2013 Texas Air Quality: Year In Review

Elena CraftAs we come to the end of another year, we look back on the progress that has been made to improve Texas’ air quality. Our work is especially important in Texas. Ozone pollution in the state’s largest cities routinely spikes above healthy levels, and Texas leads the nation in annual carbon emissions.

Throughout 2013, my fellow bloggers and I tracked the critical progress made towards cleaner air in Texas. Texas experienced a handful of victories and a handful of losses. To summarize the year, I’ll discuss a few of the areas where we made progress, and a few of the areas where there is still more work to do.

Progress Toward Smart Power and Clean Air

Over the past year, Texas wind power continued its promising positive trend, thanks in part to the state’s forward-looking decision to build new high-capacity electricity transmission lines linking the windy plains of West Texas with the state’s cities. The Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission project was approved by the state in 2008, and the new power lines are set to come online in a few weeks. The new power lines can carry 18,500 megawatts of electricity—enough to power millions of homes. The CREZ lines will help ensure Texas wind energy continues to expand, offsetting electricity produced from fossil-fuel power plants and reducing pollution.

Growth in Texas wind energy has helped make renewable energy inexpensive compared with traditional sources of electricity, like coal-fired power plants. In 2013, both Microsoft and Google signed long-term contracts to power their Texas data centers with Texas wind energy. Furthermore, the City of Houston became the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy in the nation, buying enough clean energy to cover half its energy use—all for the low cost of less than one additional cent per kilowatt-hour.

In addition to progress in the area of renewable energy, this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released updated national vehicle emissions and fuel standards, commonly referred to as ‘Tier 3.’ We are hopeful that the EPA will finalize these standards right away in order to ensure that automobile manufacturers use the latest technology to minimize tailpipe emissions. Furthermore, the standards will reduce the amount of sulfur permitted in U.S. gasoline. These crucial air quality standards are the best way reduce ozone pollution in Texas’ cities. It’s clear that the standards’ health-related benefits will more than make up for their negligible cost.

While Texas made admirable progress in 2013, the fight for clean air in the state is far from over.

A Lack Of Effective Policy

One obstacle standing in the way of common-sense environmental policy in Texas is the state’s dogged opposition to seemingly any new federal environmental standards. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott famously boasted: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” The state’s refusal to implement new federal regulations on greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution prohibits any constructive policy solutions to address the looming threat of climate change and the health risks of continued air pollution.

While Texas leaders rebuked federal efforts to reduce air pollution, ozone levels increased in a number of Texas cities in 2013. Ozone pollution peaked above the federal limit consistently in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. In Houston, ozone levels are projected to exceed EPA’s 1997 standard for another five years—despite the fact that that standard has been out of date since 2008.

Texas’ lack of common sense policies (such as fire codes at facilities that store explosive materials) culminated in the tragic West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013. The explosion that occurred in West is a devastating reminder of how ineffective or inexistent environmental policy can endanger human health. In the coming year, we look to Texas leaders to address policy shortcomings – it is clear that effective regulation could have and should have prevented the West tragedy.

A Call For Action In 2014

Texas stands at a crossroads. In many ways, the state is leading the charge toward a future powered by clean energy. At the same time, the state’s leaders have objected to any new environmental policy initiatives. In 2014, EDF will continue advocating for rational, science-based solutions that take advantage of the latest technologies to reduce air pollution. If Texas embraces its leadership in clean energy, we can build an energy economy that produces prosperity for the state, reduces harmful pollution and addresses the looming threat of climate change.

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