Texas - US

[Update: Commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved an air permit for the Las Brisas Energy Center this morning.]

The fight between Texas and the federal government over regulation of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants continues unabated, with actions by both sides this week underscoring that fact.

For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a letter Monday with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, asking that the state agency not grant an air permit to the proposed Las Brisas Energy Center, a controversial power plant, at a commission meeting scheduled today.

TCEQ commissioners are widely expected to approve the permit, although state administrative law judges have recommended two times against doing so. The executive director of the TCEQ staff favors granting the permit.

Meanwhile, the TCEQ chairman, Bryan Shaw, announced Monday that his executive assistant and special counsel, a former aide to Gov. Rick Perry, would be replaced and would be moving to Washington as the TCEQ’s first-ever “special advisor on federal initiatives.”

The TCEQ’s top officials obviously consider the new Washington position as crucial, since it is being created as the agency faces the possible elimination of 235 full-time jobs in budget bills recently filed in the state House and Senate.

TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz told Texas Climate News that several other Texas agencies have officials in Washington and “it makes sense for the second largest environmental agency in the country to have a representative in D.C. tracking federal initiatives that may impact Texas.”

Details were still being worked out about which issues Kevin Patteson, the TCEQ’s new advisor in the nation’s capital, will be working on first, Saenz said.

Given the unremittingly harsh criticism being leveled at the EPA by TCEQ leaders, other top state officials in Austin and some Texans serving in Congress, it will surprise no one if Patteson’s initial duties involve the Texas-EPA tussle.

News of his assignment to the new Washington position came on the same day that three Texas members of Congress – Republicans John Carter, Louie Gohmert and Joe Barton – declared they would try to stop one federal environmental initiative that they think will harm the state economically. It is the EPA’s recent assumption of authority in the state to issue permits limiting emissions of greenhouse-gas emissions to new and modified industrial plants.

The EPA delegates such permit authority to the states under the Clean Air Act, but the TCEQ refused to issue permits to implement the EPA’s new regulation of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases. Texas officials have been battling in the courts – unsuccessfully, so far – to overturn the EPA’s seizure of the permit authority and the climate regulations themselves.

The greenhouse-gas rules, which began being phased in this month, are not the only flash point in the EPA-Texas struggle, as the Las Brisas permit case illustrates.

Today’s scheduled decision by the TCEQ commissioners relates to a request for a permit to emit air pollutants (other than greenhouse gases) at a new facility in Corpus Christi that would burn petroleum coke, a coal-like byproduct of oil refining.

For months before assuming the authority for the climate permits in December, the EPA had been seeking to compel changes in the way Texas issues permits for other industrial air pollutants, such as those that cause health-damaging smog. EPA officials have argued that the state’s permit policies are too lenient on polluters, while state officials have charged that the EPA is engaged in economy-harming overreach.

The EPA’s letter this week on the Las Brisas issue touched on both permit issues that are dividing it and the state – the disagreement over the new greenhouse-gas rules and the conflict pertaining to other pollutants that have been regulated for decades under federal and state law.

Regarding long-regulated pollutants, EPA deputy regional administrator Lawrence Starfield reiterated the agency‘s already-voiced concerns about the Las Brisas plant’s possible contribution to violations of the federal ozone (smog) standard and questioned the facility’s ability to comply with new standards adopted last year for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

(Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must “object” to a state’s issuance of a permit it finds does not meet minimum requirements of the federal law. If the state does not fix problems identified by EPA officials, the statute says the federal agency itself “shall issue or deny the permit.”)

On the matter of the new greenhouse-gas regulations, Starfield said Las Brisas will have to work with the EPA to determine if the plant is subject to those rules.

“As you are aware, the EPA is the permitting authority in Texas for [greenhouse gas] regulatory actions at this time,” he wrote, and Las Brisas should not start building its plant until it receives a greenhouse-gas permit from the EPA if an evaluation shows that it requires one.

Shaw, the TCEQ chairman and an opponent of regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from industrial plants, was obviously looking ahead to at least the possibility that Las Brisas would need such a permit last October.

In a meeting of the TCEQ commissioners at that time, he repeatedly encouraged state administrative law judges to hurry up their recommendation on the plant’s permit covering conventional air pollutants so the state agency would have time to grant that permit before the EPA’s new climate rules took effect on Jan. 2.

Opponents of the Las Brisas plant include local environmental and health advocates, statewide opponents of expanded coal (and petroleum coke) use in power plants, and a coalition of more than 30 cities across the state. Supporters include business and labor groups.

While the Corpus Christi permit fight and the broader TCEQ-EPA permit debates rage on, however, there are signs that some industrial companies may be quietly accommodating to the EPA’s requirements, even as state officials do battle against them.

The Texas Tribune reported this month:

Behind the scenes … there are signs that industry is trying to move past the stalemate. Big plants, unable to tolerate permitting limbo at the risk of some of their operations getting shut down, have been talking urgently with federal regulators about their permitting standards — and preparing to revamp their own systems in accordance with the EPA’s demands.

– Bill Dawson

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