Could EPA Rule Turn the Lights Off in Texas?

At a hearing today in Austin, state power companies and members of various commissions slammed the Environmental Protection Agency because of a measure aimed at reducing emissions from power plants in 27 states, including Texas.

Critics of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule say it could cause rolling blackouts and the loss of much-needed jobs in Texas and blamed the EPA for not affording the state due process to comment before handing down a Jan. 1, 2012, deadline.

The EPA rule initially proposed in August 2010 did not include Texas in the sulfur dioxide reduction programs. The rule seeks to reduce nitrogen oxides, an ozone precursor, as well as sulfur dioxide, which is not an ozone precursor but can also cause lung damage on the basis that it causes asthma attacks and other illnesses. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's environmental agency, said that a year later, the agency gave Texas four months to reduce emissions by 47 percent and did not allow it the same supplemental notice other states like Kansas and Oklahoma were given.

“I think that raises due process and equity concerns because clearly Texas was treated differently from the other states,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the TCEQ, told the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

But Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, said the rule should not come as a surprise to Texas power companies. He proposed a 12-point plan to be partially completed over the course of the next six months that would utilize more energy saving measures.

“This is stuff you should be doing anyway to lighten the load regardless of whether [the cross-state rule] is in place,” Smith said.

The majority opinion at the committee, however, sided against the EPA, maintaining that the inclusion of Texas in the rule was unjustified and the modeling and assumptions used to include Texas were flawed. There were also concerns that the changes would hurt Texas competitiveness.

“We have people in Washington who are willing to spend billions of dollars to create new jobs, but they’re not willing to come down to Texas to save jobs,” said state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Among those testifying before the committee was David Campbell, CEO of Luminant, a major power generator. Luminant announced Monday that it filed suit against the EPA because the rule would force the company to shut down plants and lay off at least 500 workers.

A letter dated Sept. 11 to Campbell from Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the EPA, said the agency's decision to make technical adjustments that would give Texas and Luminant thousands of additional tons of pollution allowances to reduce required emission reductions. The letter also advised that Campbell and Luminant seek other alternatives before considering shutting down plants.  

René Lara, legislative and political director for the Texas AFL-CIO,said his group's main concern is the timeline, which could force layoffs, but said the letter from the EPA gives him hope.

“We appreciate that letter very much because it acknowledges that they are also considering that the jobs are at risk,” Lara said. “It seems like they’re willing to be flexible to support the jobs, and if the industry is willing to work that out with the EPA, we hopefully will not see those layoffs come to fruition.”

Gary Gibbs, manager of environment and government affairs for American Electric Power Texas, said the rule would instead force the state to purchase power and allowances from other states to ensure the lights don’t turn off, citing how close the state came to rolling blackouts because of the hotter than usual temperatures this summer. Gibbs said he is fairly certain his company will file suit against the EPA.

The primary concern of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state grid operator, is the implementation timeline, said Trip Doggett, its president and CEO. Doggett said had the rule been in place this summer, the state could not have survived August without rolling outages.

“This [rule] places vulnerable citizens at a significant health and safety risk, low income and elderly most likely to be impacted by increased electricity cost and the potential for rolling blackouts,” Shaw said.

In the coming days, an additional hearing is scheduled to discuss the rule with the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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