Al Armendariz, on leave from his job as an associate professor of environmental and chemical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s five-state Region 6, headquartered in Dallas.

EPA regional administrator

Al Armendariz

Accepting that appointment has placed Armendariz at the center of intense controversy over a couple of the Obama administration’s key environmental initiatives. One involves new regulations, issued under the federal Clean Air Act, to limit heat-trapping, climate-altering greenhouse gases from major industrial plants. The other is the EPA’s disapproval of important elements of Texas’ program for issuing industrial permits for other, long-regulated air pollutants, also under the same U.S. law.

Alone among the states, Texas has refused to implement the new climate rules or cooperate with the EPA in their implementation. As a result, the federal agency has assumed the role of issuing permits in Texas for emissions of greenhouse gases by large facilities such as oil refineries and power plants.

The climate regulations, which began being phased in on Jan. 1, apply to new plants and old facilities planning major expansions. No Texas facilities had applied for one of the greenhouse gas permits as of March 29, but EPA officials expect as many as 10 will apply over the first year of the program, with 20-30 permit applications anticipated in the next few years, an EPA spokesman told Texas Climate News.

On the matter of Texas’ program for issuing permits for previously-regulated pollutants, such as smog-forming chemicals, a particular focus of disagreement between state and federal officials is the state’s “flexible permit” program. It allows one emission-capping permit to be granted for pollutants coming from numerous units at a single industrial plant, instead of a permit setting separate emission limits at each unit. EPA officials maintain that this approach lets companies avoid stricter pollution-control requirements applied under the federal Clean Air Act in other states.

Texas officials at the state and federal levels – mostly Republicans – are vigorously battling the EPA on both issues, deploying strong rhetoric such as the often-expressed claim that the Obama administration is “killing” Texas jobs with its greenhouse gas rules and its objection to parts of Texas’ program for other air pollutants.

Armendariz recently responded to questions from Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson in a two-part interview. The first part followed a speech that the EPA regional administrator delivered in Houston and the second was conducted by telephone.

Q: You’ve talked to other interviewers about your formative years and how that helped inform your attitudes and your approach to the work now. I wonder if you could … reflect for me for just a moment about how your experiences growing up in El Paso – with relatives who worked at ASARCO, I’ve read, and relatives who had illnesses that were aggravated if not caused by pollution – how that background helped focus you on the career path you took as an environmental professional and how it informs your work as EPA regional administrator, particularly with regard to the climate thing, the greenhouse gas regulations. [ASARCO was a controversial copper smelter in El Paso that suspended operations in 1999 and won state approval for a permit renewal in 2008. Company officials decided in 2009 not to restart the plant.]

A: At the time I was living in El Paso, growing up there as a kid, I wasn’t considering environmental careers. I didn’t really know there were such things and really didn’t know about the connection between air pollution and public health. And so growing up there, although I was aware that there was smog, I never made the connection between the fact that there was smog and the fact that my cousin had very severe asthma or that other people in my family had illnesses. And so growing up, the connection between public health and pollution was not a connection that I made myself. But then when I went off to college and started learning about engineering and chemistry and decided I wanted to go into environmental work as a career, the experience of growing up in El Paso has greatly formed my career path and informs a lot of what I do every day. I’ll give you a few examples.

That ASARCO smelter was regulated. It was regulated by the federal government under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the main federal law regulating solid and hazardous waste], and eventually it was regulated by the state government when the state began to implement those federal laws. But even though it had all that environmental regulation, it still contaminated a tremendous number of families and put lead and arsenic into front yards and back yards all over central El Paso. And so what that example teaches me is that government can fail – federal government can fail, state government can fail – to protect its citizens. And that’s, in my view, the first responsibility of government – it’s to protect the general welfare. And this was, for me, a very clear case of where multiple levels of government were failing. And the people of El Paso were suffering because of it.

And so today as I go through my work, I’m always aware of the fact that there can be instances today where government – either the federal or state or local government – may have failed and could be failing today. And just because we’ve done something a certain way for a certain number of years, just because things are today the way they’ve been for a long time, doesn’t mean they’re right and doesn’t mean they have to be that way. And so I take the complaints of individual citizens or small communities very seriously. I take criticisms of EPA very seriously. And I try to make sure that we keep an open mind when people bring us their concerns and their complaints, because there might be more ASARCOs out there. There could be other instances today in my region where communities are being impacted, where people are being made sick and kids are getting asthma attacks because of a failure of government. I try to keep my eyes open for things like that.

Q: The greenhouse gas regulations are based upon an endangerment finding where the agency found greenhouse gases endangered public health and the environment. Right now, at this juncture in the policy debate over control of greenhouse gases, clean energy and so on, the environmental community is seeking, I’ve noticed, to emphasize the public health benefits of climate regulations. That’s part of their current strategic messaging. Do you find that communicating the public health aspects of greenhouse gas regulations is a difficult thing, compared to communicating the public health benefits of so-called conventional air pollutants that are more traditionally linked to health issues?

