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Choke On It

In the movie The Untouchables, Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness quickly discovers just how difficult it will be to bring down the infamous Al Capone, whose bloody bootlegging operation terrorized a city and made a mockery of the law. Capone has bought off the cops, judges and the mayor and has a loyal crew of hired guns ready to protect his enterprise. Ness, meanwhile, is armed with nothing more than a sense of righteous indignation and is helpless against Capone and the shadowy control he exerts over Chicago.

Then, in a chance encounter, Ness meets Malone, a streetwise beat cop played by Sean Connery. He's the only man Ness can trust.

"If you open the ball on these people, Mr. Ness, you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they won't give up the fight until one of you is dead," Malone whispers as he and Ness kneel in a cathedral. "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone. Do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"

On a hot, sunny day in North Texas, searing temperatures bake the air pollutants in our sky to form a corrosive coat of noxious smog strong enough to send asthmatic children to the hospital and healthy adults scurrying indoors. Like a soldier crawling underneath barbed wire, smog quietly sneaks into lungs, hinders breathing and trickles into ear and nasal passages, causing nausea. It's been like this for a generation.

But although the skies here are dirtier than Courtney Love at closing time, few here, other than the usual cast of environmentalists, figured we might want to clean it up. All that changed last year. By the end of 2006, a coalition of political and business leaders, including some supporters of the Republican Party, decided to fight for an end to the dangerously polluted air that has become as much a part of our regional character as the Cowboys, the stockyards and Reunion Tower.

Their intentions were good, but they could have used a famous Welsh actor to explain the Austin way to them before they headed south this year to get some new regulations to clean up the smog, because they walked into the Capitol like lambs and came home like lamb chops. You might think leaders of North Texas business and government would have an inkling that the governor, the Legislature and the state's environmental regulators are more than a little friendly with polluting industries, but that didn't stop clean air advocates from being outspent, outmatched and outwitted. Think St. Valentine's Day in a Chicago garage, minus the blood.

For all the immediate good our own band of untouchables did at the Capitol, legislation-wise, we might have been better off if they brought back copies of their proposals for us to cut into paper face masks to keep the smoke out.

It's not as if the region's major polluters, particularly the kilns, made no concessions. But they scrapped and clawed against any big measure that would really make a difference, both in the air we breathe and the money they make. So they politely agreed to pollute a little less, and the state applauded them like they were saving the planet. Beyond those voluntary changes, the smokestack boys budged not one inch. Why should they? The regulated industries enlist the best lobbyists in Austin while enjoying cozy relationships with a governor and his party leaders.

In contrast, the clean air advocates in North Texas think they can win merely because they're on the side of the facts and the angels. They don't know how to fight the Austin way. The business leaders and elected officials in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who say they want to end our smog problem, don't have the relationships, the money or the power to make a difference. What exactly were they prepared to do? Certainly not to brawl for their interests the way the industries do. Perhaps, most of all, what the region lacked was an Eliot Ness, a singular, indignant leader with his own cast of untouchables, ready to take on the Al Capones of the skies.

"What was needed was a general during this past session," says Jim Schermbeck, an environmentalist who worked with the clean air advocates. "Someone telling everyone who needs to be doing what and marshaling the forces of good versus evil."


As a Park Cities Republican and former corporate lawyer and criminal court judge, Margaret Keliher didn't exactly fit the profile of a kick-ass environmentalist. The blond highlights and genteel Southern drawl didn't help either, but in her first term, the Dallas County judge quickly realized that while much of her job involved tending to the mundane details of government administration, she was in prime position to do something about the region's polluted air. One of Keliher's most important roles was serving as the co-chair of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee (NTCASC) with Collin County Judge Ron Harris. The steering committee had the responsibility to work with state and federal authorities on cleaning up our hazy skies. Since 1976, the North Texas region has been in violation of provisions of the federal Clean Air Act nearly a dozen times. The committee was charged with reducing our ozone levels in time to meet a 2010 federal deadline.

 

The committee's meetings would sometimes drag on for hours. Occasionally, they were mind-numbingly boring, covering such arcane topics as particulate counts and natural gas compressor engines. Some elected officials, more comfortable in a political world of folksy rhetoric and up or down votes, struggled to stay awake.

