TCN Interview
Larry Soward: Former TCEQ commissioner

Larry Soward retired from a 35-year career in Texas state government last year at the end of his six-year term as a commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Overseeing the TCEQ was just one of several top positions he held over the years.

Larry Soward

Larry Soward

Gov. Rick Perry, whom Soward calls “a dear friend,” appointed him to the TCEQ post. In the 1990s, Soward was deputy commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture when Perry was the agency’s elected commissioner. Soward also was executive director at the Texas Water Commission (now part of the TCEQ), held executive positions at the Public Utility Commission and General Land Office, and worked on Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s staff.

Since he retired, Soward, an attorney, has been working in what might seem an unlikely role for a Perry appointee and friend – as a consultant for environmentalists. He is helping Air Alliance Houston (formerly called GHASP) and its allies prepare recommendations about the TCEQ for the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission. Their aim: Make the TCEQ tougher on polluters. The Sunset panel is reviewing TCEQ operations this year in advance of the Legislature’s scrutiny and potential reform of the agency in 2011.

Texas environmentalists have often been critical of Perry and some of his other appointees, such as Soward’s TCEQ colleague, Bryan Shaw, who chairs the commission. But while he was at the TCEQ, Soward frequently argued it was too lenient with polluters. On the climate issue, he dissented from the skepticism about manmade climate change that other Texas officials, including Perry and Shaw, have expressed.

Last year, for instance, when the TCEQ’s executive director formally objected to the possibility of federal regulation of climate-altering greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency, Soward strongly disagreed. He wrote to the EPA, endorsing its then-proposed conclusion (since adopted) that greenhouse gases deserve regulation:

The proposed rule correctly finds that greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere endanger public health of current and future generations. In proposing this finding, the EPA relied on recently published, consensus-based, peer-reviewed assessments and reports to make that determination. …

Volumes could be written on the threats to our welfare as citizens of this Earth due to the effects of climate changes on such things as our weather; our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; our economy; our water resources; our societal infrastructure; etc. No reasonable argument can be made that GHGs do not endanger the welfare of the citizens of Texas, the United States and the World.

In a pair of interviews, Soward responded to questions posed by Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson.

Q: First, I was hoping you could outline some of the key things you thought were the most significant that you talked about during your time as a commissioner, which you hoped the state would do in this arena of climate change.

A: Obviously, the most significant thing that I’ve talked about that I wish the state would do is reduce our carbon footprint through reduction of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. We can do that by either incentive-based approaches or regulatory approaches or both. Right now the state does absolutely nothing toward carbon dioxide reductions. We don’t even require industries to monitor it, which I’ve found was just unreasonable. We at least ought to be in a position to know how much we’re putting out there and where, so when we do try to address it – either on our own or if we’re mandated to – we know how to focus the effort and in what areas to make a meaningful result. And yet we don’t do that.

I’ve said many times, to me it’s just an absolute no-brainer. Texas is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation. We’re the – I can’t remember if it’s the 11th or 12th or whatever in the world – and nobody can reasonably tell me that if we didn’t reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere that it wouldn’t have a positive effect locally. If nothing else it cleans up the air here in the state and it provides a better health atmosphere, if you will. So I don’t buy this “Well, we gotta wait and see what China and India do because it doesn’t matter what we do.” Yes it matters. We’re one of the largest in the world.

Q: Texas has been reluctant as well, on the state level, to address questions related to preparation and adaptation. You’re talking about mitigation in terms of CO2 reduction and carbon footprint, but there has also, it seems, been a reluctance to address the adaptation side as well, to get ready for a changing climate, to factor it into our water planning and so on.

A: Absolutely, I’ve made that comment before, got my friends at the [Texas] Water Development Board mad at me, but if you look at the current Water Plan, it doesn’t consider climate change – too speculative. You see infrastructure being built along the Texas coast without any thought of sea-level changes. You see agricultural practices continuing that are going to depend on water that’s likely not going to be there. They’re not drought-resistant. You’re right, there’s this whole culture of denial and I don’t really know how to say that that’s going to be responded to unless we have a disaster.

I’ve said, look at the sound science on climate change and you’ll agree with me. To me, the science is clear that the climate is changing, that man is contributing to that change – he [doesn’t have] the sole responsibility, obviously nature’s involved – but man is contributing to the climate change, and yet we’re doing nothing to either adapt to that change or to prevent, to mitigate, that change. We can’t prevent it – we’re way beyond preventing it – we can only mitigate. And there’s just not the mindset – and there’s not the leadership at the appropriate levels – to try to change that mindset.

Q: Well, that anticipates a question I was going ask. You were appointed by Governor Perry.

A: I was.

Q: Did you have any discussions with him before or after your appointment about the climate issue?

