Texas AG Paxton Fights Against Measures That Would Reduce Deaths and Climate Extremes

Black and white photo of a balding white man in a suit (Ken Paxton) with the text "VS" between that and a photo of a building with the name plate "United States Environmental Protection Agency". Text: Texas AG Paxton Fights Measures that would reduce deaths and climate extremes

Image of Ken Paxton via Texas Office of the Attorney General website; EPA image via Thinkstock on Canva Pro

By Cyrus Reed

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as expected, filed two separate lawsuits March 8th to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on behalf of special interests Friday, taking aim at a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard to reduce particulate matter that sears Texan’s lungs, and a new rule to reduce climate-cooking methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Calling the commonsense methane rules a “Radical Emissions Rule” and the new Particulate Matter 2.5 micron standard a “Climate Policy Expansion,” Paxton’s lawsuits are clearly designed to prevent rules and standards that would require tighter permits on particulate matter for the coal, oil and gas, refinery, rock crushers and cement industry, and in the case of methane, make the oil and gas industry meet new requirements to lower their release of methane (and associated gasses) into the atmosphere. 

In response, Sierra Club Lone Start Chapter Legislative and Conservation Director Cyrus Reed said,

“We have seen this playbook from Attorney General Paxton and Governor Abbott time and time again. We know that Texas state agencies have ignored the problem of methane from the oil and gas industry for decades, and we are not surprised that Texas will spend taxpayer money to challenge this rule that would only be beneficial for the state. In addition to methane, millions of Texans living in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, the Valley, and El Paso face annual levels of soot pollution that directly impact people’s health, and Paxton’s lawsuit is designed to prevent further reductions in this deadly pollutant. The EPA rule on methane and new standard on soot, also known as PM 2.5, directly benefits frontline communities in Texas facing pollution and weather extremes, and we appreciate the efforts of the Biden Administration to finally require industry to deal with this massive air pollution. Sierra Club will legally fight Attorney General Paxton’s attempt to roll back these important EPA actions and insist that the state of Texas implement them as soon as possible.”

So what is this methane rule that Paxton is so concerned about? 

Back in December, the EPA finalized critical Clean Air Act protections against methane and other harmful pollution from the oil and gas industry, a major win for the climate and public health in Texas. These safeguards—which include first-ever standards for existing equipment while also strengthening standards for new equipment—are the culmination of years of advocacy by Sierra Club and its allies. 

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, driving approximately one-third of the planet’s warming to date. Each year, the U.S. oil and gas sector emits 16 million metric tons of methane as well as other damaging pollutants that cause smog and soot and air toxins like benzene and formaldehyde, which cause cancer. No state produces more oil and gas than Texas, which released more than 564 billion cubic feet of methane in 2019 alone. A recent satellite analysis of the Permian Basin found that Texas emitted twice as much methane as the gas industry in New Mexico, which has state-level pollution regulations. Unfortunately, neither the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production, nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have enacted rules or standards to lower these emissions. Thus, the federal rules could have more impact on Texas than any other state, and Texas organizations are celebrating with cautious optimism. 

According to EPA’s analysis, the final standards are projected to avoid 58 million tons of methane emissions nationwide by 2038, as well as 16 million tons of volatile organic compounds and 590,000 tons of air toxins. These reductions will come from requirements for:

  • Strengthened leak detection.
  • Repair of all wells regardless of size or operation status and up until they are permanently plugged in.
  • Installation of non-polluting pneumatic equipment.
  • A phased-in prohibition on routine flaring of gas at new wells.
  • Program to leverage third-party monitoring data to identify and stop large emission events.

During a robust comment period at the start of this year, a broad coalition of supporters of the methane rule submitted over 400,000 comments – more than 16,000 of which came from Sierra Club members and volunteers – urging EPA to finalize and implement the strongest possible protections for health and welfare. Recent polls conducted by a third party also reviewed that some two-thirds of Texans favored the rule. Now, Sierra Club and coalition partners will work to defend the rule against attacks from fossil fuel interests and their political allies, as well as to ensure that the final standards are properly implemented and enforced to protect communities from the impacts of oil and gas pollution. 
What’s the new soot standard? Why is Paxton trying to prevent reductions in soot? 

On February 7th, the EPA released updated National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter (PM2.5), taking a positive and long-awaited step toward addressing a dangerous and deadly air pollutant responsible for over 100,000 deaths in the United States every year. 

EPA’s final air quality standards for PM2.5, also known as soot, lower the maximum allowable annual concentration  from 12 mcg/m3 to 9 mcg/m3 to protect public health. The rule will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays per year while bringing as much as $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032, when the standards are in full effect. 

EPA will now determine areas of the country that do not meet the new standard, and will release determinations within two years. States that do not meet the new standards will then have 18 months to develop and submit plans to comply. 

While EPA will determine whether certain areas comply in the future, current data indicates that more than 100 different areas through the U.S. do not meet the new standard, with 9 counties in Texas - including Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, Bowie, El Paso, Travis, Webb, Hidalgo and Cameron counties likely in violation of the new standard. 

Evidence shows exposure to soot pollution increases the risk of asthma, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and premature death. Sixty-three million people in the United States experience unhealthy spikes in daily soot pollution, and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to higher-than-average levels of this dangerous pollutant.

PM 2.5 particles are emitted by sources small and large, including construction sites, unpaved roads, agricultural fields, industrial smokestacks on large heaters and boilers, flares, industrial fires, vehicles, urban fires, highways (road dust from rubber and concrete fires), and outdoor burning such as sugar cane debris in South Texas where fuel is placed on the plant material.
Tiny PM 2.5 particles can even form in the atmosphere as secondary pollutants due to complex chemical reactions such as concentrated sulfur dioxide turning into PM 2.5 sulfates and nitrogen oxides forming PM 2.5 nitrates. These pollutants are emitted in large volumes from coal-burning power plants, industrial facilities (oil refineries, chemical plants, carbon black, Portland Cement kilns, etc.), and diesel engines. 

PM 2.5 is also produced by common indoor activities. Some indoor sources of fine particles are tobacco smoke, cooking (e.g., frying, sautéing, and broiling), burning candles or oil lamps, and operating fireplaces and fuel-burning space heaters (e.g., kerosene heaters).

The new annual standard will force the state to cut down on pollution from ports and trains, industrial pollution, coal plants, asphalt batch plants, agricultural burning, and old diesel trucks, among other sectors, in areas that fail to meet the standard. The standard would also cause new and existing permits to have to upgrade their equipment and operations to lower emissions of soot. Sierra Club will work to make sure Texas does the right thing even as Paxton and his allies try to weaken the new standard.