New EPA boss says tougher ozone standards inescapable

Al Armendariz is betting on San Anto in the new energy economy.

Greg Harman

[email protected]

No matter how much Bexar County squirms, it can't wriggle out of tougher air pollution regulations on the way, the region's new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Current last week.

“I think the standard is going to be consistent with what the medical evidence tells us it should be,” said Al Armendariz , regional director of the EPA, before addressing a gathering at Blue Star hosted by the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. “What that really means to me is, we've got to go after the largest sources of pollution. When you look across the region, those largest sources are primarily the large utilities, big industry, and mobile sources â?? things like cars and trucks and construction equipment.”

San Antonio has been averaging around 74 parts per billion of ozone, just a tick under the current standard of 75 ppb. However, by summer's end the EPA is expected to announce a new standard, likely somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb.

Armendariz, a former Southern Methodist University engineering professor, has been a frequent critic of the agency he was tapped to help lead late last year â?? the nexus of his complaints an apparent reluctance to adopt some of the toughest recommendations to cut air pollution in the D-FW Metroplex, including reducing highway speed limits in the area to 55 mph.

Now that he's positioned within the agency, Armendariz promised to keep the pressure on to clean the skies. “I do want to push all of our states â?¦ turn over every rock, that we do everything we can do to bring those areas into compliance with the federal standards.”

Last year, the American Lung Association called for the “most health protective” national air-quality standards, blaming coal-fired power plants for 24,000 premature deaths every year. In a swipe at ozone, the ALA wrote in A National Asthma Public Policy Agenda that:

... policy changes that reduced outdoor ozone air pollution during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA, were associated with up to a 42 percent reduction in pediatric asthma events, especially for poor children.

However, last month, both the Bexar County Commissioners and the Alamo Area Council of Governments adopted identical resolutions opposing tougher ozone standards for the San Antonio area. In part, they suggested high ozone may not affect Bexar County residents the same way it does in more smog-ridden parts of the country â?? a premise, the Current discovered, was based on a very preliminary survey of several months of emergency-room records conducted more than five years ago.

The resolutions further warned against penalizing San Antonio for the pollution that blows in from other cities. It's the sort of thinking Armendariz, only half a year into his post, has heard before.

“When I'm in Houston, they point the finger at Beaumont and Port Arthur and Baton Rouge. And the people in Dallas point at Houston, and people here might point at Corpus,” he said. “Some of that is true, because ozone and the things that cause ozone do move. If that was the reason not to do anything we would never solve the ozone problem.

“What we need to do is take a region—wide approach and find all of the different sources where we can get emissions reductions. And by doing that we begin to get a handle on the ozone problem everywhere, rather than use the excuse that ozone moves to do nothing. â?¦ I'm confident that the level of ozone we tell the community is safe is gonna apply to San Antonio, throughout the region, really throughout the country.”

Armendariz also brought an uncompromising message to South Texas concerning coming regulation of greenhouse gases.

“Our administration is going to address greenhouse gases in a way that the EPA has never done. And I think we're doing so on a very sound scientific basis. The vast majority of scientific studies and the vast majority scientists who have studied climate change and all the different pieces of climate change support global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and understand it's a significant problem.

“The EPA is limited in terms of everything that probably has to be done in order to get global greenhouse reductions. That doesn't mean we just sit on our hands. We have very clear direction from the Supreme Court. We have very effective tools in the Clean Air Act to do certain things.”

While a first-ever rule for greenhouse emissions for cars and trucks came out recently, stationary sources like power plants won't start to feel the greenhouse sting of the EPA until next year, at the soonest.

Meanwhile, San Antonio-based Valero Energy, one of the country's top polluters, lobbied hard against cap-and-trade when the issue was first taken up in Washington last year. This year, the company has funneled $500,000 to push a ballot initiative to delay implementation of a California climate law adopted under California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Armendariz called the greenhouse-driven climate change "the largest environmental problem that the Earth faces" minutes before his Blue Star address last week. "The time for delay is long over,” he said


On The Record

Although our audio equipment didn't stand up to Friday afternoon's strong breezes, included below are a few additional quotes culled from our conversation with Al Armendariz.

Future economy

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is going to be great for the natural gas industry. The use of natural gas to make electricity puts out approximately half the greenhouse gases as the use of coal. So that's one industry I think is going to boom in coming decades. You can look at the automobile sector, I think they're going to come forward very aggressively with plug-in vehicles. And so there's going to be massive growth and massive turnover as people move from internal-combustion engines to electric batteries as the primary way we do passenger transport in mobile sources.

Clean coal

I do think that technology is possible. I think it can be done. The question's going to be, are other sources of energy going to come forward more rapidly than we can develop Carbon Capture Sequestration. I think that's an interesting engineering question. Are we going to find the technology for Carbon Capture Sequestration before we develop affordable solar panels and wind energy and new natural gas fields develop? It's very likely both of those are going to happen.

San Antonio: Winner?

I think San Antonio is going to be one of the areas that wins and wins big. When you look at the new sources of energy we're going to need in this country, the solar resources that are available in San Antonio and points south and points west. I think the solar power industry is one that is just absolutely going to boom, and I think San Antonio can be a big winner in this entire process.

On his past critiques of the EPA

Ninety-nine percent of things the EPA does don't make it to the newspaper and don't become politically charged and I'm more aware of that background now, really aware of the day-to-day work the agency does, the kinds of things that don't make it to the newspaper. Whether its keeping children safe from pesticide use in farm communities, or its reviewing the permit applications for small wastewater treatment plants in little rural communities, or using federal money to build a drinking water system for a community that may have been on wells for 100 years, there are lots of those non-controversial day-in-day-out projects that our agency does that are so critical and help so many people.

Low-income assistance

What I'm very glad to see, in all the national-level legislation there's a recognition that we have to have rebates. That we have to have ways of helping people at the bottom of the economic ladder not feel the hit of anything that comes forward as we regulate climate. And, if anything, that they see a large benefit. I think Congress is going to be ultra-sensitive to exactly that issue.

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