Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 Texas Air Quality: A Year In Review

As we come to the end of another year, we reflect on all that has happened in the world of Texas air quality. This year has brought new challenges and reminded us of how much remains to be done in the quest for healthier air across the state. Our work is critical to the millions of those who are especially vulnerable to the harms of air pollution.

I’d like to thank my fellow bloggers for another outstanding year in helping to highlight the air quality issues of 2012 and for the continued support of all of our readers.  We look forward to bringing you more news and views in 2013. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released updated standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), often referred to as “soot” (although it actually comprises a broader array of fine particles). Fine particulate pollution in the air we breathe — some of it directly emitted from cars and trucks, some of it resulting from factories and electric power plants hundreds of miles upwind – can lodge in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and pulmonary disease, especially in children and seniors. EDF praised the move, which will help secure healthy air for millions of Americans, including those in Houston where existing soot levels already exceed the new limits.

The State of Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) once again fight against clean air rules that will save Texans’ lives. This time, it was the first-ever standards limiting the amount of mercury and other toxics power plants could emit. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) will ensure that 90 percent of the mercury content in coal burned by power plants is not released into our air. TCEQ, the Texas attorney general, and others challenged the standards in court, saying that the toxic pollutants covered by the mercury standards do not "pose public health hazards.” The reality is that power plants in the U.S. are a major source of many toxics such as mercury, arsenic, chromium, acid gas, and nickel. A report EDF released last year demonstrated that Texas had an oversized share of the top mercury emitting coal plants in the U.S. in 2009. We called on TCEQ and the state of Texas to stand up to harmful pollution instead of standing in the way of public health protections.

Clean school bus programs in Texas made significant progress toward improving air quality on our state’s school buses, though much work remains to be done according to an EDF analysis: “Review of Texas’ Clean School Bus Programs: How Far Have We Come and What Is Still Left to Do?” The report highlighted the efforts of state and regional programs in administering clean bus programs, and detailed the progress made with retrofits and replacements. With momentum from successes to date, the EDF report recommended that communities, ISDs, and government officials carry on the clean school bus momentum by continuing to seek funding for these types of projects; completing existing clean school bus projects; and investing in these projects through budget and legislative funding allocations. Again, work remains to be done to protect the health of Texas children and improve the air quality in and around school buses – until all of Texas’ oldest buses are either replaced or retrofitted.

Since 2009, the Drayage Loan Program (DLP) has worked to replace older, more polluting trucks in the Houston area with newer, cleaner trucks by providing critical funding and support to local independent owner operators and drayage fleets. The innovative program, administered by the Houston-Galveston Area Council and supported by the Port of Houston Authority, Environmental Defense Fund, and numerous drayage companies and truck dealerships, combines low-interest loans and substantial grants to fund the fleet turnover. The effort led to the successful replacement of 138 drayage trucks, engaged numerous drivers and carriers, and spent nearly the entire original EPA SmartWay grant. At full implementation, the program is expected to eliminate 1,638 tons of nitrogen oxide, 26.7 tons of particulate matter, and 3,636 tons of carbon dioxide. This represented an important step toward reducing air pollution in the Houston area.

With around 45,000 shale gas wells operating in the United States – triple the number in 2005 – people are rightfully concerned about the extent of the shale boom’s potential damage to the environment. The issue became the focal point of discussion during “Can Natural Gas Be Sustainable?,” a five-person panel presentation at the second annual SXSW Eco conference in Austin. As part of the panel, we discussed how stronger standards and employing best practices could minimize impacts of increased natural gas production in the wake of growing public concern about the health and environmental impacts of drilling. EDF continues to address the key problem areas associated with natural gas development: exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products; faulty well construction and design; climate impacts from methane leakage; local and regional air pollution; and land use and community impacts.

