Climate

Environmental Groups Want The EPA To Take Over Environmental Enforcement In Texas

CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal at NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station in Thompsons, Texas.

The conservative state of Texas has for years scaled back its pollution laws as it sought to keep a business-friendly atmosphere, all to the dismay of environmentalists. Now, two environmental groups are pushing back against the state.

Claiming Texas has made it unlawfully burdensome for people to challenge industry polluters, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Caddo Lake Institute formally asked the federal government to take over permitting responsibilities involving air emissions and water discharges in the state. The groups say that recent Texas laws make the state non-compliant with federal standards.

Last year Texas passed Senate Bill 709, which limited the public’s ability to participate in and and challenge permitting processes affecting air and water quality. Environmentalists have questioned the law to no avail, saying it goes against the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act’s thresholds. For its part, the letter claims that Texas laws limit the public’s right to judicial review of the state Commission of Environmental Quality, reduce public participation, and provide insufficient resources and enforcement of federal pollution laws.

The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are federal pollution rules that are mostly enforced by the states. In upholding these acts, a state gets funding and also oversight that it otherwise would give to the federal government. Experts reached said the groups’ recent move isn’t surprising.

“I can understand why [environmentalists] are calling for this,” said Craig Oren, a professor at Rutgers Law School. “There is I think some disconnect in some circles on how Texas is carrying out these programs.”

Experts reached also noted that Texas, and many other states, have for years tried to pare back how much the public can challenge or be involved in an environmental permitting process. In fact, the EPA scolded North Carolina last October for a similar reason, according to published reports, and warned that it could take away the state’s authority to regulate air and water permits.

But whether the EPA would actually take so many responsibilities from a state as big as Texas doesn’t seem likely to some experts — although similar actions have happened, albeit on a lesser scale. In the 1970s, California lost some powers regarding vehicle emissions, said Oren.

Moreover, in 2011 Texas lost some authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, said Victor Flatt, professor of environmental law at University of North Carolina School of Law. He explained the EPA could decide to challenge some of the Texas laws, but that would involve the courts.

Still, Oren said the chances that the EPA will do as much as environmentalists want are low. “The reason is that the EPA does not have the resources to run programs in a state as large as Texas,” he said.

The Texas Tribune reported earlier this week that the EPA said it was unaware of deficiencies in Texas-delegated environmental programs, but that it would review the letter. Flatt said this could take at least 60 days. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was also quoted as saying it meets the federal requirements and expects the EPA to reject the petition.

Meanwhile, power plants, cement factories, refineries and other Texas facilities emit far more ozone-causing pollutants than they do in any other state, according to a 2015 Center for Public Integrity analysis of EPA data. The Lone Star state, which is challenging the Clean Power Plan, is also the second-biggest water polluter in the country, according to a 2014 Environment Texas report.