Protecting people’s health while growing the Texas economy

A thriving economy now or a thriving planet for my grandchildren?

Why not both?

With Texas’s plentiful natural resources and cutting-edge research and development capabilities, we don’t have to choose. If planned strategically, protecting our health and growing the economy go together. Our policymakers and business leaders should make note of our recent history as they’re planning for our future.

Under former Governor George W. Bush, Texas refineries and petrochemical companies met or exceeded established ozone policies while expanding, innovating, and generating record sales growth. Now, smarter and more efficient energy sources are helping to clean our air while creating higher-than-average paying jobs and attracting large-scale investments into the state.

Beyond ozone protections

In accordance with the federal Clean Air Act’s 1990 amendments, the Environmental Protection Agency’s health-based ozone standards required large industrial facilities to drastically cut their nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound pollution. Moreover, project sponsors had to completely offset the emissions resulting from expansions at existing facilities and newly constructed plants, plus an additional 10 to 20 percent margin.

Initially, many Texas business leaders boldly predicted refining and petrochemical facilities would be forced to shut down, costing thousands of Texans their jobs.

But instead, these ozone protections inspired innovation across the industry. Companies were able to go above and beyond simple compliance, and existing operations continued as new plants and major expansions came online. Growth generated greater revenues while giving Texans healthier air, water, and land.

Thanks to related research, development, and innovation sparked by these standards, the Houston Ship Channel today is buzzing with activity, serving as one of the largest refining and petrochemicals hubs in the world.

Clean energy potential

Similarly, clean energy can simultaneously grow the economy and lower pollution. And, it’s booming in Texas.

Last year, wind provided nearly 15 percent of power in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers (representing about 90 percent of the state’s electric load). And, Texas is on track to become the fastest-growing utility-scale solar market in the United States.

As more clean energy comes online, it often replaces dirty coal-fired electricity. Consequently, by lowering Texas’s coal power plant emissions approximately 30 percent—an achievable goal—2,300 Texas lives and $20 billion in associated costs could be saved.

Meanwhile, the wind and solar power industries now employ more than four times as many Texans as the fossil-fuel electricity industry. Plus, nearly 150,000 Texans work in energy efficiency-related jobs. And, wind energy has sparked more than $30 billion in capital investment, far surpassing any other state.

There are clearly cost-effective ways to protect people and the environment while facilitating economic growth. Texas’s refining and petrochemical industry did it, and the booming clean energy economy here is doing it now. Influencers and policymakers, however, need to recognize and leverage available opportunities. An easy way to give Americans cleaner air and a jolt to the economy is to continue to encourage clean energy’s growth—or at least don’t stand in the way of its impressive momentum.

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John Hall brings years of environmental advocacy leadership experience to lead Environmental Defense Fund's clean energy efforts in Texas. Hall previously served as the executive director for The Texas Environmental Research Consortium in Houston; chairman at The Texas Water Commission and The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (predecessor agencies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality); project manager at The Port of Houston Authority; and deputy commissioner, The Texas General Land Office. He holds a Master of Public Affairs, L.B.J. School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin (Summa Cum Laude) and a Bachelor of Arts, Sam Houston State University (Magna Cum Laude).

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Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.

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