Clean air protections were threatened with a U.S. Court of Appeals decision against EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule (CSAPR). The rule estimated to reduce power plant emissions across state boundaries, saving up to 34,000 lives each year, preventing 15,000 heart attacks and 400,000 asthma attacks, and providing $120 to $280 billion in annual health benefits for the nation. Issued under the “Good Neighbor” protections of the Clean Air Act, CSAPR would have reduced power plant sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent and oxides of nitrogen by 54 percent from 2005 levels across 27 eastern states and the District of Columbia. The ruling changed little about the facts on the ground in Texas. That is, cross-state air pollution from Texas will still be regulated under the – albeit somewhat weaker – Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) adopted in 2005 during the Bush administration. Texas power plants must therefore comply with both the first phase of the CAIR that took effect in 2010 and the second-phase reductions that are required in 2015.

In a much-anticipated report on the management of the Port of Houston Authority (PHA), the Sunset Commission, as directed by the Texas legislature, identified several opportunities to improve aspects of port management, including accountability and stakeholder trust. The 95-page report includes a series of recommendations for improvement in a number of basic management and fiduciary areas at the port. While the report reaffirmed the Authority’s ongoing “responsibility as a government agency,” it also highlighted a pervasive “lack of accountability.” Understanding that the port is a unique institution, PHA is criticized in the report for not following a number of best practices in either the private or public sector. As EDF continues to work in partnership with PHA to reduce emissions from oceangoing vessels, trains, cargo handling equipment, and port trucks and improve Houston air quality, we were encouraged by this report’s findings and recommendations. These reforms will also make PHA stronger and better equipped to handle the inevitable diverse pressures over the next several years.

The potential health impacts to workers who daily toil in and around the hundreds of drilling sites were highlighted in a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Hazard Alert, identifying exposure to airborne silica as a health hazard to workers conducting hydraulic fracturing operations during recent field studies. NIOSH is working to identify other potential health risks at drilling sites, acknowledging that there is a real lack of information on occupational dust and chemical exposures in this industry. However, silica is just one of several chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process that can pose hazards at well sites, according to State Impact.

Thanks to a federal appeals court decision, EPA’s health-based air quality standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2) will stand firm. These National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for SO2 will improve health protections, especially for children, the elderly and individuals with asthma. EDF Attorney Peter Zalzal praised the decision saying it “strongly affirms that EPA’s clean air protections addressing dangerous sulfur dioxide are firmly grounded in science and the law.”

The annual Texas smog season – April through October – appeared in full swing this year with numerous counties around the state exceeding health-based ozone concentrations many times since March. Ozone-forming pollution is emitted by cars, refineries and various industrial plants.  As more Texans began to see shale gas drilling rigs pop up around them, many asked the question: Could emissions from natural gas and oil operations significantly contribute to ground-level ozone? The answer was an unequivocal yes.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a unanimous opinion affirming EPA’s protective carbon pollution standards issued under the Clean Air Act.  The Court upheld EPA’s science-based finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare and the Clean Car Standards. The court also dismissed petitions challenging the requirement for large industrial sources to install modern cost-effective solutions to address greenhouse gases and EPA's common sense approach to inoculate small sources. Today’s ruling underscored what we have long known — that EPA’s climate protections are firmly grounded in science and law and will help secure a healthier, more prosperous future for all Americans.

Though the cancer risks from exposure to diesel emissions have been known for many years, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), officially announced that diesel emissions were carcinogenic to humans. The agency cited the robust body of scientific literature on the issue and stated that diesel emissions were associated with lung cancer and bladder cancer. WHO estimates that cancer kills 7.6 million people worldwide, and is the leading cause of death globally in 2008. Of all cancers, lung cancer is the most lethal, and accounted for 18 percent of all cancer deaths, the agency said.

EPA released a new online tool which provides data about pollution emissions for the country’s largest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases. Together, these industry sources are responsible for billions of tons of climate disrupting pollution. This will be the first time that this data is publicly available and will inform Americans about the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in their communities. EDF attorney Peter Zalzal summed up our enthusiasm for this new tool: “Americans have a right to know about the pollution in their air. This greenhouse gas emissions data promotes transparency and provides a strong foundation for Americans to work together in deploying smart climate policies.”

Posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Clean school buses, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston, Natural gas, Particulate Matter, Ports, TCEQ | Comments closed

Panama Canal Expansion May Yield Significant Emission Implications For Shippers, Carriers And Port Authorities

The current expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be completed by early 2015, creates tremendous opportunities for the global freight transportation industry and may have significant effects on many ports in the United States, particularly in Houston and other Gulf areas. Today, I am happy to announce the publication of a peer-reviewed paper that analyzes the environmental implications of potential changes in container shipping as a result of the expansion. “Panama Canal Expansion: Emission Changes from Possible U.S. West Coast Modal Shift ,” is featured in a special issue of the journal Carbon Management. This paper, a collaboration by researchers at the University of Delaware, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), estimates changes in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and regional criteria pollutant emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

Our study found that using larger, more efficient container ships instead of the traditional truck/rail overland network for East Coast-bound cargo may not necessarily offset the increase in carbon emissions resulting from a longer waterborne distance traveled. Although the carbon effects may be negligible, localized air pollution is anticipated to rise in ports with projected growth in cargo volume. This includes the emissions of criteria pollutants that increase the risk for health impacts, such as asthma and lung disease. Ports located in federal nonattainment areas, such as the Port of Houston, could be faced with additional traffic from the Panama Canal expansion that creates further air quality concerns (see our previous post on this issue). Although some ports, shippers and carriers are working to improve their environmental performance, more needs to be done to ensure we leverage the opportunities from an enhanced Panama Canal.

Air pollution concerns are even more relevant now for Houston now that the U.S. EPA has strengthened the annual particulate matter (PM) standard to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. This change, projected to save thousands of lives, reinforces the need to understand future emissions scenarios and strategically improve air quality.

As our paper illustrates, short sea shipping may be one way to alleviate traffic and pollutant emissions along the East and Gulf Coasts. As the shipping sector evolves following the Canal expansion, we are researching the impact of short sea shipping and other strategies to understand how they might mitigate some greenhouse gas and criteria emissions as well as increase reliability, network optimization and time of delivery.

As carriers and shippers look to reduce their environmental footprint, our report demonstrates that a systems approach must be taken to fully understand the effects of route selection, modes and distribution networks. An intermodal strategy can best take advantage of infrastructure developments such as the Canal expansion, provided that we carefully consider all of the costs and benefits. We continue to evaluate the impact of an expanded Panama Canal for the Houston region, and are working tirelessly to ensure that any growth is smart growth.

Posted in Air Pollution, Houston, Panama Canal, Ports, Transportation | Comments closed

Houston Exceeds Health Standards For Particulate Matter: More Work Ahead

Texans can breathe a bit easier now.

The Environmental Protection Agency today released updated standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), often referred to as “soot” (although it actually comprises a broader array of fine particles).  Fine particulate pollution in the air we breathe — some of it directly emitted from cars and trucks, some of it resulting from factories and electric power plants hundreds of miles upwind – can lodge in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and pulmonary disease, especially in children and seniors.

EDF praised the move, which will help secure healthy air for millions of Americans, including those in Houston where existing soot levels already exceed the new limits.

The Houston Chronicle writes that the new standards could “require cleaner operations along the Ship Channel” and slow expansion for some industrial operations.

The new annual standard will be 12 micrograms per cubic matter, helping to protect those especially vulnerable to air pollution, including the one in 11 U.S. children with asthma. Soot is one of the deadliest types of air pollution. It can cause heart attacks, asthma attacks, and even premature death. Recent studies have found a possible association with autism as well.

While the new standard was released today, Houston will have some time to implement pollution control measures in advance of a non-attainment designation, which, if to happen, would likely be in late 2014.