A: None

Q: Why do you think that he has been so reluctant to accept what you regard as the overwhelming view in the scientific community that manmade climate change is something that’s happening and that we need to deal with it. What is your understanding of his reluctance to embrace the mainstream science on that, like some Republican figures, such as Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger [of California], have done?

A: Well, Governor Perry’s a dear friend and always will be. We just differ on a number of policy issues and that’s fine, that’s healthy, we’re friends. And I think he truly believes that the climate is not appreciably changing as a result of anything man’s doing. I think he just believes that. And I think he sees that side of the science that you and I both know is there, and strong, that’s saying that it’s not changing because of man. I think as a governor and as a politician he also sees the significant economic aspects of what it would take to adapt or to mitigate and says, “We can’t afford to do that.” I think he’s sincere. I just think – with all due respect – I think he’s short-sighted.

Because I see the climate change issues as not for you and me. They’re for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and I just don’t see us really thinking in that regard. We’re thinking about what’s it going to cost Exxon-Mobil today to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, or what’s it going to cost to keep from building down to the seashore because the sea-level changes. We’re looking at today and I think we need to be looking at 50 to 100 years from now and doing what we can today to help mitigate what very likely will happen then if we don’t do something.

Q: You ever talk about either the science or policy aspects of climate change with your colleague on the commission, Dr. [Bryan] Shaw, in any detail?

A: Well, by law the only time we can talk is in an open meeting. So we had some of those discussions, but they were very general, especially as related to carbon dioxide regulation and things like that. But it was one of those – I guess we both kind of sensed it was not going to be a useful expenditure of time. I mean, he’s probably as deep-set in his beliefs, in his position, as I am in mine.

Now, I did try to focus on Commissioner [Buddy] Garcia, because I think he’s open. I think he wants to be sure that if we do something, either regulatory or incentive-wise, that it’s cost-effective and meaningful, but I think he is concerned that man is affecting our climate and we’re not doing enough to address it long-term. You know, he’s kind of in the middle of the seesaw and I could never get him tipped my way.

Q: Clean energy and climate initiatives, generally speaking, failed to pass in [the 2009 session of the] Legislature, including some that there were great hopes for and quite a bit of support for. Looking ahead, what are a few of the most important actions or initiatives that you believe Texas should and could be taking at the state level, either administratively or legislatively? Maybe not things that directly address climate change or either mention it, but that reduce our carbon footprint, or get ready for changes.

A: You know, I think a lot of things that were discussed in the last session that didn’t make it ought to be discussed again. More green building standards, building codes. I think it was this session – it’s been in several sessions, I’m not sure it was filed this session – [a proposal aimed at] Texas’ adopting fuel standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions out of vehicles. California did it, and they fought EPA and got a waiver. Texas could do the same. I think Sen. [Rodney] Ellis [D-Houston] filed the bills. But cars are a huge issue, not only for carbon dioxide, for also for NOx [nitrogen oxides] and ozone, as we all know. So, just again, it’s just a no-brainer that we ought to be doing something with vehicles under the extent the federal government will let us under the preemption power. Technology – you know we tried to get legislation that would create incentives, or at least require the agency [TCEQ], or applicants and then the agency to consider advanced technologies like, for example, IGCC – integrated gasification, for power plants. [Integrated Gasification, Combined-Cycle, or IGCC, is a process for turning coal into synthetic gas so coal can be used to produce electricity with lower emissions.] Put in place the technology that will produce less carbon – either through mandating it or incentivizing it, at least requiring it to be considered. The Legislature wouldn’t do it. Those kind of things need to be done.

Q: It looks like Texas may well be in for another set of battles in the war over whether or not we’re going to have new coal-fired power plants in the state and how many. Is that the way it looks to you? And where’s that leading?

A: Well I think there’s definitely going to be a battle. [...] Public Citizen and Sierra Club and some others [have been] urging EPA to place a moratorium on coal-fired power plants. You know, I’ve been in this business 35 years and I’m probably jaded. I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think there will be a moratorium on coal-fired power plants for a number of reasons. A very real, practical one is we’ve got to have the power and there’s not another source of power to completely take up the coal-fired power component. Plus, Texas has a huge economy built on coal production and the coal power plants.

My hope is, given what I’ve considered to be a reality, that instead we will kind of get away from the moratorium idea and start looking at ways to get the technology in place to continue to have coal-fired power plants, but they’re clean. Tampa Electric [in Florida] has an IGCC power plant. it’s been very successful at its carbon reductions. I think Chevron has a power plant in either Kentucky or Tennessee that uses IGCC. But it’s expensive to put on up front.