A: No, I don’t think it’s any more challenging because the science is very clear that human activity is causing greenhouse gas emissions at a level that is affecting our climate. And the science is clear that we’re affecting the climate in a way that can lead to more drought, can lead to more heat waves, can lead to higher summertime temperatures, and we know there are public health consequences to hotter summers leading to more smog. We know there are public health consequences to droughts and lack of water and lack of availability of clean water. So the agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases are really motivated by, first, our concern about public health as well as our concern about ecological damage. And both of those are driving our efforts and for both of those we feel the science is settled and the science is clear and the scientific consensus is strong.

Q: Given that view, why do you think it is that the top officials in Texas – their legal arguments aside for a moment – why is it, do you think, that they have taken such a profoundly skeptical stance toward the science, which you and your colleagues believe is settled? It seems it’s a stance that’s contrary not only to [the position jointly proclaimed by] the entire climate science faculty at Texas A&M, for instance, but also to the public statements that have been made by some of the very energy companies that are so important to the Texas economy and which [state] officials are saying they’re trying to protect. Why do you think they’re so skeptical?

A: I think these officials are incredibly misinformed. I think these officials are making statements on behalf of very powerful stakeholders, very powerful special interests, and I think they’re part of a diminishing minority of public officials and scientists who question the strong consensus of climate change. And I think history is not going to treat them kindly for the delay we’ve already had in regulating greenhouse gases and the lack of protection to public health and to the environment that has already resulted.

Q: You were no stranger to controversies over environmental issues when you took this job. You were not only an environmental engineering professor but an environmentalist who had worked with environmental advocacy groups. Were you surprised nonetheless or unprepared for how intense this particular debate has been, not just over greenhouse gas regulation in the nation and Texas but also about the flexible permit issue for instance and some of the related questions?

A: No, I expected this to be an intense political issue, not because I intended to make it one or not because it has to be, but because I knew that powerful stakeholders were going to try to delay the work of the agency and they were going to use their friends in elected office and they were going to use attacks on the agency to try to delay our work. So I knew early on, even before becoming the regional administrator, that EPA’s agenda was going to come under attack whether I was regional administrator or [EPA] Administrator [Lisa] Jackson was the administrator, the regulation of greenhouse gases was going to bring about a very strong reaction by certain special interests. And I think everybody was well aware of that. We didn’t expect it to be easy and in fact we knew it would be difficult.

Q: You told the El Paso Times in an interview that the governor “chooses to conduct state policy based on conspiracy theories and rightwing blogs.” A direct quote. Can you elaborate about that?

A: I was referring to climate science and the fact that the governor, other elected officials, some top officials at TCEQ [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality], seem to believe that there is a global conspiracy of scientists to attack fossil fuel use. That there’s this global conspiracy of scientists to put bad science out there. That there are leftwing elements trying to regulate greenhouse gases for reasons that are unclear to me. And it’s unfortunate that rather than listening to the faculty [of] the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M, or the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, or thousands of peer-reviewed studies and the scientific consensus, they’ve decided to base public policy on discredited arguments that no one in the scientific community puts any validity in.

Q: Of course, the fights that are going on now in Congress and the courts could end up delaying or maybe even halting the regulations. Nobody knows where that’s going to lead. Do you know or do you assume that this uncertainty has prompted any delays in applications by companies in Texas that aren’t convinced that the permits will be necessary right away?

A: No, I don’t believe the uncertainty that is being created by either the courts or the debate in Congress is causing people to withhold project applications. I think most industries – and I’ve spoken to a number – realize that greenhouse gas regulation is a reality moving forward and we’re really at the beginning of a process that is going to be with us for a very long time. And even if there are some delays because of court action, that eventually we have to deal with the climate issue and we have to deal with carbon pollution. And so I believe industry is interested in certainty. They’re willing to get their applications in now and get permits the way they have for a very long time under the Clean Air Act. And I’m not aware of any who are withholding because of uncertainty. They might have their own corporate position about whether it’s necessary, about what they believe about climate change, but I’m not aware of any of them deciding simply not to build in the United States because of greenhouse gas regulations.

Q: That relates to my next question. Economic arguments are, of course, central to the case that’s been made by Texas officials. They say the regulations will devastate the Texas economy and destroy jobs. Opponents in Congress and elsewhere make the same basic argument. Are you or your staff, in your dealing with companies that will have to get permits, are you hearing directly from company officials that these regulations will be just extremely costly or difficult to comply with?

