In Texas, Fear and Excitement with New EPA
Local pollution watchers worry about a loss of resources. The oil and gas industry looks forward to what it expects will be a consistent regulatory regime.
Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a clear vision for the agency: scale it down, roll it back.
It’s a vision of big change, one that’s sparked fear – and excitement – in Texas.
Pruitt’s EPA is working to get rid of Obama-era rules and the Clean Power Plan but also, it says, to focus on toxic cleanups and air and water quality.
Climate change research isn’t big on the agenda. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget office director, talked about that in May.
“We don’t get rid of it here,” Mulvaney said at a press conference, where he was explaining the president’s proposed budget.
“Do a lot of the EPA reductions aimed at [sic] reducing the focus on climate change? Yes. Does it mean that we are anti-science? Absolutely not.”
The White House budget calls for a sweeping 31% funding cut at the EPA. That would include cuts to the agency’s enforcement office, and fewer grants for state and local pollution monitoring.
“Texans should be worried,” says Al Armendariz with the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. Armendariz used to lead the regional EPA office in Dallas before he quit in 2012.
The president’s budget likely won’t be adopted as written, but Armendariz still worries about the message it sends to heavy industry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some polluters see this as an opportunity to cut corners, to look for loopholes, to try to take shortcuts,” he says. “Because they know the environmental cops are not going to be on the beat anymore.”
Refiners and petrochemical plants say they do strive to be environmentally-friendly, and Armendariz says some of them do have good track records of obeying the rules.
Still, pollution happens.
ExxonMobil was recently fined $20 million for Clean Air Act violations at its Baytown facility, and a Pasadena refinery is facing a lawsuit over repeated pollution problems.
State and local environmental agencies worry the new EPA won’t give them the tools they need to keep polluters in check.
“The concern is offering the public the protection that they deserve,” says Mary Sullivan Douglas, Senior Staff Associate at the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
The group’s members include regulators in Houston and the state’s other biggest cities. It fears more people could die with the kind of cuts proposed by the White House.
“Anything that makes it more difficult for state and local agencies to do the job of cleaning up the air and maintaining the clean air that they’ve already gotten would result in additional people suffering,” Douglas says.
“We do not focus on saying there should be no regulations,” says John Tintera with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, an industry group. “We fully understand what the need is to regulate industries.”
While some are feeling anxious about the road ahead, Tintera says the industry is optimistic. Not because companies want to pollute, but rather because they feel an era of over-regulation has come to an end. He says that’s translated to more confident business moves in the oilfield.
“You are no longer being held back from your investments by looking at a regulatory framework that you wonder if it’s going to be the same six months from now as it is today,” Tintera says. “Because many of the oilfield projects require years of planning and investment before they begin actual fruition.”
Pruitt’s promise to balance regulation with economic growth is letting an industry already under pressure from low oil prices relax a little.
But the pressure on the EPA may be just beginning: environmental groups have sued the agency after it stopped an Obama-era rule on methane emissions from going into effect this month.