Many people think that we are constantly fighting with the EPA, but in reality, most of the time we are working with them directly.

Toby BAKER Commissioner TEXAS COMMISSION ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY

Keep it clean

USA
February 24, 2017

TOGY talks to Toby Baker, commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The TCEQ is the environmental regulatory agency for the state of Texas, established as a successor to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

The commission works towards ensuring the state has clean air and water and safe waste management. While it sometimes disagrees with and challenges the authority of the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it often works together with the EPA to protect Texas’ environment. The TCEQ, like other state-level environmental regulators, is responsible for administering federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

• On the EPA: “Many people think that we are constantly fighting with the EPA, but in reality, most of the time we are working with them directly.”

• On the scope of the TCEQ’s work: “We are in touch with almost every industry in Texas, in some form or another, from building a road, to pumping gas across the street, to constructing buildings. Traditionally, we have been involved in regulating refineries’ emissions and associated facilities, as well as the upstream sector, including activities related to the drilling of wells.”

• On the new EPA administrator: “Many people fail to understand that Scott Pruitt was not challenging the EPA on scientific grounds [when he sued the EPA as attorney general of Oklahoma]. Rather, he was challenging on the basis of law or federal overreach. In my mind, it is refreshing to have a new administrator who has a different idea of what a federal regulatory agency should be doing, and I am excited and optimistic about it.”

 

• On Texas’ environmental record: “It is frustrating that the media often has a view that Texas is some sort of dirty oil and gas state with a large number of coal plants that doesn’t care about the environment. If you look at the statistics, I would say that we are a very efficient state that is at the forefront of environmental issues. We are also the number-one producer of [non-hydro] renewable energy in the country.”

Besides touching on these topics, TOGY talked to Toby Baker about occasional disagreements with the EPA, pressing concerns for local environmental safety and Texas’ progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and ozone levels. Most TOGY interviews are published exclusively on our business intelligence platform TOGYiN, but you can find the full interview with Toby Baker below.

What is the scope of the TCEQ’s authority?

The TCEQ is one of the largest environmental regulatory agencies in the world. We have about 2,800 employees across the state, working at 16 regional offices. We regulate air, water and waste. Specifically, we regulate air emissions, surface water and water rights, meaning that the permits that have to do with water rights and water use go through us. The waste we regulate is municipal solid waste, hazardous waste and industrial waste, including low-level radioactive waste.
We are in touch with almost every industry in Texas, in some form or another, from building a road, to pumping gas across the street, to constructing buildings. Traditionally, we have been involved in regulating refineries’ emissions and associated facilities, as well as the upstream sector, including activities related to the drilling of wells.
We have an enforcement arm and inspectors that are out in the field on a daily basis. We also have a legal arm that is involved with most of the lawsuits that you see coming from the state of Texas against the EPA.

What is the TCEQ’s working relationship with the EPA?
Many people think that we are constantly fighting with the EPA, but in reality, most of the time we are working with them directly. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are federal programmes that are delegated to the state, making us the delegated authority to run those programmes in Texas.
However, we often have to work hand-in-hand with the EPA on environmental issues. For example, we recently had a pretty significant water system problem in Corpus Christi, and we were using EPA labs to run the necessary tests on the water.
There are obviously certain issues on which we disagree, regarding what the federal law says, for example. At that point it is our duty to hold them accountable. I think they would say it is their duty to hold us accountable as well. As the proverb goes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
We have disagreed on what the boundaries of federal law are and how far a regulatory agency can go with those regulations. If you look at our legal record with our cases against the EPA, we have done pretty well. We have not won every case, but we have won a good number of them.

What is your assessment of Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the EPA?

Many people fail to understand that Scott Pruitt was not challenging the EPA on scientific grounds [when he sued the EPA as attorney general of Oklahoma]. Rather, he was challenging on the basis of law or federal overreach. In my mind, it is refreshing to have a new administrator who has a different idea of what a federal regulatory agency should be doing, and I am excited and optimistic about it.
However, that is not to say that if we disagree with Mr. Pruitt, we won’t challenge him as well. That is how it works, and I think that it is healthy. It is a federal system that works. If the states aren’t pushing back, then why do we have states?

What environmental issues are your primary concern?
Greenhouse gasses are an ongoing topic of conversation for which there continues to be global action. We are going to have to continue working on this issue with the EPA and with other countries.
However, what concerns me the most, on a daily basis, are the unexpected incidents that are probably more of a local issue than a big, high-policy issue. For example, there is a fertiliser plant in west Texas that exploded, killing a number of firemen that were working there. Those firemen were heroes as they had the foresight to evacuate a large portion of the town. Otherwise we would have seen some massive casualties.
Local issues such as this are what I worry about more than the broader environmental issues that are already well known. In the state of Texas, we possibly have the most extensive air-monitoring network in the USA, especially in Houston and Dallas. On an hourly basis, you can check real-time data from the monitors on our website in the Dallas area and the Barnett Shale area.

What is Texas’ record on carbon dioxide emissions?

Texas produces more CO2 than any other state. However, for the most recent statistics that I saw, if you were to look at it on a per-capita basis, we are ranked 15th in the nation for CO2 emissions. Yet we produce more oil and gas than any other state in the country. We refine more products than any other state in the country, and we produce more than a quarter of the fuel for the nation. I’m actually really proud of this, as it shows that we are efficient, especially considering our CO2 emissions.
Another ongoing issue is our ozone levels. Mobile sources are the largest contributor to our present problem, not heavy industry. But if you look at ozone levels from 2000 to 2014, ground-level ozone decreased by 28% in Texas compared to an average decrease of 16% in the rest of the United States (excluding Texas).
It is frustrating that the media often has a view that Texas is some sort of dirty oil and gas state with a large number of coal plants that doesn’t care about the environment. If you look at the statistics, I would say that we are a very efficient state that is at the forefront of environmental issues. We are also the number-one producer of [non-hydro] renewable energy in the country.

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