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Interview with Houston's Mayor Bill White on Houston as a Model City

This year could be an environmental milestone for Houston. Mayor Bill White promises to focus on the environment and take action to clean up the air and protect public health. As part of this commitment, he has created the city’s first Environment and Public Health Committee with Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado as committee chair.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) also is focusing on Houston’s environment by naming its first director of Air Quality for Region 12, Rebecca Rentz.

Recently, Vicki Wolf, CLEAN’s environment writer, interviewed these three leaders about creating a healthier environment for Houston. Here is her interview with Mayor White:

What do you think it will take to make Houston a model city for cleaning up the environment and becoming a more sustainable city?

Mayor White: 1-Strict enforcement of existing laws particularly based on health priorities 2 – do things which help make our citizens leaders in energy conservation and energy efficiency – especially involving emissions.

What can be done right away to turn Houston toward a cleaner environment and a more sustainable city?

Mayor White: The biggest short-term impact is controlling emissions of toxic chemicals particularly in olefins – ethylene and butadiene – from refineries and petrochemical plants. Something we have to start today to have impact over next ten years is more fuel efficient and lower emission transportation, which will include building rapid transit system,and encouraging all of us to use more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels. The third topic not addressed as much is combustion of diesel from trucks. Almost half of emissions on our road and off-road construction equipment are sources of emissions that contribute to ground level ozone and particulates. One of the difficulties is that court decisions have limited the power of state and local governments to regulate emissions from the trucking industry and construction industry. Manufacturers of construction equipment have successfully claimed in federal courts that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over these sources of pollution. This means we cannot enforce standards more strict than federal standards for trucks or off road construction equipment. Also, we can’t regulate ships coming into port that burn bunker fuel that is dirty or the significant pollution from railroad industry.

What can you do about these sources of pollution?

Mayor White: On construction equipment, if all public authorities in the region and the largest private firms that contract for construction equipment provided sufficient incentives for quick conversion equipment, then we are looking at it --- if there was a level playing field where enough purchasers provide incentive a more rapid conversion. At the state level, there needs to be a commitment to the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (includes funding for incentives to encourager lower emissions in off-road construction equipment). In the meantime, there are diesel formations and additives that can be used to reduce emissions. The City of Houston purchases, at a significant cost, low sulfur diesel. There is a limited supply but it has fewer NOX and particulate emissions. Finally, we have begun dialogue about the desirability of state to opt for California standards on vehicle fuel economy. Some auto manufacturers and dealers have fought this in California, and, so far, California has prevailed. If we can get enough states to use fuel economy standard, we will have incentive to accelerate development and production of hybrid vehicles.

Are there efforts toward integration of departments and with other organizations to be more effective in the quest for a healthier city?

Mayor White: We have elevated the importance of reducing emissions by creating the environmental czar post, staffed by Elana Marks, and by hiring staff with technical expertise We also have added people to the legal department to take actions on environmental compliance. We are using HARC (Houston Advanced Research Center) and their sustainable development folks on weatherization of homes. We’ve added consultants on energy to help us procure renewable green energy and hope to have a significant amount of the city’s energy provided by renewable sources within two years. We are pushing people to find ways to be leaders. And we are converting city fleet. In fact, Houston is the largest purchaser of hybrids in the region.

Do you think Houston residents know the urgency of making these changes and what they can do to help Houston have a healthier environment?

Mayor White: I think there is a public interest in it when I talk about it. They need more knowledge of what they can do. We have a consumers’ choice initiative to have providers of electricity submit best prices for consumers and best green power alternatives. I’ve committed to publicize this. On the basis of what response we get from companies, I personally plan to switch to best green energy and encourage those who can afford it to do the same.

What are some of the long-term environmental issues that need to be addressed?

Mayor White: The efficient use of water is important. We are a water rich region compared to other parts of the country, but we can do more to use water efficiently. I don’t mean mandates and quotas. I would like to see us have more native plants used in landscaping. People who do our parks dept have done a lot of work on native species that require less water to survive. – We have asked the water utility what has worked in other cities that have been faced with water issues. We want to encourage appliances that use less water. Using less waste water means fewer water treatment plants.

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Citizens League for Environmental Action Now
720 N. Post Oak Rd., Ste. 265, Houston, TX 77024
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