HOUSTON (AP) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it is moving to approve new operating permits for a Texas refinery, a first amid an ongoing dispute between the federal agency and state environmental regulators.
The EPA said it is helping Flint Hills Resources in Corpus Christi transition its permits from state versions banned by the federal agency for violating the Clean Air Act to ones that would meet federal guidelines.
It's the first company to embark on an EPA-approved path to get the new papers since the federal agency disapproved Texas' flexible permit program in June -- a move that had left more than 120 plants, including some of the nation's largest refineries, in operating limbo.
The debate over environmental issues quickly evolved into a heated battle over states' rights. Gov. Rick Perry has cast the EPA's move as an example of the Obama administration meddling in state affairs, mentioning it again as recently as a Thursday campaign stop.
The EPA argues Texas' flexible permits do not allow for accurate monitoring of air emissions. The EPA is concerned plants are releasing more pollution than allowed. The new federal permits will require companies to separately monitor emissions from the hundreds of units in a plant, rather than measure them under an umbrella, as the Texas program had allowed.
Texas has challenged the EPA's disapproval in court, and insists its 16-year-old flexible permitting program is legal and has even helped the state reduce air pollution.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it was looking forward to reviewing Flint Hills' new permits, but remained "concerned with EPA's overreaching and unnecessary demands on Texas companies."
"We remain convinced the state's current flex program is effective and legal," the state regulatory body said in a statement. "EPA's demands may cause companies to alter their expansion plans, hurting Texas jobs; will cost companies more money, which will be passed onto consumers in the form of increase prices; and above it all, will not result in cleaner air."
For the companies, however, the issue is being able to run a business.
Without federally approved air and operating permits, companies risk hefty fines or even a shutdown. The EPA said it is working closely with Flint Hills, environmental groups and Texas regulators to help the company get the new permits.
Brad Razook, Flint Hills' president and chief executive officer, said the company is taking a "proactive and constructive approach to resolve the issue."
The permits need to go through several layers of bureaucracy before final approval, including a public comment period. The entire process is estimated to take a year.
The EPA said it hopes the progress with Flint Hills will pave the way for other companies to transition their permits.
"We're very pleased and we hope this will serve as a model for future negotiations with other flexible permit holders," EPA spokesman Dave Bary said.