Thus, the region has an opportunity to take action now. EDF is working to reduce emissions for areas near the Port of Houston, where particulate matter concentrations are the highest in the region. Recommendations that we’ve made to the port include paving of industrial park east and use of shorepower for ships that call on the port, especially the new cruise lines that plan to call on the port. We’ve also called upon the port to establish more rigorous pollution controls across all sectors of operations as part of their Clean Air Strategy Plan. Stay tuned for more updates on our efforts to work with the port and regional stakeholders to reduce harmful fine particles.

Other leading health and environmental groups issued strong support of the new standards today:

  • A letter signed by over 650 health and medical professionals stated: Fine particulate air pollution is cutting short the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. Studies have shown fine particulate air pollution is shortening lives by up to six months… Numerous, long-term multi-city studies have shown clear evidence of premature death, cardiovascular and respiratory harm as well as reproductive and developmental harm at contemporary concentrations far below the level of the current standard. Infants, children and teenagers are especially sensitive, as are the elderly, and people with cardiovascular disease, lung disease, or diabetes. The new EPA standards should be set at levels that will protect these sensitive people with an adequate margin of safety, as required by the Clean Air Act.
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: It is encouraging to see the agency following the Clean Air Act, especially in the face of strong industry pressure to ignore science again. The law is clear: the Clean Air Act requires air pollution standards to be based solely on the best available science regarding what is protective of health. Other factors, such as costs, can be considered when the standards are implemented. But it is science that should determine what level of pollution is safe for humans.
  • American Lung Association: We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe. Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it," explained Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. "By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant. Reducing particle pollution will prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and will keep children out of the emergency room and hospitals. It will save lives."
  • Natural Resources Defense Council: From President Frances Beinecke: The Clean Air Act grants Americans the right to clean air. The updated soot standards help deliver that. Now the administration should build on this success and issue carbon limits. Together, these safeguards would protect the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
  • Dr. Christopher Lillis, doctor of internal medicine and board member of Doctors for America: As a health professional, I commend the Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing an important rule that will result in innumerable benefits to public health. I have seen countless patients with emphysema and asthma whose health conditions have worsened due to soot pollution in our atmosphere. Reducing soot pollution also reduces tens of thousands of heart attacks. Today’s announcement is a breath of fresh air for doctors, asthma patients, and their loved ones.
  • Sierra Club: From Executive Director Michael Brune: The Sierra Club applauds the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing these life-saving clean air standards to protect Americans from life-threatening air pollution. Pollution kills – and it also costs Americans billions of dollars each year.  The EPA’s soot safeguards will keep dangerous metals and chemicals out of the air we breathe to save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Houston, Particulate Matter | 3 Responses, comments now closed

Pecan Street Inc. Researchers’ Report Receives Outstanding Paper Award

Source: Pecan Street Inc.

With 1.8 gigawatts (GW) of solar power installed in 2011 and an expected 2.8 GW in 2012, it is safe to say that solar energy has solidified its role as an important part of our nation’s energy portfolio. Affordability, competitive financing and reduced greenhouse gases are just a few of the reasons why the number of solar installations has skyrocketed in the past several years.

Now, new research from Dr. Alexis Kwasinski, Dr. Fabian Uriarte, and Amir Toliyat, engineers from the University of Texas at Austin, sheds some light on how rapidly growing solar installations can work with the current electric grid. For their groundbreaking findings in "Effects of high penetration levels of residential photovoltaic generation," they were recently awarded an Outstanding Paper Award at the International Conference on Renewable Energy Research and Applications (ICRERA) in November for their in-depth research and innovative solutions.

Jump started by a $10.4 million grant from the Department of Energy, Pecan Street Inc. is a “community-wide collaboration to fully reinvent the energy delivery system”  based in Austin, Texas.  This living ‘smart grid laboratory’ provided a perfect data collection site for the researchers. Pecan Street’s leadership focuses on developing new technologies that reinvent the way we create and use energy, so that residents drive electric vehicles, invest in cutting-edge technology and, of course, use solar panels.

