updated 9:52 PM EDT, Mar 26, 2015
A+ A A-

Is the Recent Recession to Blame for Dirty Texas Air?

Peter Malof

DALLAS - As November marks the end of the ozone season, Texas officials and environmentalists are busy analyzing trends in the state's air quality - and they're drawing starkly different conclusions.

Every few years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has to convince the feds that the state has a plan for complying with evolving air standards - standards that some regions have consistently failed to meet. Jim Schermbeck, director of the citizen action group Downwinders at Risk, says one problem with the state's current strategy is that it overemphasizes transportation-related pollution.

"It was never about the cement plants, or the coal plants. It's about cars, cars, cars. And you see this in the way they lay the blame, and you also see it in the way they're approaching the fee problem - to collect for pollution-control measures - [they're] letting drivers pay for that."

The state is asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to waive tens of millions of dollars in annual penalties imposed on Texas oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industries for noncompliance. The fines are supposed to be used for reducing emissions from commercial transportation sources. The TCEQ argues that other transportation taxes and fees can adequately make up for the industry penalties.

Supporters of the Texas strategy say the recession is partly to blame for any backsliding in air quality. That's because the TCEQ's latest plan counted on more consumers buying newer, cleaner cars. Schermbeck thinks the Perry administration wants to protect industry interests at the expense of air quality, and that the state is not keeping up with changing times. For example, he says, the TCEQ has largely ignored the impact of the recent "fracking" boom.

"In the past, plans have dealt with traditional smokestack industries. Now there's a new source, and that's the natural gas plays in north Texas and south Texas. Those gas emissions are having an impact that's not being calculated very well by the state."

The TCEQ refutes studies indicating that fracking chemicals and practices may be harming air quality, although Schermbeck says the commission is relying on internal models and discounting independent studies. He wants the EPA to be more rigorous about challenging the effectiveness of any state air-quality plan before authorizing it.

See TCEQ regional data at here.