By Buddy Garcia, Chairman
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

When the Environmental Protection Agency announced its new ozone standard, critics across the state jumped to the conclusion that the air we currently breathe is unhealthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The air Texans breathe today is cleaner than it has been in the last decade, in spite of dramatic population growth.

Consider the achievements already on record in Texas.

In the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, we lead the U.S. in setting low emission requirements for all types of industry.

In Houston, nitrogen oxide emissions (a key component of urban smog) from industry are down from an estimated 479 tons per day in 2000 to a projected 157 tons per day in 2009. That’s nearly a 70 percent decrease. Also, 22 out of 24 ozone monitors in Houston have lower overall annual averages, and two monitors stayed the same. So no monitors have seen an increase.

The Houston area also has seen impressive reductions in benzene emissions, which is another air pollutant that has received considerable attention. The highest recorded levels, which have occurred at the Lynchburg Ferry near the Houston Ship Channel, have fallen by half since 2005.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the agency has worked hard to reduce emissions from industry, cement kilns and power plants, instituted a tough vehicle emissions inspection program, and aggressively pursued incentive programs like the Texas Emission Reduction Plan and Drive a Clean Machine to reduce emissions from automobiles and diesel equipment. As a result, the area will meet today’s ozone standard of 85 parts per billion (ppb) by 2010.

The Beaumont-Port Arthur area scored a major victory by attaining the current 8-hour ozone standard earlier this year. And the areas of Austin, San Antonio, and Longview all met their air quality improvement goals by the end of 2007.

These benchmarks are remarkable, considering the rapid growth in Texas. We have worked hard and have applied much ingenuity and resources to reaching cleaner air.

Many Texas officials, including myself, were opposed to lowering the ozone standard from the current level of 85 ppb to 75 ppb. It’s not that we don’t want further air quality improvements, but the health benefits of lowering the current standard are debatable.

There’s an assumption that the EPA standard defines “clean air,” and anything above that level means unhealthy air. In reality, when scientists find a grey area and can not discern whether there is a health effect, they set the bar at the lowest possible level.

If the yardstick by which we judge air quality is based on anything other than clear-cut scientific proof, then we are using the wrong measurement.

Despite disagreement about the new standard, Texas will continue to vigorously pursue all methods of reducing the emissions that cause ozone formation.

The challenge we as a state face in meeting the new ozone standard includes controlling industrial sources of air pollution to their lowest possible levels, as well as from the aggregate emissions from small sources like vehicles and equipment.

How do we reduce these emissions? For mobile emissions, we’ll have to rely on the federal government to set tighter automobile standards, as states have no jurisdiction on these sources. Even if the federal government were to set lower emission standards on vehicles, these lower emissions are only beneficial when an older car is taken off the road and replaced by a newer, cleaner vehicle.

As emission limits become more stringent, control costs rise. Unnecessary regulation costs jobs and raises the price of all kinds of goods and services. The people most adversely impacted are not the wealthy, but those who live paycheck to paycheck, or lose their jobs, or never get the jobs that would’ve been created if not for additional, burdensome regulation.

While I still have concerns over the achievability of this new standard, Texas will work toward meeting it. We will maintain our working relationship with EPA, city and county officials, business and industry, and environmental groups throughout the state to reduce existing emissions and encourage the use of newer, cleaner control technologies.