Energy & Environment

Illegal air pollution in Texas dropped more than 50% during the pandemic. Experts fear it’s an outlier

A new report analyzing data gathered by the TECQ finds the drop stemmed largely from the pandemic-related downturn in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, and rising production in 2021 is already leading to a comparable rise in illegal pollution.


Illegal air pollution dropped sharply in Texas last year thanks largely to a decrease in industrial activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis of data self-reported by companies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The report, produced jointly by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas, found Texas industrial facilities released more than 46 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2020. That was down more than 54% from 2019 — the lowest level since 2016.

“A recession across the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decline in production,” read the report. “This slowdown in production contributed to a drop in unauthorized emissions in 2020.”

But the report sounded a warning that such improvement wouldn't last long.

“Preliminary 2021 industry emissions reports indicate that the pollution drop is likely to be short lived unless state and federal regulators ramp up environmental enforcement and eliminate pollution loopholes,” the report read.

The analysis found Houston-area companies accounted for roughly 5.5 million pounds of illegal emissions in 2020, putting the region in a distant second place behind the biggest emitter, Midland, which registered 30.7-million pounds. Harris County facilities led the state in illegal emissions of particulate matter — which can cause lung disease and premature death — and the carcinogen butadiene.

Findings from the Oct. 14, 2021 report, “Illegal Air Pollution in Texas, 2020”

Gabriel Clark-Leach, an Austin-based senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said there's no indication that the state has tightened its enforcement of pollution controls despite a number of high-profile accidents.

“We're concerned that if circumstances don't change with the state regulating more effectively, that as the economic situation improves then the pollution situation will become worse,” Clark-Leach said.

Asked if the TCEQ was likely to regulate more effectively, Clark-Leach was not hopeful.

“We've heard some lip service from the commissioners in light of some significant, real, extreme upsets involving explosions, where people were injured or had to be evacuated,” he said. “But in terms of the details, in terms of improving its actual policy, or taking more frequent actions, or imposing fines that really constitute a significant deterrent to poor maintenance and practices that result in these upsets, we aren't hopeful.”

Read the full report below:

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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