Dangerous Gamble: Playing "Texas Hold Up" With Public Health

You may have read about the “standoff” between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Texas Governor Rick Perry over the EPA’s common-sense steps requiring states to have plans in place to end unlimited carbon pollution from big new power plants or industrial facilities. There’s a lot of hyperbole and outright nonsense surrounding the “Alone Star State’s” attempt to duck these vital and urgently needed public health protections.

We don't know what cards the Governor thinks he's holding, but the stakes are pretty in high terms of public health. As Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm recently noted, attacks on EPA efforts to limit carbon pollution are a “Threat to public health:”

Curtailing these efforts by placing our regulatory system in a stranglehold will sentence tens of thousands of people to debilitating, respiratory illnesses, adding to the burden of chronic disease in the nation and increased financial burden to the health care system.

(Note-HCWH issued its statement in reference to Congressional efforts to block EPA, but the comments seem equally applicable to Texas.)

So far, as my colleague David Doniger notes, federal judges also don’t think much of the hand Governor Perry is trying to play against the EPA.  Others in the Lone Star State understand the need to protect public health from carbon pollution and get that the way to prevent tying up business is to make sure that investors and energy companies have certainty about what’s expected of them, something they can’t have as long as the State continues to argue with what 49 other states are accepting. As the Fort Worth Star Telegram editorial board noted:

“On Monday, EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy sent a letter to Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  ‘The unwillingness of Texas state officials to implement this portion of the federal program leaves EPA no choice but to resume its role as the permitting authority,’ McCarthy wrote.  Echoing Perry, she said the action was necessary so Texas businesses can ‘move forward with planned construction and expansion projects that will create jobs and otherwise benefit the state's and nation's economy.’

OK. So both sides say they want to create jobs and protect the environment. It's clear that both sides have dug in their heels.  In that case, it looks like all of this is going just about as well as could be expected. The EPA will be the chief environmental regulator in Texas until such time as the federal courts rule on which side is right. The EPA, with the stricter regulations, is the safer way to go under these circumstances.” 

The Houston Chronicle recently weighed in as well, in a recent editorial aptly titled “Needless conflict: Once again, Texas environmental regulators' obstruction forces EPA intervention,”:

“While we are admirers of Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, her last-minute appeal to the EPA to hold off on new emissions regulations is neither justified nor in the interests of Texans. Far better would be a state policy to work with the federal environmental regulators to meet the new pollution standards, as some individual refinery operators in Texas are already doing.

Texas didn't have to lose oversight of the air pollution permits, and as a result industrial facilities may have longer waiting times for federal permits.

This is a yet another round in the counterproductive conflict between the EPA and the Perry administration over what many feel is the TCEQ's lax enforcement of clean-air standards. This year the state and EPA locked horns over the TCEQ's so-called flexible permits, which federal regulators contend allow industrial facilities to pollute at higher levels than EPA mandates. The EPA ruled existing permits invalid and new permits must meet Clear Air Act requirements.

It's crystal clear that politics in the governor's office continues to trump pollution as a state concern. If state officials spent as much energy on cleaning our air as they do fighting the EPA in court, we'd all breathe easier.”

As the Houston Chronicle makes clear, this fight is really about the much bigger struggle to make sure that clean air and protecting public health trumps polluters’ agendas. If you haven’t already seen the new YouTube video that talks to doctors, teachers and parents in Texas about why the EPA needs to act, check it out. Clear message: the EPA needs to do its job of protecting the health of children and families.

We should remember that what’s at stake is primarily a matter of public health: The American Lung Association estimates that nearly two million Texans suffer from asthma, including 600,000 kids. Allowing polluters to keep pumping unlimited amounts of carbon into the air will make it harder to reduce the pollution that causes and worsens asthma – not to mention a bunch of other public health threats such as great numbers of heat waves, disease-carrying insects and more.

Unfortunately, Senator Hutchison has apparently decided to ramp up her fight for polluters and against clean air, firing back at the Houston Chronicle with an oped of her own. In it, Hutchison repeats misleading claims that Chairman Upton made in his recent editorial which he co-authored with one of the nation’s worst polluters. My colleague David Doniger challenges some of these myths here and in this letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal.

This Friday, the EPA is holding a public hearing on its plans to do the job that Governor Perry refuses to do. Of course, we can expect polluters to turn out in droves to attack the EPA.

Hopefully, common sense will prevail. As Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers might say: “You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” Let’s hope Governor Perry knows.