whichever standard is adopted – the more-lenient 65 to 70 parts per billion standard, or the stricter 60 parts per billion standard – achieving it is not going to be easy.

For Houston, once the nation’s smog capital, the announcement heralded a harsh reality: even after decades of efforts to scrub the lung-damaging pollutant from the sky, the city’s air is not clean enough to breathe safely and might never be.

“All the easy cuts have been made, and there are very few places we can go to make meaningful cuts,” said Taylor Landin, vice president of public policy for the Greater Houston Partnership, a business association. “From our perspective, it’s only fair that they would consider cost.”

[…]

For Houston to reach the proposed mark, air-quality experts said the state might need to impose tougher emissions limits for industrial permits and do more to replace older and dirtier diesel engines for trucks and cranes at the Port of Houston.

The proposed limit poses a daunting challenge for Houston, which is violating the current standard even as its best year for air quality draws to a close. The region is on track to finish 2014 at 80 parts per billion.

“To be effective, and meet this new standard, it will take great cost and effort to reduce emissions from every individual and business in the region,” said Craig Beskid, executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association.

Even environmentalists questioned whether Houston can hit the proposed target. But they said the tougher rule is worthwhile because it would reduce ozone-forming pollution blowing into the region. The EPA estimates that on the region’s smoggiest days, 40 percent of its ozone forms naturally or blows in from faraway sources.

“Would it be possible for Houston in a vacuum? I’m not sure,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, an advocacy group. “But it could be possible if the issue is tackled at a larger level.”

I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth repeating that there’s already a cost for the level of pollution that we have now. It’s just that the polluters themselves don’t bear the brunt of that cost – it gets passed on to the public, in a very uneven and unequal fashion. If the EPA’s regulations force the pollution producers to bear those costs, whether they pass them along or not that will be a more equitable situation. And it should be noted that in this case, the polluters includes everyone who drives. We are highly unlikely to meet any new standard without addressing vehicular emissions. That’s going to require some significant changes, and I don’t think we’re ready for that. Ready or not, it’s coming.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the incoming Texas governor, has sued the EPA at least 19 times. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

3. Alas for Greg Abbott, these changes will not be implemented in time for him to be anything more than a cheerleader for another lawsuit. That will fall to Ken Paxton, assuming he hasn’t resigned in disgrace by the time a suit is ready to go. Not mentioned in that statistic above is Abbott’s won-lost record versus the EPA. I don’t have an exact figure, but I’m pretty sure he lost more than he won. I’d expect Paxton or whoever gets appointed to replace him to continue that tradition. The EDF has more.

Court rules for the EPA against Texas again

Another win for the environment.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Obama administration’s new rules that for the first time limit emissions of mercury and other harmful pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In a split decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a Texas-based challenge to the regulations, saying the federal government acted reasonably to protect the environment and public health from poisonous gases and cancer-causing chemicals released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.

Developers of the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston, challenged the federal regulations, arguing that the new limits would be too burdensome and thus prevent them from securing financing for the project. Several industry groups and 22 states, including Texas, joined the fight.

But a divided three-judge panel ruled that federal law and previous court decisions do not require the Environmental Protection Agency to consider cost when imposing new regulations on electric utilities.

[…]

At the time the EPA finalized the rules in 2012, Texas was home to seven of the top 16 mercury-emitting coal plants in the nation, an Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

“There is no other state that is going to get as much public health benefit than Texas from the mercury rule,” said Al Armendariz, a former EPA official who now leads the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign in the state.

See here and here for some background. I’ve long since lost track of which lawsuit by Texas against the EPA is about what, and I don’t think I have any previous blogging on this specific case, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all of a piece, and it’s all about whether we make the polluters be responsible for their actions or we give them a free pass. The EPA counters claims that these regulations are too costly for business with evidence that the health benefits for everyone else will outweigh those costs. That will never satisfy the polluters, of course, and I presume they’ll appeal this first to the entire DC court, then to SCOTUS. It’s a nice win for now but it’s far from over. The LA Times, the DMN BizBeat blog, the Texas Green Report, and the EDF, which has a separate statement beneath the fold, have more, while Wonkblog reminds us of the disproportionate effect of industrial pollution on minority neighborhoods.

