A smoggy Houston skyline. (Trey Hill)
The litany of unpleasant facts about the state’s environment is a familiar one: Texas leads the nation in emissions of greenhouse gases and mercury. Houston and Dallas are among the smoggiest cities in the nation. Childhood asthma is reaching epidemic proportions in urban areas. Nineteen counties currently fail to meet federal air-quality standards.
It is worth pointing out that such tallies sometimes reflect a perplexing lack of context: Texas is a large and populous state, with lots of power plants and vehicles. We refine nearly a quarter of all the gasoline used in the country. If every state made its own gasoline and vinyl chloride instead of buying it from us, we’d be much farther down on some of these lists.
Alas, that is a pretty meager caveat compared with the reality that is our state’s environmental record. The truth is that Texas deserves its national reputation as a place where business comes first—and public health and environmental concerns come in a distant second. The budget of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s main regulator of industrial pollution, has been cut by 30 percent since 2008. At times, Governor Perry’s fight against environmental regulation seems almost like a point of state pride for him, as though the Alamo were an old revered coal plant. In 2009, when Lisa Jackson, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced that greenhouse gases would be regulated under the Clean Air Act, Texas was the only state that refused to comply. In fact, Texas sued the federal government. “This legal action is being taken to protect the Texas economy and the jobs that go with it, as well as defend Texas’s freedom to continue our successful environmental strategies free from federal overreach,” Perry said at a press conference in February 2010.
That was just one of eighteen suits Texas filed against the EPA during Perry’s tenure, a track record that seems aimed as much at garnering national support for his presidential ambitions—fighting off “Washington bureaucrats”—as it is at shoring up support from the industries that matter in Texas. Perry is nothing if not politically savvy, but he has at times seemed shockingly unaware of which way the wind was blowing on air pollution. In 2006 he issued an executive order directing the TCEQ to fast-track approval of new power plants. That paved the way for TXU (now known as Energy Future Holdings) to propose the construction of eleven coal-fired power plants, which are most associated with smog-producing ozone. The backlash came swiftly from prominent Republicans like real estate mogul Trammell Crow; Perry’s pro-industry instincts kept him from noticing that concern about air pollution had gone mainstream while he wasn’t looking. A state judge ruled that Perry had overstepped his authority, and TXU’s plan eventually died. It soon became evident that natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, was the energy of the future in Texas, and TXU found itself struggling to keep open the coal plants it already owned—especially the old, heavily polluting East Texas plants that couldn’t meet new federal regulations.
Perry’s tenure has had some bright spots. His appointments to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission have generally been sound, and commissioners have found a good administrator in executive director Carter Smith, who has done his best to run an agency starved of cash by massive budget cuts after the 2008 recession. Texas has also become the nation’s leading producer of wind-powered electricity under Perry, though that process was set in motion under George W. Bush and continues to rely heavily on federal subsidies. Given the opportunity to usher in a similar revolution in solar energy in Texas, Perry and his appointees at the Public Utility Commission have largely sat idle.
The same cannot be said for Bryan Shaw, whom Perry appointed to the TCEQ in 2007 and who became its chairman in 2009. Shaw has been nothing if not hands-on in his role as the state’s putative environmental watchdog. A climate-change skeptic (like Perry himself), Shaw has at times made a mockery of his agency’s own permitting process, overruling staff decisions when industrial applicants come out on the losing side.
A pair of recent reports tells the story as well as any longer analysis could. The official position of the TCEQ is that increased oil and gas drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale and elsewhere in the state has had no significant impact on air pollution in Texas cities. A San Antonio–area planning organization studying the issue with a grant from the TCEQ found otherwise—and had the temerity to announce those findings to the press before sharing them with the TCEQ. The agency’s response? Freeze the group’s funding.
More recently, TCEQ staff raised eyebrows by joining oil and gas industry officials in publicly attacking a peer-reviewed University of California study linking long-term exposure to ozone with an increased chance of early death. The EPA was collecting comments on a proposed new rule to tighten ozone standards nationwide, most of which, predictably, were from the industries most affected by the change. Among them was this statement from TCEQ executive director Richard A. Hyde: “The available evidence does not support a consistent association between ozone exposure and mortality.” As the Dallas Morning News pointed out, Hyde was the only state environmental official in the nation to question the link; it was like a game of “one of these things is not like the other.”
After years of finding himself steamrolled by Shaw, former TCEQ commissioner Larry Soward became an outspoken critic of the agency’s decision-making during Perry’s tenure, despite having been a Perry appointee. He was asked during Perry’s 2012 presidential run how the EPA would be affected if Perry reached the White House. Soward replied, “Just look at the TCEQ.” For a state that prides itself on its connection to the land and its wide-open spaces, Texas deserves better.
Change in the TCEQ budget since 2008: -30%