March 20, 2008
The problem with reality checks, I can now report, is the reality.We just got back from Spring Break. We slipped out of town with a couple of other families and got away from everything. I read and rested, and got to spend a ton of good time with Liz, Cooper, our 12-year-old son, and Preston, our 18-year-old, who’s getting ready to head out for college in the fall.So I was starting to feel great – recharged, rejuvenated, ready to go. I almost couldn’t wait to get back.Then, just before we left, the boys were hanging out at the pool where we were staying. They were with other kids, some of whom were from Toronto. They were getting to know each other, and one of them asked Preston what his Dad does for a living.”He’s a Senator,” Preston said.And the other kid, eyes-bugged-out excited, says, “Your Dad plays hockey?!”So, no, I’m sad to report that my real job is not nearly as cool, or maybe even as believable, as the possibility that I play for the Ottawa Senators. I don’t play hockey. I can’t ice-skate at all. I don’t even think I could tell you what the icing rule is, unless it has to do with cake.Needless to say, the whole experience leaves me feeling pretty uncool. Maybe I’ll just stick around and do South by Southwest next year, in the hopes that one of the 6,000 bands won’t be named The Senators.I still won’t be cool, but at least no one will be confused about it.
Texas got its own little reality check a few days ago when the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out new clean air standards.While those new standards have been justifiably criticized by health and environmental groups, they’re still strict enough that they’ll probably push Central Texas out of compliance with the Clean Air Act in the next couple of years. That means our region will be subject to all sorts of new federal regulations and restrictions designed to make the air safe to breathe.The timing is extra galling because just nine months ago, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved permits allowing two coal-fired power generators to be built about 100 miles northeast of Austin. The Commission approved the power plant, known as Oak Grove, despite the likelihood that it’ll further damage Central Texas’ already less-than-clean air. The commission even overruled its own Public Interest Counsel and state administrative law judges in approving it. (You can read my comments opposing the plant here.)I’m pretty proud of how proactive Central Texans have been in trying to keep our air clean. In fact, the region took an unprecedented step a few years back and created a compact aimed at trying to keep us in compliance with the health standards. The effort was the first of its kind in the country. It involved a coalition of Central Texas cities, counties, business, and environmentalists. It resulted in good efforts, including voluntary work on the part of citizens. And it succeeded. Even with our rapid population and economic growth, we didn’t see the expected rise in emissions.So the whole episode of the agency approving Oak Grove raises an important, troubling question: Is the TCEQ complying with the Clean Air Act?Right now, the TCEQ looks only at emissions from a single permit applicant. The agency ignores the reality that the pollution from that proposed plant will mix with what’s out there already, even though the EPA requires reviews of these cumulative impacts. Those isolated emissions themselves might not violate a health standard. But it’s the combination we’ll be breathing, and that could be dangerous to our lungs. Plus, failure to meet the federal standards can result in serious sanctions that will cripple economic development and prevent the spending of federal dollars on needed transportation projects.The fact is, no governmental study has ever been done on the cumulative effects of existing plants, future plants, and their emissions for a full Central Texas ozone season.Congressman Chet Edwards, who represents residents around the proposed plant, is trying to remedy this failure. Not only has he called for a federal study of Oak Grove, its impact on the region’s air, and the decision to approve it, but he even made sure the federal budget had money to pay for it.I and more than a dozen other elected officials in Central Texas sent a letter to Congressman Edwards this month supporting the study.As you may recall, I filed a bill in the last legislative session (SB 1800) that would have required the TCEQ to consider cumulative impacts of coal plants. Unfortunately, the legislation was never even allowed a committee hearing. I was able to amend another bill and add to it a provision requiring consideration of cumulative impacts before granting a permit. Unfortunately, the provision was stripped out at the last minute, so it didn’t become law.Obviously, it’s good to have the support of Congressman Edwards to address this at the federal level. We need it.