Environmental Defense Fund applauds today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., denying legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) life-saving Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Today’s court decision rejects flawed legal claims by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of the opponents of EPA’s vital clean air safeguards for our communities and families.

Attorney General Abbott has sued the federal government 31 times since 2004, needlessly costing Texan taxpayer’s nearly $4 million.

The EPA emission standards at issue establish the first nationwide emission limits on the mercury, arsenic and acid gases discharged from the U.S. fleet of existing coal- and oil-fired power plants, the single largest source of these toxic airborne contaminants.

Mercury exposure can impair the brain development of infants and young children. According to the EPA, each year more than 400,000 infants are born with elevated mercury levels in their blood, but the MATS standards will eliminate 90 percent of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants. In Texas, the rule will annually prevent up to 1,200 premature deaths, while providing between $4 billion to $9.7 billion in health benefits in 2016 and each year thereafter.

“Today’s decision comes as an unquestionable victory for Texans who care about vital clean air safeguards and protecting our most vulnerable citizens – young children and pregnant women. Rather than waste taxpayer’s money and protect the interests of big fossil fuel companies, Greg Abbott and other state leaders should champion life-saving measures that protect the health and well-being of Texans.”

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.

That pollution isn’t our fault!

You have to admire the creativity.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Harris County’s problem with tiny, lung-damaging particles in the air can be blamed partly on African dust and crop-clearing fires in Mexico, the state’s environmental agency has told federal regulators.

If the Environmental Protection Agency agrees with the state’s finding, then the county would avoid stringent pollution controls and sanctions for particulate matter, or soot.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is making the case after Harris County last December failed to meet new federal limits for soot. The EPA tightened the limits after a federal court concluded that previous standards were too weak to protect public health.

The state agency has flagged seven days from 2010 to 2012 when high soot levels were “not reasonably preventable” because of particles from faraway places. If not for pollution from Africa and Mexico, also known to regulators as “exceptional events,” the county would have met the new limits, the agency concluded.

Maybe this is what Ted Cruz is talking about when he demands tighter control over the border. Who knew he cared about the environment?

Environmentalists sharply criticized the state’s assertion, saying the agency is “looking for an easy way out” instead of cracking down on harmful pollution.

“It’s not the way to address a serious issue,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Whether the pollution comes from an exceptional event or not, the public health risk is the same.”

[…]

Larry Soward, a former state commissioner who is now board president of Air Alliance Houston, said he expects the EPA to approve the state’s request.

But Soward said he is concerned that progress on air quality would stall if federal regulators allow the exceptions.

“The practical effect will be that no one does anything to ensure the new (particulate matter) standard is met other than what is being done now, which is very little,” he said. “In other words, Houston will come to parade rest.”

The EPA isn’t expected to make its decision till late next year. All snark aside, whether or not this is a real thing shouldn’t distract from the real need to deal with the problems and factors that we do control. A bit of dust that blows in from elsewhere doesn’t change the fundamentals.

SCOTUS to hear CSAPR appeal

I’m not terribly excited about anything the Supreme Court does these days, but we’ll see about this.

Greg Abbott approves of this picture

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday to take a case that has pitted Texas against the Obama administration over a federal rule aimed at reducing air pollution that crosses state borders.

The decision comes 10 months after a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority with the new regulation, which was one of the hallmarks of the administration’s recent efforts to improve air quality.

In seeking high-court review, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued that the appeals court’s decision “hobbles the agency … where the need for a strong federal role is most critical.”

The justices accepted the EPA’s appeal of the lower court’s opinion and will hear the case in the term that begins in October.

See here, here, and here for the background. Texas, naturally, was one of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. The good news is that since the ruling went against the EPA last October, so there isn’t something for SCOTUS to knock down. But I’m sure they can find something if they want to. Hair Balls has more.

