For Rick Perry, EPA Is Useful Villain

Every politician needs a villain. George W. Bush had Saddam Hussein; Barack Obama had George W. Bush. Gov. Rick Perry has the Environmental Protection Agency, which has had the audacity to order Texas to do more to keep its air clean.

The Obama administration's EPA has aggressively crossed swords with Texas air-quality regulators — especially since Al Armendariz, a hard-charging academic, took over the agency's south-central regional office a year ago. The EPA has insisted that the state's air-pollution permitting system for big plants is too lax. It has told Texas and every other state to prepare for regulation of greenhouse gases, a hated concept in these parts, where skepticism of global climate change as a man-made phenomena runs deep.

Last week, the EPA took a swipe at the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry. The commission had failed to act to protect two homes in Parker County whose water wells have been contaminated by gas drilling, the EPA said. So it stepped in over the commission and ordered the gas company (which claims no responsibility) to fix things.

Conservatives' political reaction to all of the above has been outrage.

The move is “nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business,” said Michael L. Williams, a railroad commissioner, in a swiftly issued statement. Elizabeth Ames Jones, another commissioner, denounced the EPA's “false claims” against the Railroad Commission. The actions were “premature,” she said. The commission (which began looking into the residents' complaint in August) is still investigating.

For the governor, this is top-notch political theater. It's right where Perry — a possible presidential candidate, although he insists he is not — has positioned himself in recent years. As he writes in Fed Up!, his new book, “Our dispute with the EPA in particular illustrates how Washington's command-and-control environmental bureaucracy is destroying federalism and individuals' ability to make their own economic decisions.”

Besides talking tough about states' rights, Perry's administration has also sued the federal government. Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed two lawsuits challenging the EPA's permitting moves. Next session, riled lawmakers may take up EPA-related bills. Texas is also the only state actively refusing to implement EPA greenhouse gas rules that begin taking effect in January (it has also sued to try to stop the rules).

Texas environmentalists, of course, applaud the EPA. The agency, they say, was weakened during Bush's presidency but has finally gotten its legs back under Armendariz, a Texas native on leave from his engineering professorship at Southern Methodist University. Before his EPA appointment, Armendariz even appeared in the muckraking film Gasland, about natural gas drilling, to criticize the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's main pollution regulator, for being too slack.

Perry's chief argument is that Texas functions perfectly well without an extra blast of federal rules. Its air, for example, is improving already. Perry cites a 22 percent reduction in ozone and a 46 percent drop in nitrogen oxide emissions over the past decade. Environmentalists say that it is precisely because of stricter federal rules — those that Texas does follow — that air quality is getting better.

Expect more fireworks next year as the back-and-forth continues to play out. An interesting question will be how the state's muscular stance against tighter federal environmental regulations reverberates on the national stage — if Perry runs.

For now, it's hard to say. Being pro-business (or, better, “pro-jobs”) plays well, especially in tough economic times. On the other hand, clean air and clean water are key issues in plenty of swing states. Natural gas drilling in particular has stirred revolt in places like Pennsylvania and Colorado — the Railroad Commission's vitriolic intransigence could hurt Perry there.

Regardless, the show will go on because it must. The EPA, with its pollution crackdown, has stepped into Perry's gun sights. It provides a convenient focal point for his broader complaint against the federal government, which he claims is too intrusive and should leave the states alone.

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