Houston Tops L.A. for Most Carbon Emissions The Texas town edged out notoriously toxic Los Angeles for the crown of America's biggest polluter. Offering his take on how Houston produced 18 million tons of carbon dioxide is Houston Chronicle writer Tim Fleck.

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Houston Tops L.A. for Most Carbon Emissions

Houston Tops L.A. for Most Carbon Emissions

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The Texas town edged out notoriously toxic Los Angeles for the crown of America's biggest polluter. Offering his take on how Houston produced 18 million tons of carbon dioxide is Houston Chronicle writer Tim Fleck.


Well, Harris County, you can distribute the foam fingers and book a parade, you're number one! Unfortunately, the category is "emitter of greenhouse gases." It is the first ever county-by-county assessment of carbon dioxide emissions. Harris County, the home county of Houston, Texas, came out on top.

So, let's hope the parade floats are pulled by Priuses. But, you know, it's easy to put fingers, foam or otherwise, but Harris County is an engine of sorts for the rest of Texas and America, and at the same time, 18 million tons of CO2 is a lot. Tim Fleck is an editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle. He is with us from his home in Harris County. Hello, Tim.

Mr. TIM FLECK (Editorial Writer, Houston Chronicle): Good morning, Mike.

PESCA: Tim, have you lived in Houston a long time?

Mr. FLECK: I was born here.

PESCA: OK. So you remember, let me bring you back to a time called 1983. The Houston Cougars basketball team had formed Phi Slama Jama, and they were number one in the polls. Was it a different feeling when they were named number one than when you were named number one as a CO2 emitter?

Mr. FLECK: Well, yes. Unfortunately, I have to back to '83, when we also got beat by North Carolina in the finals.

PESCA: OK. That was an upset.

Mr. FLECK: Consider, we're just barely ahead of the Los Angeles area. I mean, 18.6 to 18.5, so we're right up there with L.A.

PESCA: Right, you could say that to yourself, but really, how are Houstonians reacting? Are they kind of emphasizing that they're just barely number one or has there been any soul searching going on?

Mr. FLECK: Well, I don't think there's much surprise here, and I think what the message is here is industry is a far more potent emitter of greenhouse gas than people. You look at L.A., which - Los Angeles County has 9.8 million people. We have only 3.9 million people. That's two and a half times as many people, but we have one of the world's largest petrochemical complexes.

We have a 50-mile ship channel that brings in the largest foreign tonnage of any port in the United States. And those foreign ships have some very dirty engines. So I think what the point is here is that people can do everything possible to try to lower their CO2 footprint, but industry is just a far bigger factor. And that's why we emit more.

PESCA: So does everyone or most people in Houston just chalk it up to the price of doing business?

Mr. FLECK: I think so. We don't like it, certainly. And I think there's a large progressive faction in Houston, including, increasingly, corporate CEOs, who want to put Houston in the forefront of creating renewable energy, becoming, perhaps, a carbon-trading hub once the carbon-trading cap-and-trade system goes into effect, as it undoubtedly will in the next few years. So while we're looking at it as this is the price of doing business, I think a lot of us realize business has got to change.

PESCA: Right. Because you're - because you talked about what we could we do from a personal level, but are there any movements afoot to change laws? Sometimes even a city will change a law that affects a huge multi-national corporation doing business inside the city. Or are the Houstonians more hands-off? Like, why would you want to mess around with one of these big petrochemical companies who provide jobs and money for the local area?

Mr. FLECK: Well, historically, Texas, and Houston, has been pro-industry.


Mr. FLECK: Historically, the Texas Legislature has given big industry everything it wants. I think that the prevalent point of view was that industry is good for us. Let them regulate themselves. They'll do what's best. Well, that's changing. We have a mayor, Bill White, new administration, not so new now, actually he's on his third term.

But he's pushed hard for tougher air pollution standards. The city, in fact, has tried to take it into its own hands by enforcing nuisance ordinances against big polluters. The city fleet has gone hybrid. We're considering an ordinance right now down at city hall to force developers to build green buildings with - to environmental standards.

So basically you have the old order, which was let industry do its thing, it's good for us, versus kind of a new enlightened view that we've got to clean up our act and we should get in the forefront of it to clean up our act.

PESCA: I have a quote from a representative from Mayor Bill White's office. Elana Marks is the health policy director in Houston and she says, "People shouldn't feel guilty about this, but they should pay attention to the data and realize that we all have a part to play in reducing our carbon footprint." I want to take it in two parts. One, do you think people should maybe feel guilty about it?

Mr. FLECK: I don't - I don't think guilt serves us any positive reaction. I think what you have to do is look ahead. The thing about Houston is, since its founding 171 years ago, it's really reinvented itself as often as Madonna. We're kind of the material metropolis.

PESCA: Oh yeah, that's the music - that's the musical reference, I think, would be biggest in Houston.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: Really.

PESCA: Yeah, I was thinking more, you know, Tanya Tucker or someone, but go ahead.

Mr. FLECK: Well, and also, I think that Houston can position itself given its energy expertise, its large corporate trading capabilities, to be part of that future. And I think that's what we're all hoping will happen.

PESCA: There is - the second part of the quote, which is that "People should pay attention to the data and realize that we all have a part to play in reducing our carbon footprint." And she's talking about people, maybe about citizens.

Mr. FLECK: Right.

PESCA: And then I look at the stats - most of the pollution comes from petrol refining and chemical manufacturing, than motor vehicles, which, by the way, is different than in L.A. In L.A., most of the pollution comes from the motor vehicles.

Power plants play - contribute 13 percent. Residential and commercial sources, which is most of the stuff we've been talking about, that's only 6.5 percent. So you're not going to get out of this number-one ranking by changing a bunch of light bulbs. Do the people realize that?

Mr. FLECK: Well, I think that's right, and I think that's the message of these statistics. That the voluntary approach, that the self-regulatory approach allowing industry to do its thing can't really dig us out of this hole.

And that's why I think whichever presidential candidate wins, of all three, are advocating some form of regulation on carbon emissions. So, you know, but it's a good thing for people to individually take responsibility and do what they can. But they have to realize that's not going to do the job.

PESCA: Right, and also, perhaps, define personal responsibility as not just what you do with your own home, but you know, who you vote for and what you rank - just as far as your political agenda, which doesn't even have to mean choosing one political party over the other. It could mean, you know, pushing candidates of both parties to be more green.

Mr. FLECK: Right.

PESCA: Now I've been to Houston a couple of times and I know it has a reputation which is sort of like, don't regulate me. Leave us alone. Industry will solve the problem. But just there, as a writer for the Chronicle, do you do a lot of green coverage? Is there a lot of good response? Has environmental got more of a - less of a bad name in Houston over the last decade or so?

Mr. FLECK: Well, the Chronicle has been in the forefront of investigating and writing about toxic air pollution in Houston. We have had strong environmental reportage. We continue to - I think we have really helped lead the effort to increase awareness of the dangers of toxic emissions from industrial plants. So, I think there is a growing awareness here.

PESCA: When you write those stories, do you get deluged with coverage saying you're just trying to be a nanny newspaper? Or are fewer people saying that sort of thing?

Mr. FLECK: You know, I think a lot fewer people are saying that sort of thing. Particularly when you go out to our eastside neighborhoods and see the high levels - or measure the high levels of carcinogens in the air from benzene and other toxics. Right now, I think industry is on the defensive, and there is a strong advocacy group here for cleaner air. If we can't get it from the city, we're going to have go to the legislature and demand tougher standards.

PESCA: All right, Tim Fleck, an editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle. Thanks very much, Tim.

Mr. FLECK: Thank you, Michael.

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