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Texas Pollution Worsens as Budget Shrinks for Regulators

State regulators blame big spikes in emissions to "upsets" at a few facilities like this one in Houston in 2012. (Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas)

With budgets already reduced and with more cuts on the way, federal environmental regulators are expected to be doing fewer inspections of industries that pollute. And if state environmental regulators were expected to take up the slack, many of them — including those in Texas —- are dealing with budget cuts of their own.

“There have been just dramatically fewer [EPA] inspections,” said Bernadette Rappold, a lawyer who spent years working in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division. She’s now with the McGuireWoods law firm in Washington.

In the next few years, Rappold said even fewer inspections and enforcement actions are expected if the EPA’s budget-slashing five year plan is adopted.

“It’s not the case that it’s simply the federal EPA that’s been cut and the states can pick up the slack. The states are, in many instances, hurting too.”

Whether Texas is “hurting” depends on who you ask, but there’s no question the state has made substantial funding reductions for environmental enforcement. In the 2011 session of the Texas legislature, lawmakers cut funding to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) by 30 percent and reduced its workforce by 8 percent. The cuts took effect in 2012 and remain in effect today, largely untouched by the 2013 legislative session. Some key lawmakers involved in attempts to limit environmental enforcement did not respond to interview requests.

State Says Budget Cuts Didn’t Lead to Pollution Increase

The cuts came as the energy industry was greatly expanding in Texas. There was a boom in oil & gas drilling in several regions and an expansion of petrochemical and refining plants along the Texas Gulf Coast. But there was also an increase in pollution.

According to the TCEQ, total emissions of pollution increased 23 percent from 2011 to 2012. The agency cited “large” increases in pollution from oil & gas drilling in the Midland area as well as “significant” increases in Beaumont, which is located in the so-called “Golden Triangle” of refineries and petrochemical plants in Southeast Texas.

By 2013, a TCEQ annual report said total emissions had fallen back to about what they were in 2011.

In a another set of data called “Performance Reporting” which is provided by state agencies to the legislature, the TCEQ set a goal of reducing total releases of pollution by 2 percent a year. It reported success in 2010 and 2011, actually beating that goal by large margins with a 9 percent reduction in 2010 followed by a 13 percent reduction in 2011.

But in 2012, according to reports TCEQ files with the Texas Legislative Budget Board, toxic releases statewide shot up 14 percent, followed by a 2.7 percent increase in 2013.

The TCEQ said the increases in pollution “were not due to budget cuts.” In an emailed response to questions from StateImpact Texas, the TCEQ’s media relations manager, Terry Clawson, wrote that the increases were traced to a few big releases at a small number of facilities.

Clawson said that despite the budget cuts, there was no impact to the number of investigators. He said the TCEQ  was still conducting thousands of investigations in the regions of the state where oil & gas drilling has surged.

“The agency chose to maintain its core mission of permitting and enforcement in order to retain ‘boots on the ground.’  The cuts were absorbed in our grant and remediation programs,” wrote Clawson.

Critics Say Texans’ Health at Risk

Advocates for stricter regulation are skeptical.

“Anytime you’re having to do more with less, you’re really putting at risk — you’re jeopardizing the number of inspections that can be done, the quality of inspections that can be done,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“You’re really risking some of these common sense safeguards and protections and protocols that are supposed to be in place to protect public health,” said Craft.

The Texas energy industry has a long history of opposing regulation. The state fashioned the TCEQ to use a different set of priorities compared to the federal EPA according to Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

“(The TCEQ) is very effective at doing what Texas public officials want it to do, which is not the same as what the EPA does. The EPA has a focus the health impacts of pollution. And they work very hard to measure those and combat those. Whereas in Texas, the formal charge to the TCEQ is to look at the environmental impacts in light of the economy, to put jobs and economic growth a little bit ahead of environmental protection, or at least closely balance those two things.”

Now with both agencies operating with fewer resources, should industry feel relieved? Not necessarily, said Bernadette Rappold, the former EPA enforcer.

“It’s not just this sort of good news for industry story that some people might portray it as,” Rappold told StateImpact Texas.

She said it could create more uncertainty and delays for things like pollution permits if the EPA’s role is diminished and states begin using different approaches to enforce what are often federal rules.

Rappold said it also could result in a competitive disadvantage for companies that try to obey the law, but whose less scrupulous competitors may now find it less risky to take shortcuts that might result in higher profits but more pollution.