Clearing the Air

Former County Judge Margaret Keliher keeps trying to blow away the smoke over pollution plans

EPA regional administrator Richard Greene agrees. "Margaret [Keliher] has been a terrific partner in getting the engagement of the business community," he says. "We're the first non-attainment area in the country to get to proposed approval by the 2010 deadline, and many other areas are looking at us and how we achieved this breakthrough; one of the answers is we got the cooperation of the business community."

Keliher considers the SIP's pending approval as a triumph. "If the plan wasn't passed, we'd be in the same place as Houston," she says, "Throwing up our hands and saying, 'Well, maybe our air will get cleaned up by 2019 somehow...'" While the plan is far from perfect, she says, at least it's ensuring a measure of progress instead of more years of administrative deadlock. There's plenty of that already, given that 74 percent of pollution comes from vehicle emissions, and Congress has been reluctant to regulate them.

Looking forward, TBCA is working to influence the remaining portion of the pollution problem. Last week at a clean air hearing held by the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Keliher recommended a crackdown on fraudulent state inspection stickers, which she says are issued to 20 percent of the region's 3.5 million cars inspected each year. She applauded her successor, County Judge Jim Foster, for hitting fake inspection grantors with sting operations, but said such efforts must be taken to the next level, perhaps through a partnership with the Attorney General's Office.

"You've got 700,000 cars driving around with fake inspections," she says. "Assuming even 10 percent of them are big polluters, you've got 50 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions a day that you could have eliminated with a crackdown."

In preparation for the next legislative session, TBCA hired engineers to do a series of studies on the state's energy streams and is preparing a comprehensive clean-energy plan to present in Austin. "We're looking at supply and demand," she says. "How do you meet your demand with a supply that does not just mean building coal-fired power plants?" California has managed to keep its energy consumption flat over the past decade while Texas' has skyrocketed, she points out, and it's in the state's best economic interests to change that.

"We believe that if clean energy is the new dot-com for this country, then Texas should be leading the charge," Keliher says. "We have a great collaborative effort going with lawyers, doctors and environmental groups who are working with us to develop something that's good for the state of Texas."

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