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Did Texas improve air quality, lower emissions as much as Rick Perry claims? (Fact Checker biography)

at 11:00 AM ET, 11/18/2011


Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a stop in Jackson, Miss. Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. (Greg Campbell - AP)

“We cleaned up our air in Texas more than any other state during the decade of the 2000s. And no it wasn’t the EPA’s regulations. As a matter of fact, they tried to come into Texas after we cleaned up our air and take it over, and what they’ll do is just kill a bunch of jobs and won’t clean up the air at all. We lowered our ozone levels by 27 percent during the decade of the 2000s and we lowered our nitrogen oxide levels by 58 percent.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry, during a town hall speech in Derry, N. H., Sept. 30, 2011

Perry claims Texas topped the charts in terms of air-quality improvements, and his remarks suggest that the state knows how to clean up just fine without oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency, thank you very much.

We wondered where Perry found his data and how bad Texas was doing before he took office. We also wondered whether federal regulations really kill jobs — a subject the Post already covered this week.

The Facts

Perry cited data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The state agency calculates its ozone numbers based on a three-year average of the monitors that showed the fourth-highest eight-hour emissions concentration for each of the three years.

Here’s an example of how that could play out: the fourth-highest level could occur in the Houston area one year, Dallas the next, and then Houston again for the third year. The average for those three would become the statewide value.

Perry campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said this method “is very similar to the way the EPA calculates air-quality improvements on a national level.” And TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said it “is almost exactly the same, except it takes the three-year average in order to remove meteorological influences.”

Frazier and Morrow appear to be right, according to our reading of federal data-handling guidelines for air quality (see the first paragraph of section 2.2 on page 134). The EPA did not answer our request for clarification in time for deadline, so we don’t know for sure. We’ll update this article if the agency finds that we misread the rules.

To the best of our knowledge, the EPA does not have a standardized method for tracking statewide emissions reductions. The TCEQ used the closest approach it could find, which is the EPA’s method for gauging smaller geographic regions, like metropolitan areas.

The problem with this method is that it allows one particularly dirty region — or maybe a few — to represent the whole state. The Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area, which consistently ranks among the top five ozone polluters in the country, accounted for eight out of 11 readings that the commission used for its statewide average.

Overall, the TCEQ calculations tell the story of Houston more than all of Texas. The EPA and several environmental organizations made this point in a FactCheck.org article that suggested Perry had exaggerated his state’s improvements.

It’s worth noting that Perry appointed all three commissioners for the TCEQ, and that part of their mission is, as the commission’s Web cite states, to “establish overall agency direction and policy.” In other words, those individuals make the final call on methodology, even though none of them holds a degree in environmental sciences.

It’s also worth mentioning that Texas implemented a cap-and-trade program for nitrogen oxide emissions in the Houston area, where the commission collected most of its data. The state targeted one of its most polluted regions for reductions, then gauged statewide improvements using mostly numbers from that area — coincidentally or not.

This is similar to the situation we see with China, which has made great strides in cleaning its air at times, but still has a long way to go before catching up with the cleanest of developed countries. Those who start with the highest emissions have the greatest chance to show improvement.

“The states with bigger pollution problems obviously have to do more under this system,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the environmental watchdog group Clean Air Watch. “Texas reduced emissions more than a lot of states because the pollution was worse there to begin with.”

Houston still ranks eighth in the nation for ozone pollution, so the state hasn’t exactly turned that region into a shining example of clean air.

Another problem is that the commission measured only point-source pollution, which mainly comes from manufacturing and power plants. That doesn’t account for mobile emissions from sources such as cars and lawnmowers.

The TCEQ has argued that the state has little control over mobile emissions, but Texas can’t excuse itself entirely. States have levers they can pull — mass transit, auto inspections, etc.

Perry said Texas had lowered nitrogen oxide levels by 58 percent, but that only includes point source emissions. In terms of overall nitrogen oxide emissions, the state reduced its levels by just 16 percent, as FactCheck.org pointed out.

As for ozone, the EPA shows far lower improvement levels in places such as Dallas and San Antonio that decreased ozone by 16 and 12 percent respectively. The takeaway is that the Lone Star State would show a more modest decrease if the commission averaged all monitors in the state.

How about Perry’s claim that EPA regulations kill jobs? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 4 percent of the layoffs in 2010 resulted from “government regulations/intervention.” The data came from executives in charge of companies that made cuts. By comparison, 35 percent of the reductions resulted from various issues with business demand.

The Perry campaign stands by its suggestion that Texas can handle its air-quality issues better than the federal government. Spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said, “Texas has more of an interest in protecting the air Texans breathe more so than some bureaucrat in D.C.”

The Pinocchio Test

At first blush, we thought the TCEQ might have stacked the deck in favor of Texas, at least in terms of its method for measuring ozone reductions. But that doesn’t appear to be the case upon further investigation. The commission seems to have done its best to follow federal guidelines for collecting and handling emissions data.

Perry certainly didn’t pull his numbers from thin air, but they’re still questionable in the context that he and the TCEQ have used them. The ozone figures appear to represent the Houston area better than the state as a whole, so we can’t let the governor off the hook for his comments.

As for the nitrogen oxide numbers, they don’t include mobile emissions, so they fail to paint a complete picture of the situation in Texas.

Overall, Perry earns two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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