I think that’s what we’ve got to look at, rather than lose that component of the economy, which I don’t think we will. Instead, make that component of the economy, coal-fired power plants, a clean one. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen until it’s profitable for the power companies to do it, either through incentives or – they point to the fact that the reason the Tampa Bay power plant is so successful is because it got subsidized by the government. Its shareholders and its ratepayers didn’t have to feel the brunt of the infrastructure cost. Maybe we have to look at something like that. I think, look at the technology as opposed to getting rid of that component of the power industry. I don’t think you can in Texas.

Q: The new EPA regional administrator, Dr. [Al] Amendariz [currently on leave from his job as an engineering professor at Southern Methodist University], has worked closely with environmental groups. One of his projects was a study that highlighted pollution from natural gas activity in North Texas – conventional pollutants, but also greenhouse gases were mentioned in his study. From your perspective as an environmental professional who’s been working on these issues for, as you said, 35 years, do you think there are opportunities for combined strategies that would address both conventional pollutants and greenhouse gases, whether they’re from natural gas operations or from other places? You mentioned automotive regulations. Is that something policymakers ought to keep in mind?

A: Absolutely. Let’s take the Barnett Shale activity [in North Texas] just for an example that you mentioned. I think that’s a perfect Sunset issue because right now most of those activities are regulated – and I’ll put quotes around “regulated” – by the [Texas] Railroad Commission, because the statute gives the regulation and control of pollution from the exploration and production of oil and gas to the Railroad Commission. Now, with all due respect to my friends at the Railroad Commission, they don’t have the air expertise that we do at the TCEQ, both from a pollution standpoint and a public health standpoint. My first suggestion would be to put that jurisdiction in the TCEQ, but short of that, create a coordinated oversight and regulatory function, if you will, where the Railroad Commission regulates the production activities but we [TCEQ] are actively involved in the pollution part of it. I think there is a real opportunity for a coordinated effort that we don’t have.

Power plants – right now there’s absolutely no coordination between the PUC [Public Utility Commission], the TCEQ and ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electric grid and manages the deregulated power market for three-fourths of the state.]. When the TCEQ gets an application for a power plant, it’s already been decided where it’s going to be, and it’s already been decided how it’s going to be paid for. So all we’re [TCEQ] doing is saying, “OK, here’s what you need to do to make sure you keep it as clean as possible.” There ought to be a coordinated effort on every new power plant and every major expansion of a power plant, between ERCOT, PUC and TCEQ. For example, a new power plant, those three agencies ought to be part of the decision as to where that power plant is going to be built. Why build a power plant fifty miles from Dallas-Fort Worth that’s in non-attainment of [the national health standard for] ozone if it can be built somewhere else and get in the ERCOT infrastructure, the power grid, and not produce pollution problems that it otherwise would. And if a power company wants to put on new technology that’s going to cost more, there ought to be coordination between the TCEQ and PUC, so those costs can be recovered. But there’s not.

And so there’s huge opportunities there, even if you don’t start moving around jurisdictions, if you just force the agencies to work together within their current jurisdiction in a more comprehensive, holistic approach. We site power plants where it’s environmentally OK, and it fits in the infrastructure of the ERCOT, and it’s reasonable and feasible to the rate-payers and shareholders. Or we allow production in the Barnett Shale, but you’ve got to have some pollution control technology in place to make sure it doesn’t pollute or affect the public health.

[The following exchange took place after Texas officials announced their challenge of the EPA’s “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases pose hazards warranting regulation.]

Q: What was your reaction to this petition, two petitions actually, by the attorney general – one to the EPA and one to the court challenging the endangerment finding [that greenhouse gases posed dangers warranting regulation] and especially the fact that it went after the science so strongly?

A: First of all, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve known, or felt, for some time that that was going to happen. It was just how they were they going to package it. I thought it was very interesting that the players in the filing of the petition were the attorney general, the governor, and the ag commissioner. And you didn’t see the TCEQ there. I think that was more for coverage than anything else. But, you know, you said you felt like it was strongly focused on science. I think it’s focused on science but it offers nothing in counter to the science.

It complains that EPA relied too heavily, if not exclusively, on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I don’t think is true. And if you really dig into it, you see that there are studies from NASA and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], there’s all kinds of other studies that have been woven in either EPA’s review or through the IPCC. So to say they relied solely on that I think is wrong.

And of course they complain the EPA is not supposed to do that, they’re supposed to do their own independent assessment. Well, the way governmental agencies do assessments is they rely on the existing science, they pull it all together, and they review it, assess it, make their policy decision, which is what I think EPA did. So, to me, it’s a sign of an extremely weak position, to start attacking the process. And if you read the petition – I was just amazed. First of all, you think, “Wow, look at all these footnotes – 20, 30 a page.” But look at what they are – they’re press releases, they’re newspaper articles, they’re speeches, there’s very little in the way of footnote documentation to back up, I believe, the claims. There’s just – there’s not that much.

