Last month, Texas Governor Rick Perry penned an open letter to President Barack Obama criticizing the administration’s energy policy and urging the federal government to adopt the “Texas approach” to energy and environmental regulations. The letter stoked its fair share of controversy, prompting Politifact Texas to weigh in on Perry’s claims about Texas air pollution. Unsurprisingly, they found that Perry’s words were only a half-truth, masking the true state of air quality in Texas. With this post, I’ll unpack Perry’s claims, discuss the true state of the air in Texas, and suggest where the state should go from here.
In his letter, Perry claimed that, since 2000, Texas has reduced “harmful pollutants in the air like nitrogen oxide by 62.5 percent, and ozone by 23 percent—a reduction that is 12 percent greater than the national average.” Politifact deemed this statement more spin than substance for good reason; while Texas air quality has improved in recent years, Texas cities ranked among the worst in the nation for ozone and particulate matter in the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report. Both ozone and particulate matter pose a risk to human health, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, especially in children and the elderly. And because ozone forms more readily on hot, sunny days, Texas ozone season lasts for several months, increasing health risks for Texans exposed to pollution. While Texas air quality has improved, we still fair worse than most of the nation—it’s far too early for Rick Perry to claim victory over air pollution.
In fact, multiple factors suggest Texas will have to double down on emissions reduction efforts. Recent studies indicate that ozone pollution is harmful at lower levels than previously known, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) to explore a more protective ozone pollution standard, and further reductions in ozone pollution throughout the United States. At the same time, a flurry of oil and gas drilling and steady population growth could increase ozone-forming emissions in the state, placing more Texans at risk of negative health impacts. However, Texas has initiated few sincere state-level policies to combat air pollution. Texas’ recent air quality gains were largely driven by federal policies and standards established by EPA in accordance with the Clean Air Act. Rather than work with EPA to improve the state’s air quality, Texas leaders have fought tooth and nail to skirt EPA regulations.
Despite what Texas leaders might say, there are numerous opportunities to reduce air pollution without negatively affecting the state’s economy. EDF has championed many of these activities. For example, EDF helped establish a loan program to reduce emissions from heavy trucks that move cargo through the Port of Houston, one of the busiest ports in the country. The loan program, which, admittedly, did rely on some state funds, has replaced more than 200 of the oldest, dirtiest trucks that operate at the port with newer, cleaner ones. By the end of 2014 EDF expects the program will eliminate over 1,600 tons of ozone-forming nitrogen oxide emissions and more than 25 tons of soot pollution. Further, EDF is working with natural gas producers and decision makers in the state to help mitigate air pollution and install more air monitoring networks early in the development of oil and gas operations to monitor the impact on local air quality.
Rick Perry’s claims about the merits of the “Texas approach” to energy and the environment don’t hold up under scrutiny. Under Perry’s watch, Texas has resisted EPA policies meant to protect Texans from the dangers of air pollution, and not made enough of an effort to address air quality statewide. Texas’ air quality gains have not been achieved because of the Texas approach—but in spite of it. Texas is still a long way from achieving healthy air for its citizens. As the state faces air quality challenges over the coming years, Texas policymakers should step up to the plate and craft effective strategies to combat pollution and protect the health of Texans—not leave it all up to the folks in Washington.