The massive amount of data gathered from Pecan Street’s efforts provided researchers the opportunity to analyze solar energy’s effect on the three key characteristics of “power quality” (voltage level, voltage unbalance and power factor).  The researchers found that energy inflections (voltage levels and voltage unbalance) did not create any major concerns with the power grid, despite unfounded claims to the contrary by some solar critics.

Digging further into the data, the researchers unexpectedly found that power factor could become a real issue if solar installers don’t use modern equipment that provides for power factor support.  While the issue could become very real at higher levels of solar penetration, the solution is simple, cheap and currently available; it simply means installers should begin using newer models of solar panel “inverters,” which convert solar power into electricity that can be fed into your grid and home.

Inverters simply convert raw DC power to AC power (i.e. the type of electricity we need to use everyday household items). Maximizing the amount of electricity that is converted into usable power makes solar energy more competitive, ensuring that it will remain an important and growing part of our nation’s energy mix.

It’s exciting to see that these researchers are receiving accolades for their groundbreaking work, and international acclaim is always an excellent motivator for this kind of work, but it’s nice to be appreciated where you hang your hat too.  Fortunately that doesn’t seem to be a problem, since earlier this year Austinites voted in the Best of Austin 2012 award by the Austin Chronicle for Best Way to Turn Some Green Even Greener.  Their choice: Pecan Street Inc.

Posted in Pecan Street, Smart Grid | Comments closed

Time Is Running Out To Set Stronger Limits On Soot Pollution

Credit: Mom's Clean Air Force

This blog post was written by Molly Rauch, and it originally appeared on the Mom's Clean Air Force blog.

On December 14, the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a final standard for allowable levels of soot in ambient outdoor air. Moms Clean Air Force supporters have been speaking up since the proposed standard was released for public comment back in June, urging the agency to finalize a strong standard that will adequately protect children from the microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs and cause a myriad of health problems. These particles originate where fossil fuels are burned, such as in cars, trucks, and power plants.

I’ve written before about some of the ways soot affects children. But as we near December 14, I feel compelled to add even more reasons for you to help us keep the pressure on EPA.

  • Soot exposure specifically harms babies, by causing premature birth and low birth weight. Fetuses exposed to more soot are born smaller and earlier compared to fetuses exposed to less. The evidence for these adverse reproductive health effects is strong and growing stronger. A 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature examined 41 published studies on the topic and found that PM2.5 exposure was consistently associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, and small-for-gestational-age births. So, soot gets inside pregnant women’s bodies and harms our babies before they are even born. No consumer gizmo can solve this problem; no high tech HEPA-filter vacuum will fix this; no special mask to wear while behind the wheel will take this away. This is a job for big government, in the best sense of the term. EPA needs to take strong action against these invisible particles harming our future.
  • Lest you think that such effects on newborn babies don’t sound like a big deal, premature birth and low birth weight are linked to some serious health consequences. Low birth weight is a potent predictor of infant mortality as well as subsequent illnesses in infancy and childhood, such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, lung disease, asthma, and cognitive development. Similarly, preterm birth is associated with infant mortality and health problems in childhood and adulthood. But the harm doesn’t stop in childhood. A growing body of evidence suggests that low birth weight and preterm birth predict several important aspects of health well beyond childhoodFor example, low birth weight is associated with heart disease, heart attacks, and Type 2 diabetes among adults. It is unknown whether the low birth weight caused by soot is the same low birth weight that increases diabetes risk. But in a country like ours, where 12% of all live births are preterm and 8% of babies are low birth weight, and where these adverse birth outcomes disproportionately affect poor and non-white babies, I don’t need to wait for definitive scientific proof. Let’s take reasonable measures to continue to reduce soot exposure. We know it will improve the health of our population right now. And it just might have the added benefit of protecting infants from future chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Win-win, right?
  • Soot exposure from traffic pollution is hardest on poor and minority communities. Here’s why: Traffic emissions are one of the largest sources of soot pollution in cities, and the concentration of traffic pollutants is highest near roadways. Heavily trafficked roads are basically corridors of pollution in many cities, and these are the same areas where you’ll find higher density of residences, schools, stores, and workplaces. (According to EPA, more than 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway.) African Americans and low-income neighborhoods are closer to major roadways, and so they bear the brunt of this pollution. Can you say “vicious cycle”? The new soot standard will require cities to measure soot pollution near roads. There won’t be a simple fix for this kind of injustice, but taking some measurements to get a handle on the problem is a key first step. Bravo to EPA for including near-road monitors in the draft soot standard. Let’s make sure we’ll be reading about near-road monitors on December 14, when we see the final standard.
  • Limiting soot pollution helps avert climate chaos, ensuring a healthier future for our children, our children’s children, and beyond. Black carbon, the main component of soot, is a significant climate forcer. This means that it absorbs sunlight, increasing the heat-trapping qualities of our atmosphere and raising temperatures. An important quality of black carbon is its short lifespan. It stays in the atmosphere for 1-4 weeks as opposed to centuries, as is the case with carbon dioxide. This means that reductions in emissions of black carbon would have immediate climate benefits. Less soot means less asthma and stroke and heart disease – but it also means less black carbon, and therefore less climate change, which is no small threat to our health. Air pollution and climate chaos go hand in hand. Improving one helps the other.

Posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs, Particulate Matter | Comments closed

The Costs Of Particulate Matter To American Health

This blog post was written by Dr. Bonnie New, former Director of Health Professionals for Clean Air.

Physicians treating patients with respiratory symptoms look for underlying causes or aggravators, and that includes exposure to air pollution.

If that pollution involves particulate matter – also known as soot – their concerns intensify, because of its well-known negative health impacts.

Many studies demonstrate associations between short- and long-term exposures to fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) and cardiopulmonary disease and mortality.

PM2.5 exposure is also associated with:

  • endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, including pre-term and low birth-weight babies;
  • increases in lung cancer;
  • increases in the development of vascular disease; and
  • increases in diabetes mortality.

In addition to aggravating existing asthma and other lung diseases, PM2.5 has been linked to retarded lung growth and reduced lung function in children, and even with de novo (newly occurring) development of respiratory problems in infants and children. Research also shows that reductions in PM2.5 are associated with reductions in adverse health effects and improved life expectancy.

It’s important to state here that currently, there is no identified level of PM2.5 that is known to not make people sick.

The groups most susceptible to adverse health effects from PM2.5 are infants, children, teens, the elderly, and those with existing lung and cardiovascular problems. Taken together, this represents almost half of the U.S. population.

Impacts to the Economy

When we see the large impacts of pollution on health, it’s impossible not to notice the financial impacts as well.

The economic impact of preventable illness and death related to soot pollution in the U.S. is staggering, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The functional impact on the lives of those affected and their families is also dramatic.

As doctors, we deal with not only the challenges of diagnosis and treatment, but with the sadness, frustration and pain of people who can not live normal lives and children who can not enjoy just being kids.

It raises anger in physicians to hear from those opposing health-based air quality regulations on the basis that such regulations would be “too costly”. It’s not like the costs are avoided if regulations are not put into place. The costs are simply shifted to our patients, and to the health care system. The costs are paid for in lives impaired and lives lost, in kids who can’t run and play, in increasing hospitalizations and people missing work and school because they’re sick.

Shifting costs like this from polluters to the general public makes for healthy business profits, but sick and unhappy people. As patient advocates, doctors have good reason to be angry. The public, those current and future patients and families, do too.

Posted in Air Pollution, Particulate Matter | 1 Response, comments now closed

COP18: Why Texas Should Care About Climate Change

Credit: www.globalpost.com

This is the first of a two-part series on greenhouse gases and the part Texas plays.

This week wraps up COP18, “The Convention on Climate Change” conference held in Doha, Qatar this year. COP18 gets its name from the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference sets a framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the world’s increasing carbon emissions. As we know, Texas, as the largest state in the 48 contiguous United States, also leads the nation in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Because Texas plays such a large part in the problem, we also have an opportunity to also play a large part in the solution.