If you look at the science, even in Texas – I was impressed with the article, or the editorial, in the [Houston] Chronicle by all those scientists. [In the guest column, published March 8, climate scientists on the faculties of Texas A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University and Rice University asserted, in reaction to the state’s petitions, that “the science of climate change is strong.”] One of their points was, there’s not a single [climate] scientist in Texas, a single scientific group in Texas, that disagrees with the climate change science. And that every national and international science group that has climate change expertise on it also supports the science. So, I view [the state’s petitions] as political. It leads right into this “Washington’s bad, they’re bad for us, and we know what’s best, and we’re not going to let them dictate to us.” But [the state] has got to have some science to back its claims up. That’s why it just kind of amazes me that it gets so much attention. If it’s 180 degrees and the EPA had come out with a finding of “no endangerment” based on the IPCC work and all the other science, Texas would be shouting from the rooftops how correct it was.

Q: Do you think it has any chance – even as weak as you think the arguments are – do you think it has any chance of procedurally delaying things?

A: I think the petition for reconsideration to the EPA obviously has no chance, it’s like telling you or me, “Well you made a decision, now change it, I don’t like it.” Without any reason to change it. The court appeal is a little different. There have been, as you well know, there have been successful challenges to EPA actions in the court, circuit court of D.C., both from the industry side [and] the environmental side, so I think that the court is going to look closely at that petition and the amicus briefs that are filed on both sides, but, let’s don’t forget that it was the Supreme Court that told the EPA, “Go do this.” Now they didn’t say, “Here’s what you need to find,” but they said, “Go do this,” and EPA, I think, can demonstrate that they did what the court told them to do and can show the process. And, unless you find a procedural problem, I can’t see a court saying, “We just disagree with you so we’re going to overturn it.” I think that really their only hope is for the court to say, “EPA, you didn’t do it right.” Which, again, I’d be surprised if the procedural argument carries that much weight. And I just don’t think the procedure they [EPA] followed is flawed.

Q: You’ve said that you think Texas could be a leader on climate change.

A: Texas could have been a leader when this issue really started developing – you know, three, four, five years ago, however far back, Texas could have been a leader. We’re the national, international almost, center for energy. We’ve got the expertise here. We’ve got engineers, the scientists, the lawyers, the economists. We could have driven the program that needed to be developed to put a climate change initiative in place that would have moved us forward and protected climate and the environment, but not done so at the jeopardy of the economy. We had the most to lose, we had the most to gain. We should have been at the table.

And so now, rather than saying, “OK, we’re gonna put all these resources in place to do what we need to do, as best we can, in Texas,” we’re saying, “No, we we’re gonna fight ‘em, file lawsuits, have campaigns against Washington and the EPA. And nothing moves forward, especially to protect the economy, because climate change regulation of some kind is going to come, and if Texas doesn’t work to make it fit with our economy and our socioeconomic situation, then the economy will be impacted, I believe.

Q: Texas is making some arguments in its petitions that seem, in some particulars, to go beyond the kinds of things that major energy industry companies are saying in challenging the science of climate change. Do you think that’s the case? And if you agree – if you don’t think that’s right, tell me so – but you have Exxon for instance, favoring a carbon tax, as opposed to cap-and-trade, as a preferable way to address climate change. You have other statements by some of the other major companies. Do you think Texas is beyond the energy industry in these arguments, and if it is, who are the state officials listening to?

A: I think they are beyond certainly some industry, because I think you have industry out there that either, because they are progressive, or because it certainly serves their self-interest to think beyond the current situation and plan for the the next decades to come, that they have said, either “We believe the science supports climate change initiatives,” or, “Whether we believe it or not it’s going to happen, so we’ve got to get ready for it and start moving forward in a way that makes sense for us.” I think you see industries saying, “We need to do what makes sense for us.”

And I don’t think the current politics of Texas looks at it that way. I don’t think they look at it in the sense of, “What is in the best interest of Texas moving forward, given what’s likely to come?” I think they’re driven more by – you hear constantly the economic impact arguments. But if that were true, you wouldn’t see some of these major corporations taking some of the initiatives they have. Look at Exxon-Mobil, as you indicated. You know, I would expect them to be one of the last to take climate change initiatives in hand if it were against their interests economically and business-wise. It’s not. They’re going to find ways to capitalize on it, through alternative energy development and things like that. Look, you see ads on the TV of Exxon promoting wind energy, because they realize that it’s in their best interest to move forward on what has to happen.

But politically, Texas is not going to do that, I don’t think, anytime soon. They’re not listening to science. They’re not listening to some of the major corporations. They’re listening to political advisors.

Photo credit: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality