Battle lines forming between EPA, state environmental agency

Profile of Al Armendariz, SMU associate professor of environmental and civil engineering and President Barack Obama's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6.

By Asher Price

By the end of the month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will probably declare that Texas' air permitting program lacks adequate public participation and transparency.

The decision, which could have profound and expensive consequences for power plants and petrochemical facilities across the state because it may force them to apply for new permits, is the latest sign of a widening rift between the Obama administration and Texas regulators on environmental policy.

For years, the Texas Legislature and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have passed laws and established rules that tend to favor the interests of industry groups, according to environmentalists. Since the Clinton administration, the EPA has raised some questions about Texas regulations but never pressed for action.

That appears to be changing. The Obama administration has singled out the Texas air permitting program for review, and this month President Barack Obama picked Al Armendariz, an engineering professor and environmental advocate, as the new head of the EPA regional headquarters in Dallas.

He has criticized air permitting policy of the Texas commission and the EPA under President George W. Bush. Armendariz, who teaches environmental and civil engineering at Southern Methodist University, will oversee Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana.

"I'm excited about the priorities (EPA head) Lisa Jackson has set out for the EPA," said Armendariz, who declined to talk about the Texas permitting program as he prepares to take his new job next month.

But those EPA priorities — tighter smog limits and regulation of emissions of carbon dioxide, which has been linked to global warming — sit uncomfortably at the Texas Capitol. Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints the state panel's three commissioners, has called the EPA an activist agency that could derail Texas' economy.

In response to the Armendariz appointment, the state agency, as it often has of late, found itself striking a stance both conciliatory and defiant.

"I look forward to working with (Armendariz) on our common goals of protecting the health and environment of the people of Texas," said Bryan Shaw, commission chairman. Shaw has taught air pollution engineering at Texas A&M University. "While he has a long history as an environmental activist, I hope Dr. Armendariz recognizes that this position is too important to be used as a podium for environmental activism. I urge Dr. Armendariz to use sound science in his decisions."

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