Gov. Rick Perry took a spat between state and federal environmental regulators to the country's highest authority Friday, asking President Barack Obama to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from taking over Texas' air quality program.
A dispute that began as an environmental fight about granting permits to some of the nation's largest refineries has recently evolved into a political battle over state rights.
The argument reached a tipping point earlier this week after the EPA's regional director Al Armendariz threatened to remove Texas' regulatory authorities by midsummer if it fails to comply with the Clean Air Act. Armendariz told The Associated Press his office had already started hiring additional staff, in part to tackle Texas' faulty air quality program.
If the EPA takes over, it will be replacing a successful program "with a less effective Washington-based, bureaucratic-led, command and control mandate," Perry wrote to Obama. On Wednesday, he called the EPA's move a federal power grab.
The dispute is largely over Texas' so-called flexible permits, which set a general limit on how much pollutants an entire facility can release. The federal Clean Air Act requires state-issued permits to set limits on each of the dozens of individual production units inside a plant. The EPA says Texas' system masks pollution and makes it impossible to regulate emissions and protect public health.
Texas has been issuing the permits since 1994 even though it never received the required federal approval. The EPA made clear at least five years ago it believed the permits violated federal air laws, warning Texas and industry it would take action. Industry, uncomfortable with the uncertainty, sued the EPA in 2008, demanding the agency take action on this and several other programs that remained in limbo. The EPA has a court-ordered deadline of June 30 to act on the flexible permit program.
Armendariz has said the EPA is planning to disapprove the program. EPA documents obtained by the AP show the agency believes Texas' program allows industry to release double the amount of pollution allowed by law.
There are 20 counties in Texas, including Houston and Dallas, that are on the EPA's "dirty air" list. Several Democratic state legislators and environmental activists held a news conference on Friday, accusing Perry of turning a public health issue into a partisan debate. They called on the EPA to do everything in its power to ensure Texans breathe clean air.
But Perry insists Texas' air quality has improved in recent years, partly due to the flexible permit program. In his letter, Perry told Obama that Texas had decreased nitrogen oxide emissions by about 27 percent between 2000 and 2008. A federally regulated program that puts unnecessary limits on industry will harm a strong state economy -- a detrimental move in a recession, he added.
"In the interest of protecting air quality gains, American jobs and domestic energy supplies, I respectfully and strongly request that you stop EPA's efforts to take over the Texas air quality program already delegated to our state as was allowed for and contemplated in the federal Clean Air Act," Perry wrote.