Texas aligns itself with industry in fight against tighter smog standards

The state, a prodigious source of ozone-causing pollutants, has consistently pushed back against federal rules

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Downtown Houston in October 2008. 

David J. Phillip/AP

The testimony sounds the refrains of industry groups: Tightening the country’s smog standard would be too costly and isn’t necessary for public health. 

But these comments weren’t from industry. They were written by the chairman of Texas’ environmental-protection agency.

The state is as aggressive as some trade associations in battling a proposed tightening of health standards for ozone, the lung-damaging gas in smog that costs billions of dollars to reduce. Officials there have spoken before Congress, hired a consultant to question the health benefits of a more stringent standard — a firm that did the same for the American Petroleum Institute — and introduced bills to fundamentally change how ozone is regulated nationwide.

This is a long-standing strategy for Texas, where power plants, cement factories, refineries and other facilities let loose far more ozone-causing pollutants from their stacks and vents than in any other state, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Texas officials have butted heads with the EPA over ozone since the 1970s.

“They’ve been fairly consistently against clean-air protections,” said Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Though ozone levels are markedly better compared with past decades, parts of Texas have some of the nation’s highest readings. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental-protection agency, said in an emailed statement that it’s trying to ensure rules are necessary before they’re imposed. The agency, which goes by TCEQ, argues that the EPA has not proved ozone is harmful below the current standard of 75 parts per billion.

“TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current standard,” the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, said in written testimony for a December Senate hearing. 

It’s a stance public-health groups and medical associations do not share. The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Thoracic Society — a respiratory disease group — are among those supporting a standard even lower than the 65 to 70 ppb the EPA proposed. 

They’re concerned about studies linking ozone at concentrations below the current standard to health problems, particularly asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Research also suggests ozone can increase the risk of cardiac arrest.

The independent advisory panel of scientists and doctors who review ozone studies for the EPA has recommended since 2006 — under President and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush — that the standard be set between 60 and 70 ppb. Panel members warned last year that, even at 70 ppb, “there is substantial scientific evidence of adverse effects.”

Texas doctors have become increasingly vocal on the issue. This year the Dallas County Medical Society called on the EPA to tighten the standard and urged the state to take more aggressive actions to battle smog, rather than smog rules.  

“Everyone’s aware of the really serious health effects in this area,” said Dr. Robert W. Haley, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

An ozone powerhouse

Nitrogen oxides — NOx — and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, form ozone at ground level as they cook in the sun. Cars are a major source. Highway vehicles account for about 40 percent of NOx and 15 percent of VOCs in the United States, according to EPA figures tracking manmade emissions. 

But power plants, factories, oil production and other industrial facilities are big contributors, too. That’s particularly true in Texas, according to 2011 EPA data, the most recent available.

Texas’ 340,000 tons of NOx emissions from facilities’ stacks and vents topped No. 2 Pennsylvania, home of big coal-fired power plants, by more than 60 percent.

At 105,000 tons, VOC emissions from facilities in Texas were 44 percent higher than No. 2 Colorado, even though Colorado — another oil and gas hub — had far more sources producing those pollutants.

Texas is a big state, second-highest in population, so its emissions can hardly be minuscule. But California, No. 1 in population and a major refining and manufacturing location, offers a striking contrast. 

California has a greater number of facilities emitting NOx than any other state — more than twice what Texas has, according to the EPA data. And yet California’s collectively spew a quarter of the NOx emitted by Texas facilities. It’s a similar story with VOCs.

“Because we have had such a bad air-quality problem for many years, there’s been a lot of strict controls that have been put into place,” said Sylvia Vanderspek, chief of the air quality planning branch at California’s Air Resources Board. “So our stationary sources are very well controlled.”

The TCEQ points to Texas’ success reducing emissions and ozone. Annual NOx emissions from facilities totaled 900,000 tons as recently as 1998, and they’ve continued dropping since the EPA tally — now below 300,000, according to state data. VOCs have also been cut substantially, the state said. 

Ozone levels have dropped as a result, improving 24 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the TCEQ. That’s a bigger decrease than in all but six states, by Texas’ calculation, and came as the state added more than 5.5 million people and their ozone-contributing vehicles.

Still, California cut ozone levels faster. 

Los Angeles and half a dozen other California communities still have the nation’s worst ozone levels. But the rest of the state was out-smogged by Texas’ Brazoria County, near Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Denton County in 2011-2013, the most recent EPA data. 

At 87 ppb, both counties’ ozone levels violated not only the current rule but the previous one, enacted 18 years ago.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas-office director of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, credited the state with doing “some very aggressive things” to attack smog caused by power plants, trucks and large industrial facilities. But “overall,” he said, “the state has failed to live up to its obligations to protect its citizens from poor air quality.”

