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Don't look to Texas on energy deregulation

Don't look to Texas on energy deregulation

If President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to move ahead with billion UAE weapons sale approved by Trump Fox News hires high-profile defense team in Dominion defamation lawsuit Associate indicted in Gaetz scandal cooperating with DOJ: report MORE wants to know what a deregulated energy future looks like, he doesn’t have to look any further than Texas. The president believes ending protections for workers and the environment will help big business thrive. Not surprisingly, this view looks pretty good to the billionaires he surrounds himself with. 

But in the Houston area this spring, our own view has been obscured by plumes of dark smoke rising from three major industrial fires. We’re seeing up close how a lack of industrial regulation damages communities and ecosystems. It is short-sighted and, in the long run, hurts everyone.

On March 16, a fire ignited at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Baytown, Texas, worrying the local community. A day later, on March 17, another fire broke out at the Intercontinental Terminal facility near Deer Park, Texas. It raged for days, casting a massive plume of toxic smoke over the region. Dark soot and firefighting foam fell from the sky onto nearby communities. A dike breach sent toxic chemicals and foam into the Tucker Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel, killing fish, birds, opossums and turtles. Houston Ship Channel traffic stopped for nearly a week, causing an estimated $1 billion in economic losses.

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As if that weren’t bad enough, on April 2 — less than two weeks after the ITC fire — a chemical tank at the KMCO plant in Crosby ignited, once again sending a toxic plume of smoke into the air. Tragically, this blaze killed one KMCO plant worker and injured 10 others. 

One might think that Texas closely regulates these dangerous plants in Houston’s petrochemical corridor. That is not the case. While Texas is home to the nation’s second largest environmental regulatory agency — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — it is the only such agency in the nation whose mission of environmental protection is qualified by the requirement that its work be “consistent with sustainable economic development.”

This means that the TCEQ refers to the industry it regulates as its “customers,” and it spends more time writing permits for those customers than it does conducting inspections or issuing violations.

This is why the fertilizer plant in West, Texas that exploded in 2013, killing 15 people, hadn’t been inspected in years. It’s why the ITC site in Deer Park is still unsafe for the public weeks later. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not have authority to regulate above ground storage tanks. Local fire marshals typically don’t write performance standards for petroleum storage tanks into fire codes. This could explain why a fire in one tank at the ITC facility ultimately spread to 13 tanks. 

This hands-off approach by state regulators is why the KMCO plant in Crosby continued to operate, and eventually erupted into a deadly fire, despite a long list of environmental violations, including being criminally convicted of two counts of knowingly violating the Clean Air Act in 2016. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has fined the company about $150,000 for multiple violations since 2009, but that amounts to a light slap on the wrist for a multi-million dollar energy company.

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This hands-off regulatory approach used by the TCEQ – and increasingly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — harms public health, the environment and the bottom line.

Would the ITC and KMCO explosions have occurred had Texas better enforced health and safety rules? We’ll never know. But we do know that strong safeguards — which include frequent inspections and behavior-altering penalties for breaking environmental and health rules — can guard against disasters like these.

One would think Texas would be viewed as flashing neon warning sign that a similar deregulatory mindset should not be implemented at the federal level. But it isn’t.

Trump has eliminated federal protections that would enhance chemical safety, curb wasteful methane pollution, and safeguard clean water and air. Another Trump executive order would crimp states’ power to demand safe pipelines and other infrastructure projects. Trump’s White House has slashed budgets at the EPA and the Chemical Safety Board, which protect citizens’ right to a safe and healthy environment. 

For those on the fence about Trump’s slash-and-burn regulatory agenda, I ask you to look toward my state, and specifically Houston’s petrochemical corridor. Do you want your home to look like this?

Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D., is an organizer in Public Citizen’s Texas Office, which champions the public interest in clean energy, the environment and ethics.