EPA-bashing has become commonplace in the Republican primary debates, but none of the candidates can match Governor Rick Perry’s track record for pushing back against federal pollution regulations. Texas currently has more than a dozen outstanding lawsuits against the EPA, most of them focused on new air pollution rules handed down under the Obama administration. In the December issue, senior editor Nate Blakeslee takes a look at both the politics and the policy driving the state’s war on the EPA.
Why has Texas taken the lead in fighting new EPA air pollution regulations?
New air pollution regulations affect Texas more than most states because we have so much heavy industry here. We refine about a quarter of the nation’s gasoline, for example, and we have a large concentration of chemical plants on the Gulf Coast. These are industries that generate a great deal of air pollution. They also employ a great many people, so when representatives of industry come to Texas public officials complaining about new regulations, they have a receptive audience. Obama’s EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, has also found fault with the way Texas has historically enforced the Clean Air Act. In fact, the Bush administration also questioned the legality of a least one major permitting program, but never took decisive action to force the state to make changes. The new administration, by contrast, has been quite proactive.
Why is coal at the heart of so many controversies right now?
Texas gets about 40 percent of its electricity from burning coal, which is the dirtiest fuel choice for a power plant. (Natural gas, which is abundant in Texas, burns much cleaner.) Some coal plants emit much more pollution than others, however. Texas has a handful of old plants in East Texas that were largely exempted from the Clean Air Act at the time of its passage, and thus have never been required to install the latest in pollution control technologies. The company that owns the plants, Luminant, has the most to lose from one particular new air pollution rule, and has been very active in fighting implementation, as I reported in the story.
Has air pollution become a partisan issue?
Not in the way you might think. Most metropolitan areas in Texas struggle with smog. The public health impacts—like exacerbating childhood asthma, which has become epidemic in recent years—are enormous. Yet air pollution also threatens economic development: the federal government will withhold highway money to cities that fail to bring pollution levels into compliance. This has made most big city mayors—Democrats and Republicans alike—de facto environmentalists. When TXU announced a plan to build eleven new coal-fired power plants in 2006, for example, mayors across the state lined up against the company. At the same time, however, the argument by Governor Perry and other Republican presidential candidates that overreaching by federal regulators is threatening to kill jobs during a recession has struck a chord with some independent voters—and has the Obama administration worried enough to delay implantation of some rules until after the election.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
I think there is a story to be written about the ongoing war not between industry and federal regulators, but between the coal industry and the natural gas industry over which will become the fuel of choice for the next generation of power plants in Texas and around the country. Gas production is booming, but that has meant a decline in prices. The only way to get profits back up is to increase demand for gas, which means every new coal plant permitted is a lost opportunity from the perspective of gas producers. So you see gas companies quietly working with environmentalists who oppose coal. Then you have the electricity generators, who own both coal and gas plants and don’t want to see either fuel squeezed out by the other. It should be an interesting few years ahead in both businesses.