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas group that presses for clean air, contends that ozone improvements were made “over the state’s dead body.”

“We literally had to fight for every inch of progress we’ve gotten, and that’s why it’s taken so long,” he said.

The ozone fight

The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents 41 states and 116 localities, endorsed a tighter ozone standard this year. But Texas — which broke from that group years ago — isn’t alone in its objection. Some states, including western ones afflicted with ozone from California and Asia, have said the standard would be too hard to meet.

What makes Texas stand out is how consistently it has pushed back. 

It sued the EPA in the 1970s over implementation of the nation’s first ozone rule. A Texas environmental-protection agency commissioner said in congressional testimony in 1995 — when the EPA was considering whether to tighten its loosest-ever ozone standard — that change wasn’t needed because ozone is “a relatively benign pollutant.” And the state prepared early for battle over the new threshold the EPA ultimately proposed in November.

In 2013, the TCEQ gave consulting firm Gradient a two-year contract worth up to $1.65 million to “critically review” the science behind the EPA’s standards for ozone and other air pollutants. Tighter rules “lead to a significant expenditure of state and local resources,” the agency said in its request for proposals.

This was not new ground for Massachusetts-based Gradient. The company wrote reports for the American Petroleum Institute, the Utility Air Regulatory Group and other industries in the last several years, arguing that the EPA overstated ozone risks by relying on studies with limitations. One challenge for scientists, for instance, is teasing out the effect of one pollutant among many. Gradient was also critical of the EPA’s conclusions in the run-up to 2008, the last time the agency tightened the ozone standard.

In a presentation for Texas in November, Gradient made similar points. Gradient principal Julie E. Goodman, a toxicologist who co-wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last year saying “the overwhelming body of scientific evidence” suggests the current standard is sufficient, pointed to study limitations and “inconsistent results.”

Goodman said by email that she came to her conclusions using a weight-of-evidence analysis, an effort to review what studies say and judge their quality.

Ozone researchers see the body of scientific evidence differently. The evidence of health risks above 60 ppb “is clear,” said Dr. Mary B. Rice, a pulmonary critical care physician at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She’s found that herself in lung-function tests of healthy adults.

Lyndsey Darrow, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, is the primary author of a recent study that found emergency-room trips for respiratory problems among young children rose as ozone did, even with levels below 60 ppb. 

“That association with ozone is so consistent and doesn’t go away when we control for these other pollutants we have measures of,” Darrow said.

Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, is skeptical of how the Texas review judged studies. She wishes Texas spent that money on clean-air efforts instead.

She pointed to the state’s diesel-emissions grant program, which knocks out NOx at a cost of about $5,600 per ton.

“The agency has spent quite a lot of resources trying to basically do these re-analyses that don’t necessarily seem to be objective,” Craft said.

The TCEQ said in a statement that the review is worthwhile.

“It is important that the science on which the ozone NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] level is based be accurate, and that the EPA demonstrate that further decreases in the ozone NAAQS level will produce measurable health benefits,” the agency said.

The cost of ozone

By law, the EPA must consider only public health when it sets its ozone standard, a threshold that determines when Americans get warnings about smog levels. Other issues such as cost are weighed later, as the agency works with states to implement the rule. 

But cost is what businesses are worried about, and it’s a concern that Texas officials share.

Nine Texas members of Congress sponsored or co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required the EPA to weigh public health against expense when setting the threshold. The TCEQ’s chairman pointed in his congressional testimony to the economic impact of ozone reduction, quoting a National Association of Manufacturers analysis done for a standard below what the EPA ultimately proposed.

The issue is even on the mind of TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt. Honeycutt — who has argued that the effects of ozone are overblown in part because people are generally indoors, where ozone levels are substantially lower if windows are closed — shared an industry report with the agency’s air-quality director that details potential economic effects of a lower standard.

“You may find some of this interesting,” he wrote in the email, released to the Center after a public-information request.

The TCEQ did not make Honeycutt available for an interview. A different analysis — one performed by the TCEQ in 2010 — suggested that the costs of ozone reduction in the smog-challenged region of Houston, Galveston and Brazoria have not slammed the brakes on economic expansion.

“Over at least the past two decades, as the economy of the HGB area has grown, ozone concentrations have declined,” the agency said.

The report wasn’t written to ease fears over ozone efforts. It was aimed at convincing the EPA that the region’s ozone reductions during the last recession were part of a long trend.

Laura Jobe, a retired medical transcriptionist who lives near Houston, agreed that the area’s smog is improving, “but it’s not improving fast enough for me.” She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a serious lung condition aggravated by ozone.

She wishes she could afford to move. 

“I don’t believe that people realize the damage done by dirty air,” said Jobe, 70. 

A version of this story also appeared on National Geographic's site.

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