A: No, in fact I’m hearing very much the opposite. I was down in Houston about three or four weeks ago and had the opportunity to speak to members of the Texas Chemical Council. And at that time I wanted to get some idea from them on the questions they had about greenhouse gas permitting. And I didn’t hear a single question or even a single statement come forward that the permitting process would be too burdensome, that the regulations would require them to delay projects. It was very much an entire session of mechanical questions about how they do the permitting and how to fill out the forms and how the Title V aspect of greenhouse gas permitting was going to align itself with the PSD provisions of greenhouse gases. [Title V refers to industrial plants’ operating permits. Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permits are required to build a new major facility or significantly expand an old one.]

And so I’m very much hearing when I speak one-on-one or in small groups with industry they’re understanding this is not a question of whether it should happen. Basically they want guidance to best make it happen. So I think the individual facilities and the plant owners and the plant managers who deal with the Clean Air Act on a day- to-day basis realize that it is a practical and implementable law that they have decades of experience in implementing and know how to do. And when it comes to the additional requirements for greenhouse gases, they understand that at this point we have very practical straightforward ways of managing greenhouse gas permitting. And I don’t hear from the plant managers and their environmental staff the same kind of doomsday scenarios that I hear from elected officials in Texas.

Q: I know that in some other cases in the past, environmental regulations have required permit holders to find what might be called innovative ways to comply. They were what’s called, I think, technology-forcing rules. Will these greenhouse gas rules be technology-forcing in some cases? Your previous answer seemed to suggest that they won’t be, but I’d like to hear you directly address that. And do some companies not yet know technically how they can comply at their plants?

A: Well, let me say this. I actually do very much think that the suite of agency regulations on greenhouse gases will very much be technology-forcing. I think you see that already in the automotive industry where companies – I think universally, all the American companies, the Japanese firms – are moving forward with hybrid and fully electric vehicles, because they understand that not only is there new EPA regulations on CO2 emissions from passenger vehicles but that there’s a need for the country to move off of imported oil. And so I think that the agency is helping to force technology on the automotive sector. And I think that we’re going to see that as well when it comes to stationary sources. The guidance that we’ve put forward on greenhouse gas permitting is very much focused on pushing energy efficiency, on making sure that companies only use the amount of energy they really need for every unit of production and using energy efficiency as a driver for reducing CO2 emissions.

Q: You’re an engineer, but without going into intricate technical detail because this is a general-audience publication, can you explain a couple of representative ways that companies can comply – how they can go about improving energy efficiency? For instance, will there be conversions of coal-burning units to natural gas units in some power plants? Apart from power plants, how might a refinery needing a greenhouse gas permit because of a major plant modification or expansion increase its efficiency?

A: There are several ways. You mentioned one, which is fuel selection, but also fuel use. Because of these new rules on greenhouse gas permitting, facilities are going to have an incentive or even a requirement to choose the most energy-efficient way of production as part of their decision-making process. So we’re going to make CO2 emissions part of the decision-making process by our emphasis on energy efficiency. And so in the same way that the company would have looked at the capital costs, and under the Clean Air Act would have been required to look at emissions of traditional pollutants, we are now going to add emissions of CO2 into the suite of things they are going to have to consider as part of the selection of equipment, the retrofitting of boilers, those kinds of issues.

And so what we’re doing is putting a regulatory requirement for energy efficiency as part of building new plants and modifying existing plants. And I think it’s something that is actually, in many places and in many ways, going to save companies money because they will be forced to look at long-term energy use and by doing so will have to account for long-term energy use – and actually now long-term energy savings – when they’re making their decisions. And I think that that emphasis is going to be very, very effective, both in our permitting process and in the New Source Performance Standards. [These periodically-updated, industry-specific standards set the maximum levels of certain pollutants that new industrial sources may emit. The EPA is planning to issue such standards this year for emissions of greenhouse gases by refineries and power plants and then finalize the standards in 2012.]

Q: Have you been informed by any companies that they will indeed, as people are warning, have to lay off workers or have to not create expected jobs because of these regulations?

A: No, and in fact, I have a fair amount of direct experience on the opposite side. The Nucor Corp., which is the largest steel-manufacturing company in North America, was looking at a variety of places around the world to build a new steel mill. And they were considering a new location near Baton Rouge, La., and were also considering places overseas, including Brazil and, it’s my understanding, including other places as well. And they decided late last year, fully aware that there were greenhouse gas regulations in the United States, to open that facility in Louisiana. And my staff has been working with the staff of Louisiana DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] on getting them a greenhouse gas permit. And so I have a very clear example of a company who, despite greenhouse gas regulation, has decided to build a large facility in the United States, to get a greenhouse gas permit to create jobs in the state.

