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EPA on parade 

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency made her rounds through San Antonio last week, defending the agency’s rare decision to take over greenhouse gas permits in the state — a move that some GOP lawmakers have dubbed the agency’s “war on Texas.”

As part of her “environmental justice tour,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson toured a green tech program at St. Philip’s College and later held a forum with students at St. Mary’s University.

Still, Jackson’s visit couldn’t have come at a more tense time, with the issue of Texas’ fight against her agency dogging her at every stop.

Last week, the Perry-appointed commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved the building of a Corpus Christi-area power plant in clear defiance of the EPA, which had asked the state to hold off on the permit over federal concerns about the $3.2-billion plant’s effect on local air quality. The plant, the Las Brisas Energy Center, plans to burn petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refineries, to generate power.

Carlos De La Garza, a spokesman for the plant’s Houston-based developer Chase Power Development, said the company would comply with all EPA standards before starting construction. The company acknowledges that may mean additional greenhouse gas permitting from the EPA, he said, adding that Chase hopes to break ground within the year.

The commission’s decision to approve the plant, overruling the recommendation of state administrative law judges and against the direction of the EPA, exacerbates an already deep rift between the EPA and the state.

The EPA took over granting air permits for new power plants, refineries, and other large industrial facilities after state leaders refused to abide by new nationwide greenhouse-gas emissions standards, making Texas the only state out of line with the new rules. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed a series of lawsuits in an attempt to block the EPA from instituting its new standards across the state.

So far, the state’s court actions have been unsuccessful.

When a reporter questioned Jackson on Friday as to why the EPA would take over a permitting process Texas had “successfully” carried out for almost two decades, she responded quickly, “It depends on how you define success. There have been improvements in air quality in Texas, but there are cities in Texas who have some of the worst air quality in the country. … What we are asking from Texas is that it enforce the same federal rules that the rest of the country has agreed to live by.”

Jackson charged that the TCEQ is issuing permits that are really federal permits, saying, “That’s the heart of a lot of the disagreement we’re having. We believe that the permits they’ve been issuing in many cases do not comply with federal law.”

“That determination was made by another son of Texas,” she said, in reference to the George W. Bush administration that first called into question Texas’ so-called flexible air permits.

While the Bush-appointed EPA regulator in Texas had warned the TCEQ about problems with its permitting program, Al Armendariz, the EPA’s current top regulator in Texas, later determined that about 130 refineries, chemical plants, and factories around the state needed to work with the EPA in order to be compliant with federal law, overturning the state’s long-time flexible air permit program.

Armendariz has said flexible permits allow plants to avoid federal clean air requirements by lumping emissions from multiple sources under a single cap, rather than setting specific emission limits for individual pollutants at a plant.

Perry, in turn, has called the EPA “irresponsible and heavy handed.”

Armendariz last week said he was confident the EPA’s authority over permitting in the state will be upheld in court, and added, “The EPA has been working with the majority of flexible permit holders, and the majority have agreed over the next 12 to 18 months to get rid of flexible permits and do it in a way that’s transparent and has EPA oversight.”

In a written statement, the TCEQ defended its own process, saying it will continue to issue permits, despite the EPA’s concerns. Texas lawmakers have also vowed to fight the EPA at every step, claiming new EPA emission standards are a government overreach that will choke businesses with extra costs. On Friday, Jackson responded that the TCEQ is part of a web of environmental protections, and that it’s the EPA’s job to make sure no one place is advantaged or disadvantaged.

“This isn’t about politics, and this isn’t about a war of words in the media. This is about air pollution and public health,” Jackson said.

Discussing environmental policy in a forum with students at St. Mary’s, Jackson remarked, “There are some parts of our political spectrum who are almost anti-environment, and that amazes me.” •

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