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In climate politics, Texas aims to be the anti-California

The state has filed seven lawsuits against the EPA, and its members of Congress want to check the EPA's efforts to curb greenhouse gases. 'At times they're their own country,' one observer says.

November 07, 2010|By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — For decades, California has set the pace for the country on air pollution and climate change, adopting ever-higher standards for controlling auto emissions and, more recently, greenhouse gases that scientists say have led to global warming.

Now, California's dominance is being challenged — under attack from another mega-state that wants to displace California by calling for a freeze of the status quo instead of a move toward tighter controls.

In effect, Texas is staking out a role as the anti-California.

With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, powerful Texans such as Rep. Joe L. Barton of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have vowed to check the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to use its existing authority to curtail greenhouse gases.

An even more ambitious challenge is coming directly from the Texas state government and leading Texas politicians. State Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, with the support of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, has filed seven lawsuits against the EPA in the last nine months.

In some ways, Texas' attack was bound to be bigger and bolder than it might have been from other states. After all, Texans proudly trace their lineage back to the defiant stand of Texas patriots at the Alamo and the days when Texas was an independent republic under the Lone Star flag.

"At times, they're their own country," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Assn. of Clean Air Agencies, a group of state environmental regulators. "They feel strongly, politically, that this is an issue that shouldn't pertain to them and they would like to proceed on their own terms."

And Texas corporations clearly have California in their gun sights, as reflected in their determined though ultimately unsuccessful attempt to roll back California state law in the recent election.

In a recent letter to the EPA, state officials likened the agency's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases to a socialist "plan for centralized control of industrial development."

Rebelling against federal regulation, especially on the environment, was a touchstone of Texas politics long before the "tea party" emerged and made it a national rallying cry. For years, the state's congressional champions had compelled the EPA, starting in the 1990s, to look the other way as Texas crafted regulation that went easy on industry, said Tom Smith, Texas state director for Public Citizen, a watchdog group.

"The big change is that now we have an administration whose EPA has some courage," Smith said.

Abbott, the Texas attorney general, contends his state had a "cooperative relationship" with the EPA that has been all but ruined by the Obama administration, which, he said, "is putting a target on Texas."

Perry, who has successfully run for three terms in part by criticizing Washington, took aim at outside regulatory intrusion during his victory speech Tuesday night.

"People are tired of the government cooking up new ways to micromanage their lives," he said. "They're tired of the government killing jobs with their do-gooder policies that have nothing to do with science or economics."

Texas officials and their allies assert that regulations they consider hasty and onerous would hurt the state's vast economy, which relies on oil refineries, coal-burning power plants and manufacturing.

Those facilities have made Texas the nation's largest emitter of greenhouse gases from power plants, industrial facilities and other so-called stationary sites, according to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis of EPA data. If it were a separate country, Texas would be the seventh-biggest emitter of stationary-site greenhouse gases in the world, according to the environmental group.

Still, Texas is also among the world's largest producers of wind energy, because of a measure adopted when George W. Bush was governor.

On Jan. 2, crucial EPA regulations will kick in limiting greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities. Texas is the only state refusing to enforce the new rules.

"EPA is cramming this down the throats of citizens and the states," said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, another plaintiff against the EPA. "We see Texas as standing up for normal processes under the Clean Air Act."

But Texas' activism also seems to reflect close relations between leading politicians and corporations. E-mails made available to the Tribune Washington Bureau indicate that the initial idea for suing the EPA on greenhouse gas regulation came from a new, little-known Texas nonprofit called the Coalition for Responsible Regulation.

"Just a quick interruption to see whether y'all know if TCEQ/Texas is planning on petitioning on DC Circuit Court review of the endangerment finding?" wrote Eric Groten, a lawyer at Vinson & Elkins, referring to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in a Dec. 30, 2009, e-mail to a commission official.

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