Clearing the Air

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

Two years ago, Margaret Keliher faced electoral oblivion, but since losing her post as Dallas County judge in the 2006 Democratic sweep of county elections, she has managed to retool her role as an unlikely Republican champion of clean air and conservation.

It's been almost a year since Keliher took the helm of Texas Business for Clean Air, the group started by local businessmen Trammell Crow, David Litman and Garrett Boone to fight plans for 17 new coal plants and galvanize the private sector behind conservation efforts—not only out of concern for health and the environment, but based on the conviction that energy efficiency and clean technology are better for business. After spearheading a collaborative effort to revamp the county's anti-smog plan for approval by the Environmental Protection Agency, Keliher is setting her sights on a statewide energy proposal to present to the Legislature when it convenes next year.

In her time with the county, Keliher built a reputation for tenacious efforts to clean up North Texas' notoriously dirty air, even when it meant tangling with fellow Republicans like Governor Rick Perry. So when she found herself without a policy-related job, she jumped at the chance to become executive director of Texas Business for Clean Air.

Keliher says her first priority was improving the county's plan to decrease dangerous ozone levels and bring the region into compliance with federal clean air standards.

"Getting the area out of non-attainment is good for business, in addition to our residents' health and attracting people to the area," she says, pointing out that several corporations have scrapped plans to move here because of the cost of doing business in an area that violates clean air standards.

DFW has long been out of compliance with federal standards for ozone, the lung-scarring air pollutant that forms when vehicle and industry emissions bake in the sun. When in May 2007 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality adopted the clean air plan—referred to as the State Implementation Plan—environmentalists denounced it as weak and excessively accommodating to polluting industries. The EPA refused to approve the plan, which actually loosened emissions standards for industries like cement kilns and oil companies and slashed nitrogen dioxide emissions—a pollutant that contributes to ozone—by just 44 tons a day instead of the 70 tons first proposed.

Aside from curbing health risks and decreasing the state's embarrassing status as one of the world's biggest polluters, at stake was compliance with the Clean Air Act and avoidance of steep fines for noncompliance.

As county judge, Keliher had served as co-chair of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee, which had made a host of recommendations for the clean air plan, only to have the state reject most of them. But last winter, in her new post with TBCA, she found herself in a position to influence the plan and its eventual approval. Keliher drew on her public-sector experience—which included the unlikely feat of persuading Ellis County cement kiln operators to use cleaner technology—to bring together the city of Dallas and the Dallas and Fort Worth chambers of commerce to come up with solutions.

"We ended up having the chambers take on the bigger businesses, and the city of Dallas was leading the charge working with local governments," she says.

The EPA suggested using more state money earmarked for voluntary pollution-reducing measures, which could offset the clean air plan's shortcomings. Keliher and her group opted to take on truck drivers using diesel vehicles manufactured before 1989. They identified 1,110 of the outmoded machines, cosmetics company Mary Kay provided a phone bank, and they called the owners to explain that the state would help them replace their trucks.

"Instead of hoping people would hear about the funds on the radio or see it in the newspaper we decided the best was to actually reach out to them individually," Keliher says. The efforts led to DFW beating out the state's other regions in using money under the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan to replace dirty engines, with 46 percent of the requests coming from the area.

Other changes resulting from the collaboration between businesses and government agencies included the utility company Luminant (formerly TXU) agreeing to use cleaner technology for its power plants and several large companies pledging not to use their pollution credits to emit more noxious compounds.

When the EPA recommended the clean air plan for approval in July, the revised version cut pollution by 88 tons a day. But environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Downwinders at Risk argued that it was still too weak and that refusing to approve it would have sent an important message to local officials. "I understand why they approved it, but I don't think it served the larger issue of public health," says longtime environmental advocate Jim Schermbeck. "It was kind of like, 'Half a loaf is better than nothing.'" Despite such disagreement, Schermbeck welcomes the private-sector partnerships that Keliher and her business coalition bring to the table. "It goes to show we've moved past the point of the environment being a left-right issue," he says.

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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