Everybody sues the EPA

The state of Texas and our pollution-loving Attorney General do it because they think the EPA does too much to protect us from harm. Some other groups do it because they think the EPA isn’t doing enough.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.

The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”

[…]

The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.

In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.

See here for the background; this was a part of then-Mayor Bill White’s plan to reduce benzene emissions in Houston. You can see a copy of the lawsuit and the notice of intent to file suit that was sent by the plaintiffs to the EPA in 2012 here. I think we can safely assume that Greg Abbott will not be filing an amicus brief for the plaintiffs on this one.

CSAPR knocked down by federal court

Score one for the polluters.

Greg Abbott approves of this picture

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in a 2-1 decision that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority with the new regulation.

Led by Texas, 14 states and several power companies challenged the legality of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which imposes caps on nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants in eastern states. Texas officials fear some utilities will shutter plants to comply with the rule, threatening the state’s ability to “keep the lights on.”

The EPA has said the rule is necessary to reduce lung-damaging pollution that causes thousands of premature deaths and respiratory illnesses each year around the power plants and in downwind states.

“This is clearly a big blow for breathers in downwind states,” said Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “The good neighbor rule is a critical component in the EPA’s strategy to ensure healthful air quality.”

See here and here for some background. The Environmental Defense Fund has a press release and anlysis of the ruling, which you can read here. Unlike the flex permits ruling, this one is a genuine setback, though though it should be noted that the court didn’t say the EPA had no authority, just that it needed to write the rules differently. While the usual pollution-enabling gang celebrates, the former head of the EPA in Texas notes that the industries who helped fight this may come to regret it.

Al Armendariz, who was the regional administrator of the EPA when the cross-state rule was finalized and now works as a senior representative from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Texas, said:

“The ruling, I think, only delays the inevitable, which is that there is going to be a transport rule that requires utilities to significantly reduce their emissions. And ironically, the judgment is critical of steps the agency took which were designed to make the rule cost-effective. And if anything, the judgment could result in EPA putting a rule forward about a year from now that requires utilities to spend more to reduce emissions than if the cross-state rule had gone into effect. So the delay is unfortunate, but ironically, I think the court’s criticism of some of the steps the [EPA] took to try to make the rule cost-effective might result in the agency moving forward with a rule that costs more to comply than the cross-state rule would have.”

Of course, that assumes an EPA that’s not been taken over by industry hacks by that time. We’re all clear on what needs to be done to prevent that, right? Texas Vox has more.

Fifth Circuit rules for EPA against Texas

It’s always a pleasure seeing our litigious Attorney General get slapped down by whatever court he’s bothering this week.

Martin Lake coal plant

In the latest turn in a saga pitting environmental regulators in Washington against those in Austin, a panel of federal judges on Friday sided with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in its effort to tamp down Texas pollution.

The state and the Business Coalition for Clean Air Appeal Group — a group that includes petroleum refiners, chemical manufacturers, electric utilities and other large industrial sources of air emissions — had argued that the EPA had acted capriciously, abused its discretion and exceeded its authority when it rejected a portion of the state’s air permitting program.

A four-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit said it did not.

The weird thing about this is that I can’t tell what lawsuit this is. I think it’s the one about the EPA’s rejection of the TCEQ’s flex permitting program, but it could be the one about the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The story doesn’t give enough detail for me to tell, and for whatever the reason it’s the only such story I can find. If it’s the former, the state and the EPA may be on the verge of a deal in which the EPA would give its approval to the TCEQ. They almost had a deal two years ago, so assume nothing is set in stone just yet. It’s also not clear what effect such a deal would have on the ongoing litigation.

In related news, the EPA also announced it would begin enforcing a stricter soot standard. In this case, the EPA was goaded into action by a lawsuit filed by states such as New York and California that were tired of waiting for the agency to implement a promised review of that provision of the Clean Air Act. This action could have an effect around here.

Harris County would be out of compliance if the EPA sets the standard at the lower end of the range or gets even tougher with the final rule, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. No other Texas county is in jeopardy of violating the limits.

