* EPA, Texas agency holding talks on permit changes
* Dispute over "flexible permit" program most contentious
* TCEQ to act on "flexible permit" draft rules in June
By Eileen O'Grady
HOUSTON, May 14 The Environmental Protection
Agency is working to bring a Texas regulatory agency into
compliance with federal law, which could affect dozens of major
refiners, power plants and chemical facilities in the state
that cannot meet current emission standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency has disapproved a
number of key modifications made over the years by the Texas
Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to its clean-air
Changes made in key Texas programs under which dozens of
oil refineries, chemical and power plants operate mean some
permits may no longer comply with the federal Clean Air Act,
the EPA said.
"We will have federally consistent permits issued in Texas
soon," Al Armendariz, administrator of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's Region 6, told a Gulf Coast Power
Association utility conference last month.
Texas has about 1,500 facilities classified as major air
pollution sources under the Clean Air Act. Texas refineries
account for 26 percent of the nation's refining capacity.
The EPA has begun filing objections to some recent
TCEQ-issued operating permits, an action that puts those
companies "between a rock and a hard place," said the state's
top environmental regulator.
Objections have been filed against permits issued to
operating units at Exxon Mobil's (XOM.N) Beaumont refinery,
ConocoPhillips' (COP.N) Sweeny refinery and Dow Chemical
Bryan Shaw, TCEQ chairman, said he remains optimistic that
the two agencies can settle many of the disputes. However, he
warned that TCEQ is limited by Texas law on some issues.
"I'm encouraged that through our discussions we have been
able to clarify some misperceptions EPA had about our program,"
Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Public Citizen in
Texas, said environmental groups welcomed the EPA's crackdown
on the Texas agency.
"For more than a decade, TCEQ has been ignoring federal law
in the permitting process," Smith said. "The regional office is
making clear that substantial changes are going to have to be
made or there will be some changes in who's issuing permits in
The EPA dispute over TCEQ's "flexible permit" program will
be the most difficult of the remaining issues to resolve, said
"Our program is not broken, it's just misunderstood," he
The "flexible permit" program allows companies to lump
emissions from multiple sources under a single "cap" rather
than individually by equipment source, which complicates the
inspection process and has raised complaints from environmental
groups, the EPA said.
While there are only 150 or so flexible permits issued,
they include large refiners, a liquefied natural gas plant,
chemical plants, some coal-fired power plants and companies
that manufacture plastic, soup, glass and air conditioners.
The Texas program brought older plants that were
"grandfathered" by state law -- and not subject to emission
controls -- into the permit world, significantly reducing
dangerous emissions, Shaw said.
"To undo the program now could allow emissions to rise,
Shaw said. "I don't want to lose the environmental benefits
associated with the flexible program."
Shaw said new TCEQ draft rules will be put out for public
comment soon, with board action set for June.