Chief among the project’s responsibilities will be to field input from individuals in the “EJ communities” and then “integrat[e that feedback] into a new way of doing business.”
The TCEQ is the agency tasked with monitoring air quality and environmental pollution across Texas. That includes testing oil and gas operations for excess emissions, examining water quality, and curtailing the disposal of physical waste. Its federal counterpart is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In a blog post, TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Gary Rasp announced the initiative, stating, “Some issues have a slow fuse, simmering just below the surface, until the heat forms a flashpoint that can no longer be ignored. Such is the case with environmental justice — a cause that advocates have doggedly pursued for decades.”
The release stated the program will focus on analyzing the agency’s historical documents dating back 20 years to identify starting points.
Coordinating its Environmental Justice Initiative is new TCEQ Chief Clerk Laurie Gharis. Before moving to the TCEQ, Gharis served as a director for the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education.
In the blog post, Gharis stated of the effort, “We want to learn from the past and actively implement thoughtful plans to develop a more sustainable future.”
“I try to listen more and speak less,” Gharis said of her strategy for the project, “I work hard to be open, attentive, and thoughtful, and to recognize that not all communities are starting at the same point.”
Gharis was not available for an interview Friday, but the TCEQ answered emailed questions about the program in lieu of an interview.
“We are still working out as an initiative what our roles, objectives, and action plan will look like,” agency spokesman Brian McGovern wrote to The Texan in an email. “As we move further with our work, we will have a better idea of whether the initiative suggests and leadership agrees with any potential new actions and/or rules. If the initiative and leadership support new potential actions and/or rules, normal TCEQ processes will be followed.”
Asked if the EPA played a role in the program’s development, the commission said that it had not and that it was designed to “enhance our environmental justice work at TCEQ and will take into consideration the uniqueness of the State of Texas.” The agency will, however, seek guidance from other agencies outside of Texas.
The Texan obtained an email from David Gray, the EPA’s acting Region 6 director, announcing the new initiative, stating, “I couldn’t resist sharing this exciting announcement from Texas about their new environmental justice initiative. The White House [Environmental Justice] Council met this week and I’ll share notes as soon as I get them. We are looking [at] ways to improve our Region 6 [environmental justice] program.”
Asked further if concerns of minorities and low-income residents were not already taken into account in carrying out their responsibilities, McGovern stated, “Permits evaluated by the TCEQ are reviewed without reference to the socioeconomic or racial status of the surrounding community.”
“However, TCEQ recognizes that communities are unique and aims to work with communities to better ensure access to decision making processes and a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
Texas Railroad Commissioner (RRC) Wayne Christian, one of the members of the body which regulates Texas’ oil and gas industry, took umbrage with the TCEQ’s plan.
“Energy regulation should be based on sound science. It should not be based on virtue signaling support for the latest woke political cause,” he told The Texan.
“The quality of our environment impacts everyone. The so-called environmental justice movement is nothing more than a branding tool by the far-left to make radical and expensive energy policies easier to swallow.”
Environmental justice is defined by the EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The slogan has been adopted by progressives to advocate their policy platforms that contain a nationwide shift in energy sources from thermal to renewable to slash emissions. While still a senator, now-Vice President Kamala Harris introduced an environmental justice bill last year in Congress alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
Greenaction, an environmental advocacy organization, says of environmental justice, “The EJ movement is an inter-generational, multi-racial and international movement that promotes environmental, economic and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment.”
“Environmental Justice is realized when all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism or inequity.”
Christian’s RRC counterpart, Jim Wright, took a different view of the initiative, telling The Texan, “I think it’s a good thing whenever a government agency makes a concerted effort to hear its constituents’ concerns.”
RRC Chair Christi Craddick declined to comment for this story.
The project is in its beginning stages and will expand further as it moves forward.
“This work will support TCEQ’s continued effort to protect the health of people in Texas, as well as to better ensure the public has opportunities for meaningful participation,” McGovern concluded.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.