Nov. 09–Federal environmental regulators announced a series of measures Thursday, including the easing of restrictions on the oil industry, that they said would help create jobs without jeopardizing air quality, but activists remained skeptical.
During a stop Thursday in Dallas, acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that he had approved guidelines for meeting ground-level ozone standards, changed petroleum refinery reporting rules and cut permitting requirements for some industrial plants when they replace equipment.
Wheeler also said the EPA was “expeditiously” working on an effort to let Texas businesses continue making what’s known as an “affirmative defense” in some pollution cases. Many Texas companies avoid fines when pollution is self-reported and the result of plant startups, shutdowns or accidents. An Obama-era rule called for the elimination of those exemptions.
The relaxing of some pollution rules is expected to help the industry save millions of dollars.
“We’re not talking about changing the health standards,” Wheeler said. “We’re trying to make sure that people can come into compliance without jeopardizing job growth.”
He said the changes reflect President Donald Trump’s request that he improve air and water quality while continuing to “deregulate in order to create more jobs.” Since taking office in 2017, Trump and his appointees have targeted Obama-era environmental regulations, which they describe as burdensome, for elimination.
Thursday’s visit to the EPA’s Region 6 office in downtown Dallas concluded the final leg of Wheeler’s tour of his agency’s 10 regional offices. Wheeler was named acting administrator to replace agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned after a scandal-filled tenure.
During the Dallas trip, Wheeler said the EPA also planned to certify that five East Texas counties meet federal sulfur dioxide standards following the closure this year of three large coal-fired power plants in that region.
Ilan Levin, the Texas-based associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said most of the announcements were efforts the administration had previously mentioned or was known to be pursuing. He said he was concerned about the agency’s efforts to undercut monitoring and reporting.
“When there is more frequent monitoring, they find more leaks and they plug them faster,” Levin said. “Then emissions go down.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had no immediate comment about Wheeler’s announcements. Spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said that the agency’s technical staff was reviewing the documents and that any comment would be premature.
The visit did receive a thumbs up from one of Texas’ oil and gas regulators. “Cooperative federalism is important and I am proud to work alongside President Trump’sEPA to ensure Texas continues to lead the nation in the responsible production of our natural resources,” Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian said in a statement.
Some of Thursday’s announcements are more likely to affect South Texas than the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The refinery rules, which are expected to save industry $12 million and delay some deadlines, are of greater interest along the Gulf Coast. A large percentage of the nation’s refining capacity is located between Corpus Christi and the Louisiana border.
“It’ll be reducing some of the reporting requirements and streamlining them,” Wheeler said. “But at the end of the day, our modeling shows that the effect on emissions will be insignificant.”
The new rules for creating a plan to attain ozone standards also include a provision to allow a region to take into account pollution from other countries. In Texas’ case, such pollution would probably come from Mexico.
Eric Groten, a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins, said the treatment of international pollution appeared to be the most interesting element of the EPA’s ozone announcement.
“This makes sense, as otherwise states and EPA would be placed in the position of solving a problem over which they have no control, or at least incomplete control,” he said by email.
Groten noted that the relief from international emissions wasn’t limited to border area. But he said it wasn’t clear whether the change would affect North Texas.
Ozone has been a persistent problem in the Dallas area, which has never met any of the federal standards. Although ozone concentrations have decreased, the standards have been lowered over the decades as new research emerged about the health problems associated with ozone.
EPA officials say they hope that by giving greater flexibility to states and industry, they will be able to innovate and continue reducing air pollution.
Adrian Shelley, Texas director of Public Citizen, said the moves seem likely to delay attainment of the 2015 ozone standards and disputed the idea that “greater flexibility will lead to more effective implementation of the Clean Air Act.”
“Easing requirements for industry action will delay pollution reductions and attainment of federal pollution standards,” Shelley said by email.
He also said the EPA already has an “exception events” rule that would deal with international pollution.
An EPA statement emphasized that many pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, have decreased significantly in recent years and decades. Nitrogen oxide is a key compound in the creation of ozone.
Agency officials said they expect that the “vast majority of areas in the United States will attain the 2015 ozone standards by the early 2020s.”
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