Reflecting the new congeniality between Texas and the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday announced his pleasure at an EPA decision to back off from a probe of oil and gas emissions.
The EPA decision came Thursday, one day after Paxton had asked the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, to retract the Obama administration inquiry into industrial emissions.
The Obama team had wanted the information as part of its efforts to slow climate change, which scientists have linked to emissions of greenhouse gases.
“We hope that the burdensome Obama climate rules never see the light of day,” Paxton wrote in his March 1 letter, which was co-signed by attorneys general from Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia, as well as the governors of Mississippi and Kentucky.
The cordial back-and-forth between Texas officials and the new EPA said as much about the changing relationship between Texas and Washington as it did about the Trump administration’s determination to roll back environmental regulations.
In cinematic terms, the relationship’s tenor has changed from a dark, suspicious film noir to a sunny, optimistic buddy movie.
Last month, for example, found Gov. Greg Abbott meeting smilingly with Pruitt — two men who were former state attorneys general who, like Paxton, got much of their campaign contributions from oil and gas interests and who, like Paxton, fought efforts to regulate the industry.
The two men “agreed to work cooperatively on a range of issues,” including about parts of Texas with smog conditions that run afoul of U.S. environmental standards, such as Houston and Dallas, according to an EPA press release.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the American-Statesman that, as attorneys general, Abbott and Pruitt “successfully collaborated on a number of efforts to fight federal overreach by the EPA.”
At the Washington meeting, “they discussed the opportunity before them to revive the cooperative relationship that existed between the EPA and the states prior to the Obama administration and to scale back the job-killing regulations implemented over the past eight years.”
Pruitt has said he will reverse an Obama-era expansion of rules protecting waterways — a position that also aligns with Abbott’s.
The goodwill has filtered down to the Legislature. The chairmen of the Texas House and Senate energy committees have filed resolutions calling for cooperation to unravel “the harmful, overreaching regulations that have been implemented over the past eight years, which were largely aimed at negatively impacting the oil and gas industry.”
Such cooperation was unthinkable, politically and philosophically, when President Barack Obama was in power.
For years, Texas officials argued that EPA efforts to improve air and water quality and human health were unnecessary and bad for business. Exchanges were often barbed. After video surfaced of Obama’s EPA Dallas regional administrator saying he would “crucify” companies that violated environmental rules, Texas officials in 2012 successfully forced his resignation.
But as the Trump administration has begun easing rules, the relationship is closer to a romance.
Abbott, Paxton and Pruitt “seem extremely like-minded in their positions,” said David Spence, a University of Texas Law School professor of energy law and environmental regulation. “Nothing pops to mind as an issue that would divide them.”
But, Spence said, “repealing a lot of these rules is going to be more complicated than a lot of people think.” In some cases, the EPA would have to convene panels of scientists to come to a new understanding of the risks posed by pollutants, he said.
The warmer relationship has extended beyond environmental matters, with Trump’s Justice Department agreeing to drop its opposition to the Texas voter ID law and to dismiss an appeal of a ruling that blocked Obama’s transgender bathroom directive.
This week’s ending of the emissions inquiry serves as a useful case study.
The Obama administration had sent letters asking more than 15,000 owners and operators in the oil and gas industry to provide information on the numbers and types of equipment at all onshore production facilities in the United States. The EPA also had asked for more detailed information on sources of methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas — and emission control devices or practices.
“Industry likes to tout how much they’re doing,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy at Environmental Defense Fund. “This information would have provided that kind of documentation.”
But after the March 1 request for relief from Texas and other states — Paxton’s letter complained that the EPA requests amounted to an “unnecessary and onerous burden on oil and gas producers that is more harassment than a genuine search for pertinent and appropriate information” — Pruitt quickly withdrew the agency’s demand for the information.
“We applaud Administrator Pruitt for his adherence to the rule of law as he pursues the balance Congress has struck between preserving our environment and allowing our economy to grow,” Paxton said Friday.
Brownstein said environmentalists were concerned by the speed of Pruitt’s decision and that it was made with “very little input from anyone other than a small group of state attorneys general that he’s been palling around with.”
“And we’re concerned about the kind of precedent this sets for the agency going forward,” Brownstein said. “If business as usual will now mean the agency is uninterested in collecting basic information about pollution or operating practices, how can we be certain that the agency will take its responsibilities to protect air and water quality and public safety seriously?”
The EPA withdrawal is effective immediately, meaning owners and operators are no longer required to respond, the EPA said.
“By taking this step, EPA is signaling that we take these concerns seriously and are committed to strengthening our partnership with the states,” Pruitt said Thursday.