[…]

Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s air quality chief, said Harris County and others should not need pollution controls beyond those current and proposed rules require.

“It is unique to put a standard out there when we are already headed in that direction,” she said of the proposed limits, which came under a court-ordered deadline.

Environmentalists, however, said the EPA’s projections for Harris County may be too rosy. The area nearly fell out of compliance because of high levels of soot along the Ship Channel in 2009.

Monitoring shows the air near along the heavily industrialized channel is getting cleaner because of new rules for idling trucks and the paving of gravel lots. The Port of Houston, meanwhile, is expecting more freight with the 2014 opening of a wider Panama Canal.

Matthew Tejada, executive director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston, said federal regulators are making a “fairly foolish assumption” because no one has looked at how the port’s expansion will impact soot levels.

“If things stay steady, we should be fine,” Tejada suggested. “But we are trying to grow a port, and nobody is asking themselves, ‘Are we building ourselves into non-attainment?’ ”

According to a recent conversation between the Chron’s editorial board and County Judge Ed Emmett, port expansion is on the menu, at least theoretically. So this is something to keep an eye on.

Matagorda smog

I feel like there are some pieces missing in this discussion.

Matagorda County, 1920s map from the General Land Office

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to add Matagorda County to the list of Texas’ smog violators because Gulf breezes that blow through the area send air pollution toward the sprawling metropolis.

Local leaders are pushing back, saying the dubious distinction would lead to stricter regulation of industry at a time when unemployment is at 11 percent in the county.

“We have two plants, and they are minute by Houston’s standards,” Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said. “We are not the problem, so do not throw us under the bus because we are in a two-county proximity.”

McDonald is asking other public officials in the region for support in his fight against the EPA. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, for one, said through a spokeswoman that the federal agency has not made a scientific case to add Matagorda County to the smog list.

The move signifies the first change in geography in the federal efforts to clean Houston’s air. The list long has included Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller counties.

[…]

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says EPA data overstates Matagorda’s emissions. Also, federal regulators cannot directly link the pollution to bad air in Houston using models of wind paths, the state agency contends.

“There is nothing we have seen that shows these emissions are contributing to ozone in Houston,” said David Brymer, the TCEQ’s air quality director. “It is just a possibility.”

Carl Young, a scientist for the EPA’s Region 6, which includes Texas, said there is “no bright line” that ties Matagorda’s emissions to Houston’s dirty air, but the “weight of evidence” suggests a connection.

The TCEQ is sufficiently Perry-ized that I don’t trust it in these matters. However, it doesn’t sound like the EPA has (if you’ll pardon the expression) a smoking gun to point to. I doubt Mayor Parker would question the evidence if it were conclusive. So, I don’t know what to make of all this right now. There is an elephant in the room that the story doesn’t being up, though, and that’s the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant in Bay City, which was approved by the TCEQ but is still on hold and recently was unable to get a contract for water. There’s no question that it would have a negative effect on Houston’s air quality. I don’t know what if anything one may have to do with the other, but I’m a little surprised it wasn’t brought up in the story. Whatever the merits of including Matagorda County on the EPA smog list now, they’re surely greater if White Stallion gets built.

Sierra Club sues over coal permits

Remember how four coal plants were granted permits to pollute more in December? You probably don’t, because it basically happened under cover of darkness. The Sierra Club found out about it and has filed a lawsuit to call a halt to it.

Martin Lake coal plant

The environmental group is appealing permit amendments approved Dec. 16 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that allow increased emissions from the plants, in East and Central Texas, during periods of planned startup, shutdown and maintenance.

The issuance of the permits is “invalid, arbitrary and unreasonable,” according to the lawsuit filed in state District Court in Travis County.

The lawsuit comes as coal plants across the state apply for permit amendments for emissions produced during startup, shutdown and maintenance, which were not previously regulated, said Ilan Levin, an environmental attorney representing the Sierra Club.

Environment commission spokesman Terry Clawson said the agency has not received the lawsuit and will not comment on it, but he said the four permits questioned in the lawsuit were issued legally.