COP18 Background
Countries from around the world joined an international treaty in 1992 called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with the goal of finding ways they could collectively limit average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change.

Realizing that proposed emissions reductions were inadequate by 1995, they adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds developed countries to emission reduction targets. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing GHGs. Countries that ratified the treaty committed to an average of five percent reduction against 1990 levels over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012. Talks this year will determine the length of the next commitment period, which begins in 2013.

The overall objective of the COP18 conference is to achieve "… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

Over the years you may have heard about these talks in Kyoto, Durban and now Doha. You might also be somewhat aware of climate change and the dangers it presents. What you may not know however is that GHGs continue to climb and there is mounting concern that current efforts are simply not enough.

Just this week The New York Times covered a World Bank report finding that global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high last year and that, “emissions continue to grow so rapidly that an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable,” according to researchers with the Global Carbon Project.

Consequently, Texas, as good global citizens, must work to reduce the emissions contributing to climate change. After analyzing data from more than 6,700 industrial facilities releasing at least 25,000 tons of GHGs per year, the Environmental Protection Agency described our state’s emissions as “comparable to the emissions from burning 131 railcars of coal.”

The good news is that there is a plan. Stay tuned for the second blog in this series, which will review actions taken by EPA to help Texas curb carbon pollution.

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs | Comments closed

Texas Plays At Collecting Fees From Ozone Polluters

Source: www.kidsstuffworld.com

This blog post written by Adrian Shelley originally appears on the Air Alliance Houston blog.

Earlier this year, we wrote about the consequences of Houston’s failure to meet a thirty year old one-hour ozone pollution standard. The federal Clean Air Act imposes a penalty fee on major sources of ozone-producing pollutants in areas, like Houston, that have failed to attain this standard. In 2009, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) proposed a rule to begin collecting these fees, which are called section 185 fees after the section in the Clean Air Act that imposes them. It was estimated that Texas would collect between $73 and $125 million in section 185 fees per year for the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria (HGB) area.

For reasons related to shifting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy and Texas’ status under another, more recent ozone standard, TCEQ’s 2009 rule was never finalized. In our last writing on the issue, we expressed our hope that the fees would eventually be collected and the money used to improve air quality in the Houston area.

Now, three years after TCEQ proposed its original section 185 fee rule, the Commission has proposed a new rule. Unfortunately, the new rule makes it apparent that TCEQ has no intention of ever collecting any fees. It is possible, though unlikely, that EPA could review Texas’ rule and conclude that it doesn’t satisfy the requirements of federal law. If this happened, EPA would be required to collect the money itself. Although this is a remote possibility, it highlights the fact that Texas should have a robust section 185 rule that ensures that this money stays in the Houston area where it belongs.

A section 185 fee program that complied with the unambiguous requirements of the Clean Air Act would collect a fee per ton of emissions of certain ozone precursors – volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) – emitted in excess of 80% of an established baseline amount. The fee, adjusted for inflation, amounts to $8,630 per ton in 2008, the first year it should have been collected in Houston. The fees, which could approach $100 million each year, would be collected from major sources of emissions in Houston and, ideally, be used to reduce air pollution in the Houston area. They would also serve as a powerful economic incentive for industry to cut emissions.

TCEQ’s proposed section 185 fee rule does not follow this model. It seems to have been designed to ensure that polluters won’t ever pay a dime. To begin with, the TCEQ proposes to let industry offset its fee obligation against money that is already being collected from Houston area residents for other pollution reduction programs: the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) and the Vehicle Inspection and Maintenance (VIM) program. TERP and VIM collect money from drivers upon inspection and registration renewal and then are supposed to use those funds for various air quality improvement programs. But, as Texas’ budget woes have increased in recent years, the state has begun holding on to this money as a way of artificially balancing the state budget. In the last biennial budget, Texas sat on $130 million in TERP money. This money should have been used to replace or upgrade heavy-duty diesel-powered trucks, machinery, train engines and construction vehicles.