Other meetings, typically held at a conference room at Love Field, were a little more entertaining, if only because they became contentious. A particular sore spot was when environmentalists attacked the credibility of state officials, who some felt had manipulated scientific data to underestimate the area's air pollution problem. That confrontational approach angered Walt Humann, the former oilman who served on the steering committee.

"This is not a courtroom," Schermbeck recalls Humann saying after he posed a series of questions to a state environmental official. "We're not subjecting them to cross-examination."

Despite personality differences here and there, the steering committee was an unusual illustration of civic togetherness. Elected officials from across the region, long used to competing over everything from transportation dollars to the Dallas Cowboys' stadium, studiously devoured state and local policy changes needed to fight air pollution. Even though North Texas is booming, it's still possible to reduce our ozone levels by getting dirty cars off the road, encouraging mass transit and forcing industries to employ the most up-to-date technologies. The committee researched myriad ways to clean up our skies, trying to stay between heaven and earth in coming up with ideas that helped the environment without disrupting economic growth. Sometimes, they rejected clean air measures that would have been unpopular or impractical, while other times they suggested regulations that their own constituents might end up paying for.

The committee's leaders kept everyone focused. Harris, who used to boast about being an anti-regulation Republican and got into a shouting match with Schermbeck a few years earlier, was now working happily with him and all the environmentalists. In fact, they became his most ardent supporters.

Meanwhile, Keliher wowed members of the committee by researching high-tech cement kilns in Europe. She studied the emissions technologies of plants in Germany and Italy and fought to see if the kilns in Ellis County, the biggest sources of industrial pollution in North Texas, could follow.

"Margaret was doing cutting-edge stuff in taking on the cement kiln industry," says Rita Beving, a Sierra Club member who served as an alternate on the steering committee. "I haven't seen public officials, much less Republicans, do that."

On October 20, the steering committee published a set of wonkish but tough resolutions listing how it would like the state to combat North Texas' ozone problem. The most important among them called on the state to more tightly regulate power plants, fund programs to get dirty cars and trucks off the street and require the Ellis County cement kilns to adopt state-of-the-art technology. Members of the committee were thrilled that they were able to arrive at something they felt would make a difference.

"I was very enthusiastic when we went over the resolutions and sent them off," says Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck. "I felt like we had a good product, and it wasn't going to impact economic development."

But who was going to sell it in Austin?

Not Greg Cooke, a former EPA administrator and lobbyist for the steering committee. He died suddenly last September of a heart attack.

Then, on November 7, Jim Foster, an aging Democrat who decided at the final hour to run for county judge, upset Keliher's bid for re-election, removing one of the region's most effective clean air advocates from office.

Keliher wasn't the steering committee's only political casualty. The former co-chair, Ron Harris, had lost earlier in the year in the Republican primary in Collin County.

"It was a very big shock to the system," Schermbeck says of the losses. "The whole leadership team was gone like that."


Last year California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill intended to cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in 15 years. He also wrote an executive order slashing the carbon content in automotive fuels and pledged to defeat any campaign to reopen California's coast to offshore drilling. Although these initiatives opened him up to criticism from Republicans around the country, the former movie action hero defended his decisions in stark moral terms.

 

"We now know that what we've done in the past 100 years has caused such unbelievable damage to the world," he told Fortune magazine in March. "We didn't know better, but now we do, and now it's not OK."

Just a few weeks before the Fortune interview, Schwarzenegger's fellow Republican, Texas Governor Rick Perry, once again expressed his doubt that human pollution is contributing to global warming, even though reputable scientists around the world have no doubt it is. "I'm not going to put the state of Texas in a competitive economic disadvantage on some science that may or may not be correct," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. House Speaker Tom Craddick, perhaps the second most powerful person in Austin, echoed Perry's sentiments.

Last year, Perry fast-tracked plans to build 17 new coal-burning power plants, which would have added to Texas' embarrassing status as one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gases in the world. The new plants also would have made it impossible for North Texas to ever be in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Perry also appoints the three board members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, arguably the most powerful agency in the state. The commission approves permits for power plants, sets emissions requirements and develops air plans.

In some states, the environmental agency plays the role of the watchdog, urging local governments to balance a concern for natural resources with their efforts to bring economic growth. Not so in Texas, where the agency almost never rules against industry. In June, the environmental agency gave the OK for TXU to build a new coal-fired plant in Robertson County, southeast of Waco, even though a coalition of mayors across the state went on record opposing it. The plant would burn lignite coal and would add to air pollution in nearby Dallas and Austin. A year earlier, three state administrative law judges said the permit should be denied because the utility giant didn't prove its new technology would reduce emissions. Larry Soward, the lone commissioner to vote against the permit, said that the plant would all but guarantee Dallas would remain in violation of federal ozone standards.

