The TCEQ’s ‘Non-Enforcement’

By José Medina

A recent story by the Associated Press takes a look at the impacts of methane flaring in the Permian Basin in West Texas. It is an important read overall, explaining how much methane the oil and gas industry pumps into the atmosphere and what it means for the changing climate. Studies have shown that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry may be 60% higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported.

The AP story speaks volumes about how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is unwilling to protect Texans, and the environment, from harm.

The story quotes Tim Doty, a former TCEQ official who retired from the agency in 2018. Doty, who served as a senior manager for TCEQ’s mobile air quality program, is blunt in his assessment of the agency’s lack of willingness to hold polluters accountable.

​​From the story:

“They don’t go look for anything,” said Doty, who now works as a private consultant for clients that include environmental groups.

Doty adds that the agency saw a significant change once Gov. Rick Perry came to power in 2000. TCEQ staff was discouraged from enforcing violations against the oil and gas industry.

This unwillingness to look for violations is notable as the agency undergoes its Sunset review this year and into the Texas legislative session next year. Sunset review is a state process under which every agency is evaluated every 12 years. At the end of this process, the agency receives its marching orders for how to operate in the future.

Public Citizen has spoken out during this process, asking for reforms to protect Texans and hold polluters accountable.

The TCEQ’s unwillingness to act is something we have heard from Texans for years. It was a common theme during a series of recent people’s hearings hosted by Public Citizen and its partners. It was also communicated to decision-makers directly in June during the only hearing on the TCEQ before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which will make recommendations to the Legislature about how the agency should operate.

Doty says that the agency has also adopted a stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach and won’t even use the tools it has to determine the scope of the methane flaring problem. Doty says TCEQ staff can’t talk about climate change within the agency.

More from the Associated Press story:

Doty said the Texas environmental agency has cameras capable of detecting air pollutants leaking from oil and gas facilities, but after he and other staff began documenting huge methane plumes about a decade ago they were told to keep the cameras locked away.

“Even though they have 20 infrared cameras, they don’t actively take them out in the field,” said Doty, who was charged with training staff members to use them. “And the TCEQ still hasn’t really recognized methane (as a problem). You can’t really openly talk about climate change within that agency.”

The Associated Press notes that the TCEQ’s self-enforcement report for 2021 supports Doty’s critiques.

Is it any wonder that Texans, particularly those who live in frontline communities, have expressed a lack of trust in an agency labeled a “reluctant regulator”? That is not what any of us should want from what is supposed to be the state’s top environmental watchdog.

Public Citizen will continue advocating for Texans and public health as the Sunset review moves forward. The next step in the process is the Sunset commission’s decision hearing on Oct. 12, where commissioners will decide what recommendations about the TCEQ it will forward to lawmakers in preparation for the 2023 legislative session.