House Select Committee on Federal Environmental Regulation meets

Tuesday was the first meeting of the Texas Houston of Representatives Select Committee on Federal Environmental Regulation. This interim committee was convened to give Texas lawmakers an opportunity to review and opine on federal regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under president Obama.

Texas’ ideological battles against this president and his EPA are no secret. Beginning under the Governor Perry Administration with then Attorney General Greg Abbot, Texas has filed a series of costly and ill-conceived lawsuits against the federal government on everything from climate change to the new ozone air pollution standard. All of these suits are a waste of taxpayer money and most of them have been unsuccessful. We think Texas could better spend its resources complying with federal regulations and investing in strategies to protect Texans from air pollution and its health effects.

At Air Alliance Houston we are fortunate to have long serving Houston Representative Jessica Farrar serve on our board of directors. I personally worked as Environmental Director for Rep. Farrar during the 82nd legislative session and still serve as an environmental advisory to her. I went to Austin yesterday to observe the committee hearing and assist Representative Farrar.

Testimony was invited from Dr. Bryan Shaw with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Brian Lloyd with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, and Warren Lasher with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Dr. Shaw present to the committee nine issues related to recent federal actions or issues.

1. The Clean Power Plan. The EPA’s signature climate change rule limiting greenhouse gas emission from power generation, was recently stayed by the Supreme Court. Opposition to the Clean Power Plan seems to have been the primary reason for this committee’s formation. With the future of the Clean Power Plan uncertain, TCEQ has stopped working on a state-level plan and Texas is counting on the success of its litigation against the EPA.

2. Regional Haze. This rule will limit power plan emissions in order to protect scenic views–including at Big Bend National Park. Texas’ state plan to decrease regional haze was rejected by the EPA, which imposed its own plan in January. State lawmakers are skeptical of the plan and its premise that power plant emissions in East Texas could impair visibility across the state in Big Bend.

3. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. This rule will limit one state’s contribution to air pollution in neighboring states. Texas sends more air pollution into its neighbor states then those states send in return. Nevertheless, the state is currently meeting its budgets under this rule.

4. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. This rule will limit harmful emissions of toxic air polltutants including mercury, which has been linked to elevated autism rates near power plants. The rule was remanded by the Supreme Courts to the lower courts for failure to conduct a cost/benefit analysis at the appropriate time. A portion of the rulemaking controlling hazardous air pollutants at electric generating units is currently being implemented, with a compliance deadline this April.

5. The Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continues to doubt ozone science and even goes so far as to question the link between ozone and asthma. We have written much about this misguided position elsewhere.

6. The Oil and Gas Methane Rule. This rule will limit methane emissions from several source categories, including well pads. Texas lawmakers expressed concern that methane could not be economically captured at many well sites. Methane’s role as the largest contributor to climate change after CO2 was not discussed.

7. Sulfur Dioxide National Ambient Air Quality Standard. The new federal pollution standard for sulfur dioxide was established in 2010 at a one-hour average concentration of 75 parts per billion. Implementation of that standard is ongoing.

8. Coal Ash disposal. Coal ash is a waste product of the coal burning industry. Coal ash stored in open ponds is a major environmental concern, although only two such ponds exist in Texas. Much of our locally produced coal ash is put to a “beneficial use” of inclusion in road beds.

9. Waters of the United States. This rule is intended to more clearly define the jurisdictional boundaries of the Clean Water Act by, in part, identifying what qualifies as a wetland. The TCEQ anticipates that this rule change will lead to more jurisdictional findings of wetlands.

 

The general theme of the hearing was, predictably, Texas versus the EPA. TCEQ Chairman Shaw was skeptical or even hostile to most rules. One legilsator stated that “There’s a federal agenda” that amounts to an “Assault on coal.”

While we agree that the future for coal is dim, this has more to do with the economic and public safety realities of coal use than any secret federal agenda. Cheap natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal that provides a reliable base load for our power needs. Today Texas gets 53% of its energy from natural gas, versus 26% from coal (wind and nuclear power round out that list with 10% each, with another 1% from other small sources).

For our part, Air Alliance Houston is not sorry to see the future of the energy market spelling an obvious end to coal. Coal is dirty and inefficient, and in contributes to what amounts to a public health crises around air pollution exposure in Texas and the rest of the nation. We recognize the role that natural gas playes in the transition away from coal, though ultimately we believe our nation’s energy needs will be met with renewable sources.

With coal’s future in mind, the Select Committee on Federal Environmental Regulation positioned itself in defense of coal and coal companies. Some lawmakers on the committee did do their part to insert into the conversation the public health and environmental benefits of these important federal rules. To that end, we want to thank Representatives Jessica Farrar, Gene Wu, and Eddie Rodriguez in particular.