HOUSTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday officially overturned a 16-year-old Texas air permitting program it says violates the Clean Air Act, leaving some of the country's largest refineries in a state of limbo.
The move comes after years of backdoor bickering, negotiations and public arguments between the EPA and Texas. The argument recently escalated from a battle over environmental issues into a heated political dispute over states' rights.
Gov. Rick Perry has been using it to drive home his contention that President Barack Obama's administration is overreaching, saying in a statement Wednesday that "Texas will continue to fight this federal takeover of a successful state program."
The EPA's decision, announced in a statement, will force some 125 refineries and petrochemical plants to invest millions of dollars to get new permits. Many of the plants may also have to invest in updates to comply with federal regulations.
The decision did not come as a surprise to Texas or the industries. EPA regional director Al Armendariz has said for months he would disapprove the permits if Texas did not comply with the Clean Air Act.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's chairman Bryan Shaw insisted Wednesday the state's permitting program complies with the Clean Air Act and has improved air quality in Texas. However, in an effort to satisfy the EPA's concerns, Shaw said the commission recently changed the rules but apparently the EPA "did not take them into consideration."
Texas can challenge the ruling in court, but a commission spokesman said it hasn't decided whether to go that route.
Armendariz said the proposed rules were in the first stage of a lengthy approval process that could take months or even years.
"I can't wait to take action on these permits. I've got to act soon because these permits are seriously flawed," Armendariz told The Associated Press.
The EPA's move on Wednesday addresses Texas' so-called flexible permits, which set a general limit on how much air 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 the refinery and petrochemical industry it would take action. The 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 was under a court-ordered deadline of June 30 to either approve or disapprove the flexible permit program. On Wednesday, a federal court rejected a last minute appeal by the industry to extend the deadline.
Armendariz said he has instructed his staff to work closely with Texas and industry leaders to fix the permits.
The EPA has been working with industry leaders to find a way to effectively and efficiently issue new air permits to the impacted plants, including the nation's largest refinery, Exxon Mobil in Baytown, Texas. The EPA has offered them an independent audit mechanism that would allow them to correctly measure air pollutants to get the new permits, while ensuring them they would not be penalized for violations uncovered.
Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, one of several environmental groups that has opposed the permits, welcomed the EPA move but said he expects a state and industry-led legal battle against the agency.