Local Air Quality and the Bigger Picture

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The good news is that our air is still designated as in “attainment” according to the federal standards set in 2008 for eight-hour Ozone (75 parts per billion, or ppb).  The bad news is that we are right at that standard.  Based on the latest available science regarding the negative health and environmental effects of air pollution, the EPA is considering lowering the standard to between 60 and 70 ppb. National standards level the playing field so that one region’s efforts to protect community and environmental health do not put it at an economic disadvantage in comparison with other regions with looser standards. If our region goes into non-attainment, federal regulations will maintain fairness by constraining our ability to grow our transportation infrastructure and economic development.

As previously addressed on my blog, our region’s air pollution has improved from a high of 89 ppb in 2000 to 75 ppb in 2011 due in large part to local efforts such as the Early Action Compact and the 8-Hour Ozone Flex Program. Although we have made great strides in reducing locally produced tailpipe emissions (from cars, trucks, lawnmowers, and industrial and agricultural equipment), more than two-thirds of our bad air is blown in from outside Central Texas. We have little local control over the carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) blown in from oil and gas production and refineries, power plants and other larger cities.

We must do more to address statewide, national and even international air-pollution migration. We need more resources to:

  • monitor the size, shape, and source of the problem;
  • plan a coordinated global, national, state and local response to the challenge; and
  • implement the plan.

Local governments have contributed considerable resources, mostly funded from property taxes. The State also has grant funding and dedicated fees specified for these efforts, but state funds are being restricted, withheld, and even being considered for elimination.

Several factors are contributing to the Legislature’s ineffective response to the challenge. Some industries would prefer the migration of their emissions remain undocumented. For example, local recipients of Rider 8 grant funds from the State are barred from monitoring the in-migration of pollution. Some state officials would prefer to withhold dedicated pollution mitigation funds as a means of exploiting an accounting loophole that masks structural imbalance in the State’s budget.  By remaining unallocated, the accumulated funds give the illusion of more revenue than is actually available for other budgeted programs. Some state officials would prefer to make a popular reduction to state fees from which these revenues derive (such as vehicle registration and inspection fees), thus forcing unpopular increases onto local officials and local property taxes. Whatever the cause of the State’s feckless behavior, the likely result will be unhealthy air quality and a federally mandated leveling of the playing field in Central Texas.

Irrespective of inequity, inaction or lack of collaboration at the federal and state level, we locals must continue our efforts to protect community and environmental health. First, we can choose to locally fund our efforts. Although reliance on regressive local property taxes is not ideal for addressing this statewide issue, withheld and diminishing state funding leaves few other choices.

Second, we can reduce local tailpipe emissions by altering our behavior. Here are some options to consider:

Third, we can reduce transported emissions by reducing our electricity and water consumption. Some suggestions:

  • Turn off lights when not needed.
  • Turn our thermostats up. Austin residents can get a free programmable thermostat from Austin Energy.
  • Use less water. Treating and moving water uses a lot of energy. Both LCRA and the Austin Water Utility provide guidance. Conversely, producing electricity uses a lot of water. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated requires an industry average of 25 gallons of water to produce (coal requires 36 gallons, natural gas requires 14 gallons and nuclear energy requires 47 gallons to produce).

Fourth, we can contact our representatives at the Legislature and demand that Rider 8 grant funding be maintained and that the dedicated funds for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), Low-Income Repair and Replacement Assistance Program (LIRAP) and Local Initiative Program (LIP) be used for their intended purposes.

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