Texas Railroad Commissioner and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Williams piled on to the outcry, calling the EPA's move to step in over the RRC "Washington politics of the worst kind."

Given the opportunity to weigh in on Armendariz, industry groups that lobby for the companies he regulates hold back even less than officials in Texas. In a story for E&E News, an environmental and energy policy publication, the Texas Association of Business' Steve Minick offered a scathing opinion of Armendariz last August, saying that the administrator "destroys his credibility" when he suggests that industry in the state hasn't been effectively regulated under the TCEQ. "To say that industry has had its own way for decades is just absurd and naive," Minick told the paper.

In December the National Association of Manufacturers slammed the EPA's move to regulate Texas' greenhouse gas emissions in a missive under the headline "EPA's Overregulation Agenda Continues." In it, the group's vice president Jay Timmons says, "Americans need more jobs, but the EPA and this administration are moving forward with regulations that will crush economic growth."

Raised in the shadow of Asarco's El Paso copper smelter, former SMU professor Al Armendariz was a long shot to run the EPA's regional office in Dallas. Now he's staring down Republican leadership in Austin in a fight over Texas' air.
Mark Graham
Raised in the shadow of Asarco's El Paso copper smelter, former SMU professor Al Armendariz was a long shot to run the EPA's regional office in Dallas. Now he's staring down Republican leadership in Austin in a fight over Texas' air.
At an environmental conference in February, Armendariz explains why the EPA stepped in over Governor Rick Perry's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Texas is the only state that refused to begin regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide this year; its power plants give off far more carbon dioxide than those of any other state.
Patrick Michels
At an environmental conference in February, Armendariz explains why the EPA stepped in over Governor Rick Perry's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Texas is the only state that refused to begin regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide this year; its power plants give off far more carbon dioxide than those of any other state.

Armendariz says he's not worried about what the trade groups have to say, that a lot of that hand-wringing is all about sowing conflict. "I think a lot of it is self-preservation. They're fomenting disagreements that, at the level at which we interact with the major employers in the state, simply don't exist."

In the end, what Armendariz is about is amassing a body of science that'll stand up to legal challenges for years to come—that's how he says he'll measure success in his job. "We're spending a lot of time and a lot of effort to make sure that everything we do has a rigorous scientific record," he says.

"This is a hundred-year effort, and we're just barely getting started. What we're trying to do now is set up a framework that will outlive us all."

Despite the hot tempers and headlines, environmentalists like Marston and Schermbeck say the EPA hasn't really done much that's too remarkable in the past year, that all the biggest news had been years in the making. Federal misgivings about the flexible permitting process—which makes it difficult to identify specific emissions from individual sources at a plant—go back even to George W. Bush's EPA, and the move to regulate carbon dioxide stems from a 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said the Clean Air Act did, in fact, require the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases if it decided they posed a risk.

Schermbeck says that really, the EPA's approach to greenhouse gas emissions has been "weak-kneed," that the screaming about states' rights is all political theater from Perry and other career-minded state leaders. "It's an easy target, and they're the ones making it a big deal."

"Look, there are particular things you can point to they've done that are great, for instance the thing in Parker County with the well, taking on the Railroad Commission and the drilling company," Schermbeck says. "Al makes a difference in that situation."

While the appeals court in D.C. considers Texas' challenge to the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, and the Republican-led Congress pushes ahead with bills meant to keep carbon dioxide out of Clean Air Act regulations, industrial operations in Texas are already getting new permits.

Soward, the former TCEQ commissioner, says while the feds and the state slug it out in the press, it's all been a distraction from the real story that greenhouse gases are finally being regulated in this country, even in Texas, over Perry's objection. "I think it's gonna have a long-term positive impact," he says. "What we're already seeing in the conflict between Texas and the EPA is that industry is making changes."

Whether he delivers on everything the environmental community hoped for, or Congress dismantles the EPA in the next federal budget, for some folks it's just good knowing he's up there—ready to listen to complaints from the community.

"You can't quantify it, but the kind of glasnost—the change in atmosphere," Schermbeck says. "That's been the most important thing."

"I think for most of us, he represents hope. That may sound crazy, but we've been doing this for a long time," environmentalist Bornhorst says. "We just know that his heart's in the right place."

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