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Environmental Regulators Brace for Budget Cuts

Texas' environmental regulators, already under fire from green groups for not doing enough to keep air and water pollution in check, are bracing for deep cuts as lawmakers hash out the budget.

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Texas' environmental regulators, some of whom are already under fire from green groups for not doing enough to keep air and water pollution in check, are bracing for deep cuts as lawmakers hash out the next biennium's budget.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality faces a possible cut of about $295 million, or 34 percent, and could lose 295 full-time employees. The Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, could see a 16 percent cut. Other agencies with some environmental functions also face the ax: Cuts are coming to the General Land Office (perhaps 45 percent, though the agency's oil-spill responsibilities will take a much lesser hit) and the Soil and Conservation Board, which regulates pollution from agricultural operations (as much as 44 percent), among other agencies. 

The reductions have yet to make their way through the legislative mill, where the amounts could change, and they are also in line with what other agencies face. Nonetheless, this represents a significant setback for environmental regulators who are already under fire from environmentalists for not doing enough to keep pollution in check.

Jim Marston, the Texas head of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the cutbacks are only the latest blows to the regulatory agencies. Some of them "haven't had enough staff for years," he said. Some programs (like the TCEQ's underground injection program, which monitors mining-related injections into the earth) might as well be given over to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, he said — something that industry undoubtedly fears.

At the TCEQ, Terry Clawson, a spokesman, says that among the biggest impacts would be to the Drive a Clean Machine program, which aims to take highly polluting cars off the roads by giving money to low-income families so that they can buy cleaner replacements. Some $100 million in cuts have been proposed, though a recent rider adopted by the House Appropriations Committee could retain $12.5 million, Clawson says. Half the funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, another pot of money for replacing (or upgrading) the most-polluting vehicles could also get cut.

"The reductions will require us to prioritize our most important duties, to focus on our core functions and to operate with a leaner workforce," Clawson said in an email.

The Railroad Commission prefers not to cut its 87 oil and gas inspectors or 26 pipeline inspectors, according to spokeswoman Ramona Nye. "We would look at all other positions before considering inspector reductions," she said in an email. However, she added, budget cuts could slow efforts to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, called "orphaned wells."

Some agencies may look to alternative sources of funding. The Railroad Commission, for example, could recover some of its cutbacks through fees directly imposed on the oil and gas industry — something proposed in the Sunset legislation.

In fact, the cutbacks come at a time when the agencies are being asked to do even more work. The federal EPA, for example, just published new mercury requirements for coal-fired power plants and later this year is likely to publish a long-expected ozone requirement, designed to force states to further clean up their air.

"You need more people to deal with that," said Marston, who complains that the TCEQ already is a "rubber stamp" agency.

Some of the cutbacks could alter the agencies' structures. The Railroad Commission, for example, could see the number of full-time commissioners who head it reduced from three to one.

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Energy Environment State government Budget State agencies Texas Legislature Texas Railroad Commission