Coal plant operators were required to apply for the amendments to authorize increased emissions by Jan. 5, 2011 . The four plants involved in the suit, all owned by the state’s largest generator, Dallas-based Luminant Generation Co., applied for higher emission ceilings and were approved in December.

“We were surprised to find out that, really, just by trolling the agency’s website, that right before the holidays, the TCEQ had issued these permits to Luminant without any public notice or any sort of opportunity at all to file some formal comments,” Levin said.

I wish I could tell you more about this, but the Sierra Club webpage has no information on the suit, and I have been unable to get a copy of it for myself. So this is all I know for now. Texas Vox also wrote about this, but they don’t have anything more than the Statesman did.

How gassy are we?

I’m talking about greenhouse gases, of course. And the answer is, now you can find out for yourself.

Martin Lake coal plant

The greenhouse gas wars are about to heat up again in Texas. Next month, a federal court hears oral arguments in lawsuits that Texas has filed to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency, which began regulating heat-trapping emissions a year ago.

The EPA is hardly backing down. On Wednesday, the agency released an easily searchable database of big greenhouse gas polluters across the nation, prompting Texas environmentalists to immediately list the largest polluters in the state. Topping the list is the 1970s-era Martin Lake coal plant (pictured) in the East Texas city of Tatum. In 2010 it emitted nearly 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, about 13 percent more than the runner-up, the W.A. Parish coal plant in Thompsons, southwest of Houston. In third place is the Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas, which narrowly avoided a shutdown when a federal appeals court issued a last-minute stay to an EPA pollution rule last month.

“This will be the first time that this data is publicly available and will inform Americans about the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in their communities,” wrote Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a blog post. Power plant data has always been available, she said, but now industries like pulp and paper and landfills must also report it.

The photo above, courtesy of Think Progress, is of the Martin Lake plant in Tatum, TX, which has the distinction of being the nation’s top mercury emitter in 2009 (click the TP link for the chart) as well as Texas’ top greenhouse gas emitter last year (the Trib has that chart). No wonder the Sierra Club has targeted it for closure. Note that the other two plants named in that report appears on each of those lists I mentioned – Texas had four of the top five mercury polluters in the country in 2009, with Martin Lake #1, Big Brown #2, and Monticello #5. And as Patricia Kilday Hart reminds us, we have Rick Perry to thank for a lot of this.

Remember in 2006, when Perry issued an executive order fast-tracking permit requests for the construction of new coal-fired power plants? (This occurred, not surprisingly, while he was accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from power and coal interests.)

Back then, Perry predicted the new plants would be an economic boon. Well, yes, says one of his toughest critics, Environmental Defense Fund attorney James Marston.

Wyoming, Marston says, sends rail cars full of coal south to Texas power plants, and we refill them with cash and send them home. To the tune of $1.9 billion a year. This, at a time when Texas is awash in cheap natural gas, a cleaner alternative for the production of electricity.

[…]

Meanwhile, Marston said, Perry’s policies in Texas mean “we have dirtier air and we’re sending money to Wyoming. Both were avoidable if we had better leadership and better vision.”

And about the promise that coal plants would create new jobs? We were hoodwinked. According to a national study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, proponents claimed the $2.3 billion Oak Grove project in Texas’ Robertson County would produce 2,400 construction jobs. But total construction employment for the entire county increased by only 329 during the peak construction year, the researchers found.

Similarly, in Milam County, the construction of the Sandow project was supposed to produce 1,370 jobs, but only 463 positions materialized.

The researchers concluded: “These findings strongly suggest that the economic development argument for coal plants is relatively weak, especially when compared to the job creation potential of alternative means of addressing demand for power.”

And yet Perry and his henchman Greg Abbott keep up their crusade to let these polluters have free rein. It’s clear whose interests they have in mind.