Kathleen Hartnett White, who was chairwoman of the environmental commission until last month, almost always voted on the side of heavy-hitting industrial polluters. In fact, this spring she even wrote a letter to the EPA arguing against the agency's possible plans to lower federal ozone standards. Around the same time as White's letter, her agency actually testified against a bill that would have created a pilot program to test cleaner emissions technology at a cement kiln. TXI, the largest cement manufacturer in the state, opposed the pilot program, saying it wouldn't work.

"The agency is fundamentally flawed and was set up, once George Bush became governor, to be fundamentally flawed and to be controlled by polluting interests," says Fort Worth state Representative Lon Burnham, a Democrat who chuckles at how his Republican colleagues finally share his outrage. "I've said more than once that I look forward to the day that state government is not the problem but the solution when it comes to air pollution."


In easily its most important responsibility, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also creates the ozone-reduction plans, called strategic improvement plans, or SIPs, for regions that are in violation of the Clean Air Act, like North Texas and Houston-Galveston. This plan literally affects the air that you breathe and the volume of pollutants that seep into your lungs. If your kids have asthma, the SIP will determine whether you have to keep them inside during the summer or whether you can take a walk down the Katy Trail on your lunch break. If you work outside, the SIP may determine if you get pneumonia or bronchitis.

The members of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee spent all those hours devouring graphs of chemical emissions to help the state draft the clean air plan for their region. Its members are in the best position to do just that. The committee has to live with the health and economic consequences of their clean air proposals. So what group has more credibility in making long-term decisions for the future of North Texas?

Well, for the state environmental commission, it wasn't the locals. When the state agency unveiled a draft of its clean air plan in December, it ignored the committee's main recommendations, particularly its calls for tighter regulations on cement kilns and power plants. It also ignored the steering committee's proposal to adopt California's emissions standards. Environmentalists lambasted the state's plan, saying that it had no chance of bringing North Texas in compliance with the 2010 federal deadline.

 

"The steering committee met for a year and a half before giving their recommendations, and as far as the state is concerned they simply weren't a factor," says Schermbeck with the environmental group Downwinders at Risk. "They raised their middle finger to what the locals here recommended."

Arlington's Mayor Cluck, a loyal Republican, was only marginally more diplomatic.

"I was disappointed when I saw what they didn't propose," he said of the agency's clean air plan. "I really felt that without impacting the economy in any way they could have given us a product that reduced pollution significantly more."

If Cluck and others were disappointed with the first draft, they must have been gasping for breath when they saw the even weaker final version. On May 23, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a SIP that actually reduced pressure on industrial polluters, including electric utilities, cement and brick kilns, and oil and gas companies.

"Texas proposed emissions reductions in December that added up to 70 tons a day of NO2," says Carl Edlund, the air pollution director for the EPA's Southwest Office. "What we finally got was on the order of 44 tons a day."

NO2, or nitrogen dioxide, is a common pollutant caused chiefly by traffic.

What makes the weaker plan all the more incomprehensible is that the state already had no margin for error. Edlund says that for the DFW region to satisfy the Clean Air Act, ozone levels would have to drop faster than they have in nearly any metropolitan area in the country. So the state was hardly in a position to hand concessions to polluters, especially since the feds can levy $400 million in fines for our failed air plan.

It's not like the steering committee failed to give the state environmental agency any worthwhile suggestions. One of the things locals did was ask the state to require power plants in Texas' rural areas, where most of them are located, to abide by the same emissions requirements as those in urban areas. Rural plants are allowed to emit up to six times as much NO2 as those in urban areas, which abide by some of the toughest regulations in the country. Of course, the pollution from the rural plants doesn't just stay there, it floats into North Texas.

The state environmental commission's own studies show that by applying the stricter standards to rural East Texas power plants, pollution levels would drop throughout North Texas. Al Armendariz, an engineering professor at SMU who attended many of the committee meetings, says that if the costs of these additional regulations were passed onto consumers, it would add about 1-2 percent to monthly electric bills, but the state, in desperate need of ways to reduce pollution, discarded the committee's proposal.

