Texas Tribune Article Highly Critical of TCEQ

On July 17, the Texas Tribune published “A Pass to Poison: How the state of Texas allows industrial facilities to repeatedly spew unauthorized air pollution – with few consequences.”  Starting with the title, the article is highly critical of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”), especially regarding enforcement.

The article will not spur any legislative changes, because Texas will not have another regular legislative session until 2019.  It may encourage local governments and environmental groups to be more aggressive in enforcing environmental laws.  It may also encourage TCEQ to look more carefully at emissions associated with oil and gas production.

Emissions Events, Called “Rogue Releases,” Rarely Penalized

The article defined “emissions events” as “malfunctions or ‘upsets’ and unplanned ‘maintenance, start-up or shutdown activities’.”  The article characterized “emissions events” as “rogue releases.”  The article reported that “no more than 4 percent of emissions events were penalized with fines.”

The article acknowledged that TCEQ disagreed with this characterization, and quoted a TCEQ response that this estimate “did not account for ongoing investigation and enforcement activities.”

Problems in West Texas

The article indicated that natural gas plants in the energy producing regions of the state were a particular problem: “The lopsided emissions-to-fines ratio is especially stark at the state’s natural gas plants, particularly those in West Texas, which flare off tens of millions of pounds of toxic sulfur dioxide and hundreds of millions of pound of poisonous hydrogen sulfide every year.”  Additionally, “state data indicates that the vast majority of rogue releases happen in fossil-fuel rich West Texas.”

Economic Benefit of Non-Compliance

According to certain “groups,” penalties have been inadequate:

Even when the TCEQ does fine companies, environmental and watchdog groups and clean air advocates say the penalties are far below what the law allows and aren’t close to being in proportion to the companies’ profits and the potential public health impacts of the unauthorized emissions.

The companies, they say, save huge amounts of money by delaying maintenance and upgrades that would’ve prevented the emissions in the first place. And knowing the state probably won’t do anything about them means they have no incentive to do so.

The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune describes itself as a “member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.”

Fallout from the Article

The article acknowledges that “agency critics and observers say the agency’s lukewarm enforcement stems from political and financial constraints.”  TCEQ’s budget will not change, soon, as the next regular session of the Texas legislature is not until 2019.

While the article may encourage TCEQ to look more closely at emissions related to oil and gas production, I do not expect the article to significantly affect TCEQ policies.  The article may provide further encouragement to local governments and environmental groups to bring enforcement actions.

For a copy of The Texas Tribune article click here.

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