Even in the absence of enforcement, publishing these data may have a positive effect, as Brad Plumer notes.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, compared the new greenhouse-gas reporting law to the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a database that was passed by Congress back in 1986 to measure and publicize the release of more than 320 toxic chemicals from industrial facilities around the country. “[The TRI] had a tremendous impact in terms of providing opportunities for reduction, and we’re really hoping this information will do the same,” McCarthy said. And, in fact, a variety of analyses suggest she might be onto something.

One recent book, “Coming Clean: Information Disclosure and Environmental Performance” charts the impacts that the Toxics Release Inventory had on polluters. As Mark Stephan, a professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, explained to me, he and his co-authors conducted interviews with a variety of companies about their responses to the new public database. Many companies didn’t even realize they were spewing out so much pollution until forced to start keeping records. And that proved to be a big deal.

For instance, when the inventory was first disclosed in 1987, Monsanto executives realized that the company was one of the largest emitters in the country and pledged to reduce its toxic air releases 90 percent by 1992. This wasn’t in response to any new laws — Monsanto wasn’t legally required to do anything. The company was simply reacting to public information. Stephan adds that many other companies soon followed suit, in response to a fusillade of newspaper stories about toxic waste and pressure from community groups and local environmentalists.

That’s good news, but I have a feeling we’re going to need more than just bad publicity to get some real action around here. Still, forewarned is forearmed. At least we know what we’re up against.

Valero will not appeal tax break decision

Good.

Valero Energy Corp. has decided not to appeal the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s rejection of its request for a controversial property tax exemption.

[…]

Valero spokesman Bill Day said the company no longer would seek the exemption because it had reached agreements with appraisal districts for lower valuations on their refineries in all but one county where the company operates. Negotiations are ongoing with Moore County, Day said.

See here, here, and here for the background. One less thing to have to worry about this year, but the Lege still needs to address this going forward.

It’s hard to get beyond coal

The city of Austin is trying, but there are many obstacles along the way.

Fayette County coal plant at dusk

In Austin politics, it’s almost an article of faith that the city must aggressively curb its contribution to global climate change, regardless of what transpires across the rest of the country. That philosophy has led environmentalists to target the Fayette Power Project, a coal-burning plant 83 miles east of downtown Austin.

The plant’s fate is sure to be among the city’s most hotly debated political topics this year. A major rate increase for Austin Energy customers is coming regardless of what the utility does with Fayette, and Republican legislators already skeptical of Austin-style environmentalism have indicated they would not look kindly on additional increases.

But after failing to persuade Congress to enact coal restrictions in recent years, the Sierra Club has focused its lobbying efforts on local decision-makers — a change that includes targeting Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell won environmental plaudits when he pledged to move Austin off coal during his re-election campaign kickoff in November. Other council members have also committed to the idea in the abstract. But their statements are carefully parsed, and they have avoided committing to a time frame, particularly the 2016 date sought by the Sierra Club.

Many details — most notably the cost to the average customer — will probably remain murky until Austin Energy finishes a comprehensive study next fall.

But ahead of the heated debate that is sure to come, another question has emerged: How environmentally ambitious should Austin be?

Should activists push Austin Energy to shut Fayette down? Should they push for the city to sell? Should the city stick with a plan already in place to begin weaning Austin off coal over the next decade?

All of those plans have advantages — and significant drawbacks.

That picture is of the Fayette Power Project, which you’ve seen if you’ve driven along Highway 71. Part of the problem is that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which jointly owns the FPP along with Austin Energy, plans to continue to use it even if Austin Energy pulls out, meaning that just getting Austin weaned off coal won’t actually reduce coal consumption. It’s cheap energy, so someone will buy it if Austin won’t, and Austin will need to figure out how to pay for energy sources that are more expensive, at least for the foreseeable future. There are legal issues as well, not to mention the possibility of legislative meddling. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, one at which I hope they succeed, but the path forward is long and unclear.

CSAPR stayed

This is what the Ship Channel looked like in 1973 (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

There was some bad news at the end of the year.

A federal court ordered [last] Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial cross-state air pollution rule be stayed — to the delight of Texas officials and the chagrin of environmentalists.

The rule, which sought to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Texas and 26 other states, had been scheduled to take effect in January. Now it will await a ruling by the court on its legal merits.