"We had our local leaders say, 'We know that the electricity in East Texas is being sold to us, and we're willing to take the political hit if rates are raised,'" he says. "And the state does nothing."

The Dallas Observer repeatedly asked to speak with agency officials or commissioners about its clean air plan, but a representative denied our request. Instead, we received a statement saying that the agency's plan will put us in compliance with the Clean Air Act by the looming deadline and avoid federal sanctions.

The problem is that no one else shares the state commission's confidence about their work, particularly the EPA. The agency is like a deluded teenager telling his friends about his hot prom date even though she's already rejected him in front of half the school. The EPA will decide if the state's clean air plan passes muster, and their officials have stated repeatedly that it won't.

"The plan that was submitted to us did not show it would meet air quality standards," the EPA's Edlund says.

The agency's intransigence has infuriated local officials. In July, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, another Republican, wrote a letter to the EPA urging them to reject the state's clean air plan. Last week, Dallas' Jim Foster finally wrote a similar letter. After Whitley's letter was published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Whitley says that he's received nothing but compliments from his colleagues and constituents. What particularly galls Whitley is that the agency's board includes nobody from North Texas, yet they're flatly ignoring the recommendations of all the locals on the Clean Air Steering Committee.

"This appears to me to be another example of where, for some reason, the state now believes it is better at this than we are," Whitley says, underscoring the tension between his party's conflicting love of both deregulation and local control. "It's amazing when you really stop and think about it. Here you have the largest economic area in the state and one that is being threatened by sanctions and we don't have anyone on the board?"

 

Armendariz has also urged the EPA to reject the state's air plan. He believes that measures that encourage new and cleaner technology will make the biggest difference in our ozone problem. "What's frustrating to me as a scientist is that I know we can get rid of our ozone problem and literally no one would know; no one would feel the impact on the economic or job side," he says.

Armendariz may be overstating his case, at least just a bit. Of course, the utilities and the cement kilns would feel the impact if they had to retrofit their plants, and they've been able to convince the state to let them adopt new controls on their own schedules. Randy Jones, the spokesman for TXI, says that his company doubts the effectiveness of new pollution control technology that some want it to use. The steering committee proposed the state require all cement kilns adopt the new technology, while a more modest bill in the Senate proposed a fully funded pilot program. Both measures failed.

"We can't support something that we don't feel will work," Jones says.

The EPA, though, says the new pollution control equipment has "shown promising results in Austria, Germany, Italy and Sweden."

The state environmental agency, bizarrely, testified against the proposed pilot program, which merely would have paid for one plant to try the new technology.

Luminant, the new brand name for TXU's power-generating businesses, has also opposed pollution controls. The company cites state studies that they claim show their rural plant emissions have "no significant impact" on pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, although other studies show the opposite. Then again, your definition of "significant impact" may depend on whether you spend time outdoors. Although Luminant has publicly stated that it will slash NO2 emissions on its new plants, environmentalists say that the utility will fight pollution controls on its older facilities because otherwise they'd have to tear them down and start from scratch. And that would be rather costly for the publicly traded company. Then again, TXU, which had a net income of $2.5 billion last year and whose chief executive stands to make nearly $290 million from a proposed buyout of the company, has a plant in Monticello, Texas, that the EPA says releases more pounds of mercury (1,456) than all but a handful of plants in the country. Its recently approved Oak Grove Plant might actually be dirtier.

Exposure to mercury can cause hallucinations, affect the nervous system and cause developmental disabilities in newborns. Isn't it the state environmental agency's job to get TXU to at least move their plants out of the bottom 10?

"They truly don't care," Armendariz says of the agency. "It's as if their clean air plan was farmed to a consultant in Taiwan. That's the level of care they are giving to the citizens of Dallas and Fort Worth."


In December, as the state was preparing its clean air plan for North Texas, a high-powered coalition of prominent executives joined together to break up the long and happy marriage between businesses and utilities. The group, consisting of business leaders from across the state and from both political parties, announced their support for much stronger clean air measures and urged the Legislature to act.

"There is no conflict between promoting clean air and business interests," read the group's op-ed in The Dallas Morning News. "But rather a natural alliance for the long-term health and economic benefit that clean air will bring to Texas."

