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Texas proposes changes to air-permitting program

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EPA still appears unlikely to sign off on states's flexible emissions limits.

By Asher Price
Austin American-Statesman

In a standoff between state and federal environmental authorities on how to regulate air polluters, the state appears to have blinked - or at least winked.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday proposed changing its rules on a controversial permitting program that determines how much some refineries and power plants are allowed to pollute.

The proposed changes would bar a company from leaning on state rules to circumvent federal regulations; companies also would be required to maintain stricter records and monitoring of equipment.

Regulating air pollution has been a flash point between Texas and Washington since President Barack Obama took office. Gov. Rick Perry has said repeatedly that more stringent environmental laws will harm the economy, and the state environmental agency - whose three commissioners were appointed by Perry - has made similar arguments.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has said the state's air-permitting program is too lax. EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz had threatened to toss out about 40 permits, known as flexible permits, if the state agency did not make significant changes to its program by the end of the month.

The EPA may still do that. The proposed changes would not take effect for months - a public comment period about the proposals runs July 2 through Aug. 2.

Armendariz, moreover, has sounded lukewarm about allowing the state to keep its flexible permitting program, which sets overall emissions caps for facilities, rather than particular limits on emissions from a single boiler.

"Today's action by TCEQ will take many months for the state to complete," said Joe Hubbard, a spokesman for the Dallas office of the EPA. "It may or may not establish a new flexible permit program in Texas at a future date."

The EPA's rejection of the air-permitting program could have enormous consequences for industry, and Gretchen Fox, a spokeswoman for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said her group had been working with commission officials to salvage the flexible permitting program.

If the flexible permits are thrown out, a facility's individual emissions sources - a refinery unit, for example, or a boiler at a power plant - might be held to more stringent standards, rather than older, more lax standards when they first received a permit.

The recipients of the laxer permits are mostly along the Gulf Coast, but the Lower Colorado River Authority received such a permit for its coal-fired Fayette power plant.

Wednesday's action capped a half-week of further posturing between the two sides. On Monday, the state attorney general filed suit to prevent a takeover of another portion of Texas' air-permitting program. On Tuesday, the EPA took over the air permits for two facilities in Texas.

Commission Chairman Bryan Shaw said the air-permitting program works, pointing to declining smog levels in the state. He said the proposals are "more clarifying than making changes" to convince the EPA that the program works.

Larry Soward, a former commissioner who now is a consultant for Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group, said the state agency "appears to be making an effort in these proposals to try to address some very specific concerns EPA has raised, and hoping the whole issue will get resolved." He said he had not had the chance to read in full the proposed changes, more than 100 pages long.

"They're hoping flexible permits won't go away as along as they tighten some things," Soward said. "This could be an amicable solution."

asherprice@stateman.com; 445-3643

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