[…]

Luminant, a Texas power-generation giant, said that it would no longer shutter two units at its Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas. Luminant “intends to continue closely evaluating business and operational decisions given that this stay does not invalidate the rule, but delays a decision on its implementation until a final court ruling is issued,” the company’s statement said.

Environmentalists, who have been trying to shutter Monticello for years, are disappointed with the decision.

In a blog post, the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk wrote:

“If the rules get pushed back past the beginning of ozone season, it means all those dirty Luminant plants upwind of [Dallas Fort-Worth] in East and Central Texas will still be contributing a significant amount of smog pollution to the Metromess a year after our worst ozone summer in five years spotlighted state ineptitude in getting cleaner air.”

Needless to say, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott cheered this on and vowed to continue the fight to let polluters do whatever they want. The point of this rule is the very simple recognition that air pollution created in one state can and does travel to other states. Having grown up across the river from New Jersey’s manufacturing plants – you know, all that stuff Tony Soprano drives past on the Turnpike – I can personally attest to this. For that matter, we’ve seen this movie before right here in Texas, with the Midlothian cement plants and their deleterious effect on the air quality in neighboring Dallas and Tarrant Counties. You’d think it would be self-evident that those who create the problems would be held accountable for the cost they impose on others – this is the sort of concept we generally teach our children, after all – but not to Rick Perry and Greg Abbott. Perhaps someone should remind them what America looked like before the EPA came into existence. That’s where they’d like to take us again, and that’s why this is a big deal.

I emailed Jennifer Powis, who is running the Beyond Coal campaign here in Houston, for a reaction to this story. This is her reply:

It was very unfortunate and puts at risk air that millions of people breath. Texas has some of the worst air in the nation (I’ve attached a fact sheet above for you), and most of that pollution is generated by the 2,000 industrial facilities in our state. But at the same time, air pollution doesn’t stop at a state line and much of Eastern Texas is impacted by industrial emissions from Louisiana. Without a cohesive plan that forces states to be a “good neighbor,” we’ll continue to have problems with cleaning up the air we all breath.

There’s no doubt Texas has major air pollution problems and much of the blame lies with Governor Perry’s appointees over at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. But at the same time, this rule would have helped our state tremendously because it would have leveled the playing field for most of the Eastern states.

But don’t worry, this rule will eventually prevail. States across the nation need it in order to comply with basic clean air act provisions. Folks do a lot locally, but you also have to help out your neighbor. We’re one nation, and the clean air act recognizes that important fact.

The aformentioned fact sheet can be seen here. When you take that next deep breath of sweet chemical emissions from Louisiana, you know who to thank for it.

TCEQ denies Valero tax break

Good.

Texas environmental regulators have rejected Valero Energy Corp.’s request for a tax break that cities, counties and school districts feared would lead to devastating cuts to their budgets.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality denied the request because the San Antonio-based oil giant could not show an environmental benefit at its six Texas refineries from the equipment at the center of its application for the tax break.

Texas law provides property tax exemptions for equipment that reduces pollution at the refinery. Valero, however, sought a tax break for hydrotreaters, which are used to produce low-sulfur fuels. In this case, the lower emissions come at the tailpipe.

If TCEQ had granted the exemption, Valero stood to gain up to $130 million a year in property tax relief from cities, counties and school districts, officials said. The company earned $1.2 billion in profits for the most recent quarter, its best quarterly results in four years.

“It’s a nice Christmas gift to many cities, counties and school districts around the state that would have had to shell out millions to a rich oil company,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Justice and logic can still prevail in the state of Texas.”

See here and here for some background. TCEQ had denied this request once before but reviewed it again at the urging of three of its commissioners. I’m glad to see that wasn’t enough to change their minds. Valero has 20 days to file an appeal, but hopefully this will be the end of it. It would be nice if the next Legislature closed this potential loophole once and for all. Hair Balls has more, and a statement from Sens. Rodney Ellis and Wendy Davis is beneath the fold.

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