Under the newly proposed section 185 fee rule, Texas would offset the penalty fees owed by major sources in the Houston area using unspent TERP and VIM money. If Texas doesn’t spend that money during the next year, it could credit it against its fee obligation again. In other words, Texas now has another incentive not to spend money it collects from Houston area drivers for pollution reduction programs: using money that you and I have paid to excuse big polluters from paying fees they owe under federal law.

TCEQ doesn’t even hide the fact that it intends to forgive polluters the entire amount they owe. After some back-of-the-envelope calculations in the rule package proposing the section 185 fee rule, TCEQ declares that “this [TERP and VIM] revenue could be used to fully offset the area's fee obligation and no fee would be assessed on major stationary sources for a particular calendar year.”

What’s more, this is only one way that Texas is thumbing its nose at federal law. The Clean Air Act requires that section 185 fee collection apply retroactively. Polluters owe fees back to 2008 – the year after the HGB area failed to attain the ozone standard. Texas gives another huge break to polluters by ignoring this federal mandate and declaring that it won’t collect fees until the year preceding the adoption date of its section 185 fee rules. That’s 2012 at the earliest, which means Texas is forgiving nearly half a billion dollars in fees that could be used for pollution reduction programs in our area while also holding on to over $100 million plus dollars that we have already paid and should also be used for programs that make our air cleaner.

And let’s not forget that if EPA rejects the Texas program, the federal government is then required to collect any fees that Texas fails to collect. With interest.

That’s money that could leave Texas forever and enrich the federal government – a prospect that should frighten even the most hardened federalists.

The proposed rule abounds with such bizarre and unnecessary measures. Federal law requires that section 185 fees are collected until the EPA finds that the HGB area has attained the one-hour ozone standard. TCEQ’s rule puts the fee program on hold as soon as it has air quality data that suggests that the area will attain. TCEQ has also defined baseline emissions in a way that is contrary to Clean Air Act requirements and allows sources to inflate their baselines by using outdated historical allowable emissions and including unauthorized maintenance/startup/shutdown emissions. This means that it is unlikely that very many sources will exceed 80% of their baselines and face significant fee obligations anyway.

Remember the TERP and VIM money that Texas is going to use to forgive section 185 fees? Money that Texas should already be spending on pollution reduction programs, but isn’t? TCEQ has decided that even though it won’t collect section 185 fees retroactively, it will go ahead and reach back to 2008 to credit TERP and VIM money against the 185 fee obligation.

Got that? Texas explicitly contradicts federal law to forgive polluters several years of retroactive penalty fees, but it uses the concept of retroactivity from that same law to conjure up a huge pile of money that it pretends already satisfies the penalty fee obligation.

Never mind that TERP and VIM money has already been collected for years. Or that the only reason we have so much of it on-hand is that we refuse to spend it on the very projects it was designed to fund. Or that there is nothing in federal law that allows us to credit anything against our section 185 fee obligation. TCEQ has created from whole cloth a bizarre method to forgive penalties that should be assessed against the major polluters who carry equal responsibility for the poor air quality that led to the imposition of those penalties in the first place by not spending money that residents of our region have been paying in order to clean up our air. We should all, in short, be completely outraged by this slight of hand.

If there were any doubt that TCEQ doesn’t intend to collect any fees under the section 185 program, we need only look at one final provision of the proposed rule. The rule says that polluters must pay fees within 30 days of receiving an invoice. What it doesn’t say, is when—or if—the invoices will be sent.

That’s right: there is nothing in TCEQ’s proposed rule that requires the Commission to send section 185 fee invoices.

You can learn more about TCEQ’s proposed section 185 fee rule here.

Thank you to Gabriel Clark-Leach of Environmental Integrity Project for contributing research to this report.

Posted in Air Pollution, Houston, Ozone, TCEQ | Comments closed
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