ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Environmental Protection Agency has kicked a proverbial fire ant mound in Texas. This week, the state sued the EPA over carbon dioxide emissions. The agency regards CO2 as a pollutant, one that needs to be reduced. But the governor says that's a jobs killer for industry, especially the state's huge petrochemical plants.
As NPR's John Burnett reports, the EPA is standing firm with the help of a native Texan.
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JOHN BURNETT: There's an environmental love fest going on at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin.
Mr. TOM SMITH: We'd like to welcome you to a celebration of the appointment of Al Armendariz as the regional administrator for Region 6 of the Environmental Protection Agency.
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BURNETT: The lanky 39-year-old environmental engineer, a native of El Paso, stands awkwardly at the mic in front of the adoring crowd.
Dr. AL ARMENDARIZ (Regional Administrator, Region 6, Environmental Protection Agency): Thank you, that was a great introduction.
BURNETT: The environmental activists here consider Armendariz one of their own. As an associate professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for the past eight years, he became a familiar figure at the capitol, testifying against air polluters. Texas environmentalists had been petitioning and suing state authorities for years to enforce the Clean Air Act and rein in the state's mammoth coal-fired power plants, refineries and chemical facilities.
Now they may get their way. The Dallas EPA office is responsible for five states and 66 Indian tribes, but Armendariz says since he began in November, air quality in Texas has occupied half of his time because there's so much that needs fixing.
Dr. ARMENDARIZ: There's no doubt in my mind, or at any of the leadership in EPA, that the way the air programs have been run in the state of Texas for the last 15 years is going to end and it's going to end really soon. And...
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BURNETT: Talk like that has raised hackles in a state where business is king and the unofficial motto is: Don't Mess with Texas. Steve Minick is with the Texas Association of Business.
Mr. STEVE MINICK (Texas Association of Business): We are approaching what many of my members would represent to be regulation for the sake of regulation.
BURNETT: Last year the EPA declared carbon dioxide a dangerous greenhouse gas and a threat to public health. With Texas such a major contributor of CO2, the EPA's declaration is seen by some as nothing less than an attack on the Texas way of life.
On Tuesday, Governor Rick Perry announced a federal lawsuit challenging that CO2 decision.
Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): When the EPA recently declared carbon dioxide a toxic substance, they put countless businesses, farms, even large churches in their crosshairs.
BURNETT: Perry is also steamed over the EPA's intrusion into Texas air standards.
Al Armendariz has told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that its program for granting air emissions permits to industrial facilities violates the federal Clean Air Act. And if they don't tighten it up and allow more public input, the EPA could conceivably take it over.
Mr. BRYAN SHAW (Chairman, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality): It's not broken, it's just misunderstood.
BURNETT: Bryan Shaw is chairman of the state environmental agency.
Mr. SHAW: Our program has been very effective at attaining environmental improvements far faster than a lot of other states, but done so in a way that meets up to the intent of the Clean Air Act.
BURNETT: He points out that Texas has, in recent years, had measurable reductions in nitrous oxide emissions, carbon dioxide and ozone levels without more regulation from Washington.
Undeterred, the EPA's Armendariz says Texas needs to do more to protect its air.
Dr. ARMENDARIZ: We're glad to see that in many areas of Texas, air quality is improving. But there are still many communities in Texas where there are levels of air pollutants that are too high.
BURNETT: One of them is the Houston area, home to a vast petrochemical complex. Two years ago, the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, acting on behalf of citizens, sued Shell Oil for emissions at its Deer Park refinery far in excess of its permitted limits. The lawsuit claimed unauthorized, accidental emissions occurred on average more than once a week for five years.
Texas Sierra Club director Ken Kramer, among others, blames state regulators for letting refineries get away with these sorts of violations with a slap on the wrist.
Mr. KEN KRAMER (Director, Texas Sierra Club): Because they say, oh well, those were really accidental emissions. It's not part of our routine emissions. It was because we had, you know, problem with this particular unit. But it happens over and over and over again.
BURNETT: A federal judge agreed with the citizens' groups, and Shell said it would reduce its accidental emissions by 80 percent. In its defense, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it reviews all unauthorized emissions and takes punitive action when industries break the rules.
But the Houston Chronicle wondered in an editorial why two environmental groups had to go to court to do the job state regulators are supposed to be doing. If the EPA has its way, that state of affairs will end.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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