Texas Gov. Rick Perry cites partly cloudy statistics to back up his boast that Texas is doing just fine cleaning its air on its own — without the EPA.
- Perry boasts that “we cleaned up our air in Texas more than any other state, during the decade of the 2000s.” But that’s based on homemade statistics compiled by Texas officials, who only counted measures from Houston and Dallas and left out cities where there was less improvement. State officials say their method is “scientifically defensible,” but EPA and environmental groups disagree.
- While no one debates that Texas made significant strides in the 2000s, it’s also true that with some of the nation’s worst air quality, it had a lot of room to improve. And despite its gains, Texas’ air still ranks among the most polluted in the U.S. in a number of categories.
- Perry said that in Texas, “we lowered our nitrogen oxide levels by 58 percent.” But that’s counting only “point source” emissions, largely from industrial and power plants. Total nitrogen oxide emissions — including those from “mobile sources,” such as cars — have been reduced by a far more modest 16 percent in Texas, according to EPA calculations. That overall reduction is lower than the national average.
Perry has cultivated an adversarial relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency going all the way back to his days as Texas’ agriculture commissioner. Perry contends the “mandates and overreaching regulation” of the EPA cost Texas jobs and that Texas is better equipped to tackle air quality issues than “a centralized, all-knowing, one-size-fits-all federal government.” And, he says, Texas has done just fine cleaning up its air without the EPA’s interference (a claim many environmental groups in Texas contest).
One of Perry’s most heated battles with the EPA is over global warming and the Obama administration’s use of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s many oil refineries and power plants. Perry is skeptical of scientists who say global warming is a man-made problem. Tensions reached a boil when, earlier this year, the EPA announced it was taking over control of the greenhouse gas permitting in Texas because the state refused to implement its rules. Texas has led several other states in a legal challenge to the global warming regulations. The issue is still pending in federal court.
At a town hall event in Derry, N.H., on Sept. 30., an audience member asked about global warming, and Perry repeated his skepticism and defended Texas’ environmental record:
Perry: And we in Texas have addressed this. You realize that we cleaned up our air in Texas more than any other state, Mike, during the decade of the 2000s.
The audience member then suggested that was due to EPA regulations.
Perry: No, it wasn’t the EPA regulations. As a matter of fact, they tried to come into Texas after we cleaned up our air and take it over and what they’ll do is just kill a bunch of jobs and won’t clean up the air at all.
We lowered our ozone levels by 27 percent during the decade of the 2000s and we lowered our nitrogen oxide levels by 58 percent.
Did Texas really outpace all other states in cleaning up air pollution, and do it in spite of the EPA? Did Perry really cut nitrogen oxide by 58 percent? Here we look at Perry’s claims one at a time.
Texas Tops in Cleaning Its Air?
Let’s start with Perry’s claim that Texas cleaned up its air more than any other state during the decade of the 2000s.
This claim is based on a report, “Texas Air Quality Successes,” from the state government’s Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which said that Texas lowered its ozone levels by 27 percent.
TCEQ report: From 2000 to 2010, ozone levels in Texas have decreased by 27 percent statewide. By comparison, the rest of the nation averaged only a 14 percent decrease in ozone levels over this same time period.
This is a TCEQ custom-made statistic that may not mean what you think it does. The EPA doesn’t report air quality at the state-wide level. Rather, it uses more localized measures to track ozone levels, relying on a series of monitors placed around various metropolitan areas.
The TCEQ did not attempt to calculate some state average and compare it with other states. Among all the monitors in the state, it selected the one with the fourth-highest eight-hour ozone concentration. It was then averaged with the fourth-highest monitor values from two previous years. That then became Texas’ statewide value. All of the monitors ended up coming from either Houston or Dallas, TCEQ officials said. That value was then compared with an average of fourth-highest monitor values from the beginning of the decade, and ultimately with other states using the same methodology.
According to this TCEQ measure, Texas reduced its ozone level by 27 percent over the 2000s, second only to Georgia.
“It’s apples to apples and scientifically defensible,” Steve Davis, manager of TCEQ’s air modeling and data analysis section, told us.
But EPA and several environmental groups disagree.
“They are averaging across monitors over the 3-year period,” EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones stated via email. “Specifically, they picked the highest 4th max for each year (among all ozone monitors in Texas) and then averaged those values.”
“That method is inconsistent with the data handling specified in the ozone rule (40 Code of Federal Regulations Part 50 Appendix P) which specifies calculations should be done on a per site basis,” Jones said.
Why does that matter? Jones said: “If you use the monitor with the highest … value in the state (in Houston), the percent change is 23 percent — which isn’t very different from 27 percent — but using the highest 4th maximum does ignore the ‘lesser improvements’ in other cities. Dallas (16 percent), Beaumont (15 percent), and San Antonio (12 percent).”
In other words, by TCEQ’s measure, marked improvement in one particularly bad site could represent the entire statewide picture.
Again, the EPA reports data on a more localized basis. And between 1990 and 2009, 12 counties in six other states had reduced ozone levels by a greater percentage than Harris County (home to Houston).
