Keeping Busy

Former regional EPA head Al Armendariz has a full agenda at the Sierra Club

(Page 3 of 4)

AC: So it's like apples and oranges.

AA: Yeah, some of them on a continuous basis, some of them every so often, others based on computer algorithms that are run in a computer, others that are based on an individual actually going and doing a stack test on them, some that are based on just engineering estimates. So you have this wide variety of ways that you measure emissions, and because of that it's impossible to know at any given point in time that the cumulative effect of all those emissions would be below a cap, because there's no way to simultaneously measure all the emissions from all those sources all at once.

AC: It's my understanding that in the time since EPA officially disapproved the flex permitting, it has been working with Texas businesses [that hold flex permits] to get federally approved permits. Does this latest ruling have any effect on those processes of EPA and businesses working together?

AA: I hope not. TCEQ has never had a flexible permitting program. They didn't have one 10 years ago, they didn't have one last year, they don't have one today. The decision of the court doesn't change that fact. There are approximately 100 flexible permit holders who are holding permits which are not valid under the federal Clean Air Act. So if those facilities were asking me for advice, I would advise them to continue the process they've been on for more than a year, which is to get into the standard permitting process that the TCEQ implements.

The TCEQ operates the largest Clean Air Act program anywhere in the country. There are thousands of major sources in the state, and more than 90 percent of them have their air permits through the standard TCEQ permitting structure. Only a very small number decided to obtain flexible permits, and working with us and with TCEQ, essentially all of them agreed to get rid of the flexible permits, to get permits that were issued by TCEQ in the standard permitting program. I would hope that these industrial facilities stay on that process, because I think businesses value certainty. And if they hold on to their flexible permits, if they decide to try to fight and keep their flexible permits, they're holding Clean Air Act permits that were never approved by the federal government, and they're going to be subject to federal enforcement, to suits by environmental groups and citizens, and it just prolongs the uncertainty.

No other state operates a flexible permitting program – no other state in the union anywhere. The state of Texas is the only one that implemented a flexible permitting program like the one that they did. All these companies know that they can operate safely and they can operate profitably in Louisiana, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in California, in other large industrial states. There's no reason that they need a flexible permit for their facilities in Texas. They should get their standard permits and move on and put all this nonsense and all of this litigation and all of this enforcement threat behind them.

AC: I read your interview with Kate Galbraith in the Texas Tribune, and you made an interesting point that all this litigation is creating an unpredictable environment for business.

AA: Sure. At the end of the day, what these companies do very well is manufacture products or manufacture energy, provide jobs for Texans, and make money for their shareholders. Unfortunately, the companies that chose to obtain flexible permits have been having to deal with a lot of environmental uncertainty and potential Clean Air Act litigation and potential enforcement. I think most of these companies would value putting all that behind them so they can just focus on their primary business interests – and not have to spend any more time than necessary worrying about their air permits.

AC: You also said it's actually not that hard to work with industry or have good dialogue with companies. I'm wondering if that perspective is something you'll be bringing to the Beyond Coal campaign here in Texas. What sort of approach do you envision?

AA: Oh, sure. I absolutely think that the best environmental outcomes often happen when you have all the stakeholders working together. When I was at EPA, I worked with numerous companies on matters that had tremendous environmental outcomes. One recent example is the work we did with the utility PSO, which stands for Public Service of Oklahoma. Here's a utility that was subject to EPA regulations on a couple of coal-fired power plants, and they came to us looking for an alternative to those regulations that would still have environmental protection, still have environmental benefit, but give them some flexibility in how long they continue to operate those plants. So we worked with the Oklahoma DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality], with the Oklahoma governor's office, with the utility, and were able to construct a plan that all of us could sign off on. It was great for the ratepayers in the state of Oklahoma, it was good for the utility, it was good for the environment, and it couldn't have happened if either the state or the federal government or the utility weren't at the table. We had lots of stakeholders, everybody had their own interests, they brought them forward. We then negotiated, sometimes difficult negotiations, but at the end of the day we came up with a plan that everybody could sign off on and I think everybody was happy with.

AC: I need to ask you about your resignation from EPA and the controversy over the analogy – about "crucifying" – that you used in the video. When it comes to enforcement, it seems like an agency is supposed to take a hardline approach. So what's the big deal about that statement?

Fayette Power Project
Fayette Power Project (Photo courtesy of Al Braden)

AA: Yeah, well, I don't want to spend much time speaking about those remarks themselves, those remarks that I made a couple years ago. I really am focused on the work that I've got in front of me and the work that I'm doing now with the Beyond Coal campaign.

I will say this: I think effective law enforcement for environmental statutes or any other statutes includes holding violators accountable. And I believe there is a deterrent effect when you have vigorous law enforcement. A vigorous law enforcement program will have a deterrent effect on that same company or individual and potentially persuade them from thinking of violating the law again down the road, and a vigorous enforcement program also provides a level playing field. You don't want to have a situation where companies that are choosing to cut corners and companies that are choosing to enhance their profits by violating our environmental statutes have a competitive advantage over companies that are trying to do the right thing. And law enforcement is one of the tools to prevent that from happening. Law enforcement is one of the ways that you prevent an unlevel playing field. It's one of the ways that you prevent companies that are choosing to violate the law, choosing to cut corners, and choosing to increase their profits at the expense of the environment. It's how you prevent that from happening and how you dissuade other companies from following along those lines.

AC: In the coverage of this video, there hasn't been much discussion of Dish, Texas [where the video was taken]. What is the story with this small town?

AA: Yeah, Dish, Texas, is an important community. It is a rural, conservative, quiet community outside the city of Fort Worth. It's a place out in some beautiful countryside where a number of families have built their homes. It's people who want to live in the country, people who are living in a community away from the freeways and large buildings of downtown Fort Worth. But about 10 years ago, their way of life began to radically change. Oil and gas companies moved into Dish and began heavily industrializing the area with large numbers of new compressor stations and pipelines and natural gas wells and drilling rigs and tank farms, and the noise and the air emissions and the waste pits from all of that activity changed that community and really altered its way of life. It's unfortunate. It's a community where people have been greatly impacted by natural gas extraction. And it's a sad story.

AC: Has there been litigation coming out of Dish?

AA: There's probably a very good story to be told by talking to the former mayor. His name is Calvin Tillman. Calvin was mayor in the early 2000s. He's a very honorable man. He's a conservative Republican by political persuasion. But he saw what was happening to his community, and he saw what the natural gas companies were doing. The city of Dish was very small; it doesn't have tremendous resources for lawyers and for litigation. He tried to do what he could to protect the people of his town. Unfortunately, the emissions got so large and got to the point that he thought they were affecting his own family and causing health problems to his children, so he left town. And because he left town, he could no longer sit as mayor of Dish. So he's had a front-row seat to the effect that natural gas drilling can have on small communities, can have on their way of life – both the impact on the community as well as the impact on his own family. He's someone I admire greatly.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Al Armendariz, Environmental Protection Agency, Sierra Club, Fayette Coal Plant

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