Q: Are there areas of overlap or congruence between the two air permit issues that are at the heart of the argument between the EPA and the state of Texas – one, the dispute over greenhouse gas regulations, and two, the dispute over what some people call convention air pollutants, those that have been regulated under the Clean Air Act for a long time? Are there areas of overlap or congruence, either in a technical or a public health sense? For instance, would a resolution of the flexible permit issue regarding conventional pollutants along the lines that the EPA is seeking mean that in some cases there would not just be tighter control, better control, of traditionally regulated pollutants but also a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, just as sort of a beneficial side-effect?

A: Let me answer your question, but just a little bit differently. I do think that as we move forward with greenhouse gas regulations and with clean energy policies nationally, those efforts will have the collateral benefit of reducing traditional pollutant emissions. As energy efficiency becomes a more important part of environmental permitting, I do think we’re going to see reductions in traditional pollutant emissions. The passenger vehicle rules are just a great example of that. When you increase mileage almost to the point where you no longer actually burn fuel in the vehicle, there are tremendous environmental benefits. And I think we’re going to see that play out with the stationary sources as well.

Now, when we look at the programs that Texas is running and whether there is alignment or commonality or any sharing of issues, I will say this about those two issues – about the traditional pollutant permitting and the greenhouse gas permitting. EPA did not want to do the greenhouse gas permitting in the state of Texas for [emission] sources in the state, but we had to, because the state refused to do so and we feel it’s a requirement of the Clean Air Act because of the Supreme Court decision, and so we had to step in because the state was not complying with the law. We also have a number of serious concerns about the programs that Texas is running about traditional pollutants – flexible permits, the Title V program and others. And if there’s any commonality between the two issues, it’s that the TCEQ has decided not to implement the Clean Air Act programs in the state in a way that EPA feels is consistent with the Clean Air Act. And it’s a problem which on the greenhouse gas side we have resolved temporarily by stepping in and doing the permitting. And on the criteria [traditionally regulated] pollutant side, we’re still working through that with permit holders and the state and with citizens.

Q: Have you had occasion, in your talks to industry groups or others, to address some of the language or rhetoric coming from the state? Language like “EPA takeover” and “EPA overreach”?

A: No, I haven’t sat down with the industry folks to talk about the language. I suspect many of them find it very unhelpful because the state is putting them in the middle of a dispute and in a very unfortunate position. These companies want to comply with the law and they want some regulatory certainty and they want to have good working relationships with both the state agency and the federal government. And yet the state has decided to take an extremely aggressive and hyperbolic position and use very unfortunate rhetoric when it describes the EPA and describes my agency. And it puts these permit holders in a very bad position and certainly doesn’t give them any kind of regulatory uncertainty and also doesn’t resolve the fundamental problems, which is the state environmental agency is implementing the Clean Air Act in a way that is inconsistent with many aspects of the law. And I don’t think that benefits these companies one bit.

Q: The polls have shown pretty consistently that there has been a decline in public acceptance of the mainstream scientific conclusions about manmade climate change. There’s more skepticism about whether human beings are causing this to happen and about how serious it might be. These poll results at least line up with, even if they don’t explain, some of the election results last year. Have you had occasion as regional administrator to answer questions from the general public about the basic science of climate change? I know that’s not really your job, but have you found yourself in that position and if you have, how have you answered it?

A: I speak to many groups – from individual citizens to community groups to large meetings of the petrochemical refining and chemical industry and everybody in between. And the topic that I have talked more often [about] to all of these groups has been climate change. And I do address the issue of the science behind climate change. And I make it very clear that the mainstream scientific perspective is settled. And that climate change is real and it’s caused by anthropogenic emissions from the use of fossil fuels and from deforestation. And I let them know that that is a position that mainstream science has had for more than a century now, from really the time of [Svante] Arrhenius [a Swedish scientist who was the first to speculate that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could warm surface temperatures] at the turn of the 20th Century up to today.

And I do find it’s unfortunate that there are a large number of Americans who don’t accept this mainstream scientific position and I believe some of that is really a reflection of the need to better improve scientific education in the country. My own wife is an elementary school teacher. I was in education for a very long time. A lot of people in my family are. And in many ways I think public education at the elementary level and at middle school and junior high levels are doing a great job and I think a lot of kids are going through the public school systems the way I did and getting fantastic education. But I think we have room to improve when it comes to how we educate children about science.

But even beyond that, I think there has been a well-funded and persistent anti-science campaign by those who have a vested financial interest in denying the science of greenhouse gas emissions. And I think it has been relatively successful in changing the minds of large numbers of Americans and putting doubt in the minds where, from mainstream science, there really is no doubt. And it tells me that scientists at universities, scientists at our national labs, agency officials like myself, we have to work harder because we are up against a very large group of stakeholders for whom protection of our climate and reductions in carbon pollution are things that might cost them money. And while there are huge benefits to society for us to deal with carbon pollution, there is a big push-back by very powerful interests. And so we have to be persistent and we have to stay on the message and not give up the fight.

Image credit: Environmental Protection Agency