Perry’s time in office also coincides with “catch-up” years following a decade of relative inactivity immediately after major amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed in 1990. As a result, some of the improvements seen during the 2000s may seem more impressive compared with other states that improved more consistently over the entirety of the past 20 years.
“We think when you look at a longer time period, it shows that for a long while, Texas was dragging its feet,” said Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist in the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund.
58 Percent Reduction in Nitrogen Oxide?
This is based, again, on a report from the TCEQ.
TCEQ report: Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), a main precursor to ozone formation, decreased substantially in Texas from 2000 to 2009. Point source NOx emissions were reduced from 796,247 tons per year (TPY) in 2000 to 336,417 TPY in 2009, a decrease of 57.75 percent.
The TCEQ report includes an important caveat, however, that Perry did not. This figure relates to “point source” nitrogen oxide emissions. That’s largely the emissions from industrial plants and power plants. And that’s only part of the story when it comes to nitrogen oxide emissions. The other big piece is emissions from “mobile sources,” like cars.
TCEQ says it uses the “point source” emissions data because the federal government is largely responsible for tailpipe emissions standards.
“It’s one measure,” said Alvarez of EDF. “The state has more control over that [point source emissions] than other sources. But in terms of air quality, the important thing is what are the total emissions that lead to air pollution.”
According to the EPA, when you look at overall nitrogen oxide emissions from 1999 (1,865,721 tons) to 2008 (1,558,204 tons ), that’s a 16 percent reduction — far lower than the 58 percent figure cited by Perry.
And again, Perry uses the decade of the 2000s as his yardstick.
Even when isolating power plant or industrial emissions of nitrogen oxide, Texas’ progress compared with other states is far less impressive when considered over a longer period of time. Backing up just a few years to look at the picture between 1996 and 2009, for example, nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Texas decreased 64 percent, according to an EDF report compiled from EPA Clean Air Market Data. But that was less than the national average, 66 percent.
The picture gets even worse for Texas when you look at nitrogen oxide emissions from all sources. According to EPA data, between 1996 and 2008, nitrogen oxide emissions from all sources in Texas decreased 24 percent. The national average was 34 percent. And Texas ranked 40th among states.
And in 2009, Texas still ranked as the No. 1 emitter of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds.
Even according to the yearly values used by TCEQ, Texas ranked fourth-highest in ozone levels in 2010 behind California, Maryland and Utah.
“This calculation does not nullify by any means the overall 10-year trends data and conclusion – Texas has reduced ozone by 27 percent between 2000 and 2010,” said Terry Clawson, a spokesman for TCEQ. “It should be noted that higher ozone concentrations are usually associated with major population centers and/or industrial areas. Both the Dallas and Houston areas in Texas have made substantial progress in meeting national ambient air quality standards even with increasing populations and positive economic trends and job growth.”
As for Perry’s claim that Texas’ progress has nothing to do with the EPA, that is a matter of intense debate between state government officials and environmental groups.
State officials point to a host of actions initiated by the state that they say drove Texas’ improvements during the 2000s, when Perry took over as governor. Clawson said Texas did a lot of its own research on ozone formation and attacked the problem in new and inventive ways. Among them: a Mass Emission Cap and Trade program for nitrogen oxide in the Houston area (which it claims reduced emissions caps for thousands of sources by about 80 percent); a new comprehensive set of rules for the Dallas-Fort Worth area requiring nitrogen oxide reductions from cement kilns, power plants, industrial sites and stationary engines used in the oil and gas industry; and new rules for enhanced monitoring of testing of flares, cooling towers and other sources of highly reactive volatile organic compounds known to cause rapid formation of ozone.
If those state efforts weren’t working, Clawson said, “then why did we do so much better than everyone else?”
The answer, several officials from Texas environmental groups argue, is that Texas has not done much better than other states, when one looks at the last 20 years. And any progress made during the 2000s, they say, was a response EPA regulations, or from lawsuits against polluters by the EPA and citizen groups.
The Environmental Defense Fund provided a list of 18 consent decree settlements between EPA and a host of Texas facilities, all entered between 2001 and the end of 2007, and resulting in the reduction of nearly 22,000 tons of nitrogen oxide (all of which can be confirmed on the EPA website). In addition, the federal government has enacted tighter tailpipe emissions standards over the years. And lastly, a series of citizen lawsuits have forced emissions reductions. For example, a recent settlement between the Sierra Club and a Shell refinery requires Shell to significantly reduce its emissions.
Environmental groups applaud at least two of Perry’s efforts: expanding wind power and creating the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, which has encouraged the retrofit of diesel engines, reducing emissions in the state.
But environmental group leaders also note that several of the most important state initiatives — such as one in 1999 that required older power plants grandfathered from federal regulations to reduce air emissions — took effect in the 2000s, but were passed under Perry’s predecessors.
“There is zero evidence that Perry made any difference,” said Jim Marston, director of the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Whether that harsh opinion is valid or not we leave to others to judge. What we can say as fact is that the progress for which Perry claims credit is — on closer examination — not so dramatic as he likes to claim.
— by Robert Farley
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