Texas Business for Clean Air was led by Garrett Boone, the co-founder of the Container Store chain; David Litman, founder of Hotels.com; and Trammell Crow, the real estate magnate and president of the Crow Collection of Asian Art. The group quickly announced its opposition to TXU's plans to build 11 coal plants that would generate the pollution equivalent of 14 million additional cars on the road. Already, a noisy alliance of cities opposed the new plants. Still, despite the apparent clout of the two groups, they faced a tough battle to defeat the utility behemoth. Governor Perry, who had received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from TXU, ordered state agencies to hasten the approval of new power plants and had loyal appointees on the agencies' boards whom he could count on to vote in favor of TXU.

Two months after the business coalition formed, TXU announced that it had accepted a buyout offer. The company's new owners said that they would scrap plans to build eight of the 11 proposed plants. As details of the buyout are still emerging, it's not entirely clear if TXU ever planned to build all 11 plants (critics contended all along they didn't need to build as many to meet demand) or if this was a maneuver to negotiate a better deal for the company. In any case, environmentalists say that the business leaders and mayors put pressure on TXU that had never really been there before.

 

The business leaders also tried to make a difference in Austin. They hired three respected lobbyists and met with legislators and gave interviews to reporters. Environmentalists, who thought they wouldn't see the businessmen ever again after eight of the proposed coal plants were scrapped, were thrilled to spot them in the halls of the Legislature, lining up on their side. It was a new day in Texas, except that when the Legislature closed session, not much changed.

Only one important environmental bill came out of Austin this year. State Senator Kip Averitt, a Republican from Waco, wrote a measure that increased funding for state programs that help get dirty truck and car engines off the road. Considering how car and truck pollution, particularly from aging engines, is still the leading cause of high ozone levels, Averitt's bill will make a lasting difference. But at its root level, it's really just a spending bill. That's probably why it got passed.

Averitt's legislation doesn't impose any regulations on industry. Though effective, it didn't exactly represent a cultural change in Austin, which is needed if North Texas is ever going to be in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Texas Business for Clean Air may have forced TXU's hand, but it came up empty against the cement kilns, which, by some accounts, contribute more to our ozone problem than all the power plants combined.


On March 7, Molly Rooke, the clean air coordinator with the Dallas Sierra Club, sneaked into a breakfast buffet hosted by a pair of coal industry groups at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, not far from the Capitol. She described the early morning gathering as something of a pep rally. Lobbyists for TXU were avidly chatting up legislators and state officials, while others carried petitions in support of the company's expansion plans on dollies, a nifty piece of prop theater intended to convince the audience that the utility, for all its critics, had the support of the masses. When Rooke tried to grab a petition to read what it actually said, a TXU representative recognized her and got in her way.

TXU spent $17 million on lobbying, advertising and gifts to state officials, according to a report from the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice. One of the utility's lobbyists was former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who earned as much as $350,000 from TXU.

While TXU was the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the cement kilns didn't exactly play coy. The three cement kilns, TXI, Holcim and Ash Grove, while not nearly as profitable as the utility giant, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a smart, well-connected team of hired guns. Ten lobbyists worked on behalf of the cement kilns, including such Austin fixtures as Ronald Golemon, the granddaddy of industry flaks whom Schermbeck calls "Dr. Death," and Buddy Jones, a close friend of House Speaker Tom Craddick. The cement kilns even enlisted a lobbyist by the name of Dan Pearson, who used to serve as the executive director of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's predecessor, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. Think about what that says about the culture of the state's environmental agency: Its former director now lobbies for one of the biggest industrial polluters in the state.

Pearson and his colleagues ably leveraged their connections and know-how on behalf of their clients, defeating those measures that would have encouraged the use of cleaner technologies. They also convinced Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to loosen measures requiring them to slash the pollutants they release into the air.

"It's an all-star team; they have some of the best strategists and some of the best-connected lobbyists in the capital," says Tom "Smitty" Smith, the director of Public Citizen. "These lobbyists will go and get to the governor and the key senator from that particular part of the state and explain that it will harm the bottom line of these companies. They may have their CEO call the governor directly and the message will come down from his office: 'Lighten up on the cement kilns and the power plants.'"

In contrast, Texas Business for Clean Air hired three lobbyists. To put that in perspective, the family of Trammell Crow has more than 10 lobbyists on its payroll for its various business interests. Texas Business for Clean Air also never had a meeting with the governor or tried to target the state's clean air plan. It makes you wonder what they were doing down there.

