For years environmentalists in Texas have pretty much known that expecting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to get down and dirty and really start environmentally regulating things was a pipe dream. That's not to say that TCEQ regulators don't do anything at all, but it's not like they go out looking for environmental infractions to discipline and get in line. After all, the City of Houston got so frustrated with the TCEQ lack of enforcement on air pollution issues that the city ended its deal to share regulation with agency in 2005 and passed it's own Clean Air Ordinance in 2007, a move that was challenged in court by TCEQ and heard by the Texas Supreme Court last September, as we've previously reported.
So it's not news that the TCEQ has often been found wanting when it comes to environmental regulations, but on Tuesday the Environmental Defense Fund and Caddo Lake Institute filed a legal petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is aimed at solving the TCEQ problem by asking the EPA to step in. Specifically, the petition asks the federal regulatory agency to take back some of the responsibilities it handed off to the state under the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
And don't get us wrong, the petition raises a lot of valid concerns. It's pointed out in the petition that last year the Texas Legislature passed a law that raises the bar for people fighting proposed industrial permits, shifting the burden of proof to opponents, a move that "could result weaker levels of protection in the permit ... and less rigorous assessment by the TCEQ." On top of that, the Lege passed another law that caps the penalties local governments can get from environmental enforcement lawsuits at $2.15 million, with the rest of the money going to the state coffers, and limits the time period in which governments can bring up these cases, according to the petition. It's a big deal since it means that the local governments entrusted with enforcement powers by the TCEQ won't have as many resources to draw on to actually enforce this stuff.
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The petition also notes that Texas spending has been declining for the past decade when it comes to environmental protection, dropping from $596 million in 2007 to $374 million in 2014 (a 45 percent decrease when adjusted for inflation). The environmental groups conclude that, if TCEQ and local agencies can't or won't put in enough funding to enforce the federal laws, EPA officials should sweep in and take those powers back.
The problem is, while this may seem like a perfectly (or at least somewhat) reasonable solution from the environmentalist side of things, we're pretty sure Texas lawmakers would hit the ceiling if this actually happened — think a lot of screamed expletives followed by a stream of lawsuits filed at a feverish pace.
See, we have to wonder if these particular environmentalists have somehow missed that relations between Texas and the EPA aren't exactly stellar these days. In fact Texas sues the EPA if the federal regulatory agency so much as sniffs in the general direction of the Lone Star State. That may be a slight exaggeration, but keep in mind Texas has sued the EPA 23 times since President Barack Obama took office (17 suits were filed when Gov. Greg Abbott was state Attorney General and the others six have been filed by State Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton) and Texas officials tend to file a lawsuit whenever EPA regulators so much as sniff in the general direction of the Lone Star State.
So just imagine what state officials would do if the EPA actually took the environmentalists up on their suggestion to take back some of the powers delegated to the TCEQ. Hell, the TCEQ might give up even the pretense of environmental regulation and just take over some state building like those guys up in Oregon. On the upside, in that case at least we'd know for sure that the TCEQ was actually doing something.