 

Meanwhile, the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee more or less disbanded after it proposed its doomed resolutions. Greg Cooke, a former EPA administrator, had been lobbying for the region, but when he died, nobody replaced him. Keliher, beloved by environmentalists for her work on the committee, hoped to take on Cooke's role now that she had taken up lobbying in the wake of her November defeat, but Tarrant County Republicans, still smarting over their battles with the former judge over transportation dollars, rejected her.

"I didn't feel like Margaret was the right person to be carrying a regional message of air quality, primarily because in other areas she carried a message that she's in it for Dallas alone," says Whitley, who otherwise singles Keliher out for her work on the steering committee.

Neither Whitley nor anyone else found someone to replace Cooke. As a result, while TXU had a former Dallas mayor lobbying for them and the cement kilns enlisted the one-time head of an environmental agency as a hired gun, the 6 million people in North Texas had nobody arguing their case. Somehow we live in a world where the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Inc. had two lobbyists in Austin, while, when it comes to clean air, the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country had none.


Eliot Ness eventually takes down Capone, ending a reign of crime that was aided and abetted by the cops and politicians of Chicago. As the movie portrays it, Ness didn't exactly tread lightly. After his talk with Malone, Ness and his "untouchables" do just about everything in their power—and then some—to get the deadly gangster. Through guile and force, Ness gets the evidence he needs to send Capone to prison. In the dramatic courtroom scene, as bailiffs are whisking Capone away, Ness strides up to the enraged gangster and crows over his victory. "Never stop. Never stop fighting till the fighting is done."

Garrett Boone, one of the founders of Texas Business for Clean Air, actually looks like an older, balder version of Kevin Costner. Often pictured with a bow tie, Boone has Costner's heartland features: an honest, square face and a trim build. Like Costner's Ness, Boone didn't quite know what he got himself into. But he started to learn.

"We think the glass is half-full," Boone says. "Obviously we'd be idiots to say the world has changed, but we owe it to each other not to hang our heads. Relative to where we started we made a lot of progress."

Boone says that while his colleagues wished they helped get more bills passed, they helped change the political framework in which environmental decisions are made.

"I don't think it's possible for a group of utilities to come out of the chute and say we're going to build 20 coal plants," Boone says. "That just wouldn't fly anymore."

He's probably right about that. But at this point, it doesn't seem like Boone or the elected officials here who are working toward cleaning up our skies are really prepared to fight the Austin way to exact long-lasting fundamental reforms. Both Boone and Glen Whitley, who has become one of the region's environmental leaders, talk about how they need to explain to legislators the dire consequences of our noxious air. They talk about having a presence in Austin and how we need to educate everyone about how having cleaner skies isn't just a feel-good objective, it's vital to the future of our region.

The problem, though, is that industry isn't trying to win the battle of public opinion. Mainly, they want to adopt new, cleaner technology on their own terms and have stacked the deck in Austin so that no one will tell them how to run their businesses, even if the byproducts of that business are settling into our lungs.

While Boone and Whitley are garnering glowing mentions in the press for their commitment to the environment, the other side is enlisting the best-connected lobbyists and cozying up to a governor and House speaker who don't believe in global warming and an environmental agency that testifies against environmental bills. They've conquered Austin and aren't going to retreat just because a bunch of people here say they want clean air. Boone and Whitley, while intelligent and committed, have given the illusion that progress is possible, when, in fact, progress will only be piecemeal until they turn their plowshares into swords. That means hiring an army of lobbyists, leaning on the governor, throwing buckets of cash at environmental candidates and, like Whitley has already done, demanding that the EPA reject the state's clean air plan and turn in something that works. It may also mean throwing a hand grenade or two at the anti-regulatory mindset of a Republican Party that has been a natural ally of the business community since 1920.

 

Right now our guys are largely taking a different tack, intent on gradually leveraging symbolic victories into something loftier. Boone says that after his colleagues announced their support for clean air measures, "the whole discussion has changed."

"Of course, tons more could have happened," he says. "This is climbing Everest here, and we kind of got to base camp."

That's probably not the best analogy to the air pollution fight, since the closer you get to the peak, the harder it is to get oxygen. Or maybe that kind of imagery shows how high we have to climb. Either way, if you're expecting our skies to clear anytime soon, you might want to hold your breath.


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