Houston ranks as the 15th most polluted city in the U.S. No other Texas city appears in the ranking. Photo via Getty Images

Houston just made a list that no one wants it to be on.

Data compiled by the National Public Utilities Council ranks Houston as the 15th most polluted city in the U.S. No other Texas city appears in the ranking. Three California cities — Bakersfield, Visalia, and Fresno — took the top three spots.

The ranking considers a city’s average volume of fine particulate matter in the air per year. Fine particulate matter (formally known as PM2.5) includes soot, soil dust, and sulphates.

The council based its ranking on the average annual concentration of PM2.5 as measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air, known as µg/m3. The ranking lists Houston’s average annual µg/m3 as 11.4. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a top µg/m3 of 5, while the American Lung Association sets 9 µg/m as an average annual guideline.

A report released in 2024 by Smart Survey found that the Houston area had just 38 days of good air quality the previous year.

“Most of Houston’s air pollution comes from industrial sources and diesel engines, although sources as diverse as school buses and meat cooking also contribute to … the problem,” the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PM2.5 poses “the greatest risk to health” of any particulate matter. Among other health issues, fine particulate matter contributes to cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease.

Among the sources of PM2.5 are wildfires, wood-burning stoves, and coal-fired plants, according to the American Lung Association.

The WHO says air pollution causes 7 million deaths annually and may cost the global economy $18 trillion to 25 trillion by 2060. With 70 percent of the population expected to live in urban centers by mid-century, cities are at the forefront of efforts to reduce pollution, according to National Public Utilities Council.

Texas — along with 24 other states — has filed lawsuits against a recent set of soot pollution standards from the EPA. Photo via Pixabay/Pexels

Texas files lawsuit challenging new EPA rule on deadly soot pollution

all those opposed

A new Biden administration rule that sets tougher standards for deadly soot pollution faced a barrage of legal challenges Wednesday, as 25 Republican-led states — including Texas — and a host of business groups filed lawsuits seeking to block the rule in court.

Twenty-four states, led by attorneys general from Kentucky and West Virginia, filed a joint challenge stating that new Environmental Protection Agency rule would raise costs for manufacturers, utilities and families and could block new manufacturing plants and infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Texas filed a separate suit, as did business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers.

“The EPA’s new rule has more to do with advancing President (Joe) Biden’s radical green agenda than protecting Kentuckians’ health or the environment, said Kentucky Attorney General Russell Coleman, who is leading the joint lawsuit along with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The EPA rule “will drive jobs and investment out of Kentucky and overseas, leaving employers and hardworking families to pay the price,” Coleman said.

The soot rule is one of several EPA dictates under attack from industry groups and Republican-led states. The Supreme Court heard arguments last month on a GOP challenge to the agency's “good neighbor rule,” which restricts smokestack emissions from power plants and other industrial sources that burden downwind areas.

Three energy-producing states — Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia — challenged the rule, along with the steel industry and other groups, calling it costly and ineffective. The rule is on hold in a dozen states because of the court challenges.

In opposing the soot rule, Republicans and industry groups say the United States already has some of the strictest air quality standards in the world — tougher than the European Union or major polluters such as China and India.

Tightening U.S. standards "wouldn't improve public health, but it would put as many as 30% of all U.S. counties out of compliance under federal law, leading to aggressive new permitting requirements that could effectively block new economic activity,'' Coleman said.

The EPA rule sets maximum levels of fine particle pollution — more commonly known as soot — at 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 12 micrograms established a decade ago under the Obama administration.

Environmental and public health groups hailed the rule as a major step to improve the health of Americans, including future generations. EPA scientists have estimated exposure at previous limits contributed to thousands of early deaths from heart disease and lung cancer, along with other health problems.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the new soot rule, finalized last month, would create $46 billion in net health benefits by 2032, including prevention of up to 800,000 asthma attacks and 4,500 premature deaths. The rule will especially benefit children, older adults and those with heart and lung conditions, Regan said, as well as people in low-income and minority communities adversely affected by decades of industrial pollution.

"We do not have to sacrifice people to have a prosperous and booming economy,″ Regan said.

Biden is seeking reelection, and some fellow Democrats have warned that a tough new soot standard could harm his chances in key industrial states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The EPA and White House officials brushed aside those concerns, saying the industry has developed technical improvements to meet previous soot standards and can adapt to meet the new ones. Soot pollution has declined by 42% since 2000, even as the U.S. gross domestic product has increased by 52%, Regan said.

The new rule does not impose pollution controls on specific industries. Instead, it lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter for overall air quality. The EPA will use air sampling to identify counties and other areas that do not meet the new standard. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. States that do not meet the new standard by 2032 could face penalties, although EPA said it expects that 99% of U.S. counties will be able to meet the revised annual standard by 2032.

Industry groups and Republican officials dispute that and say a lower soot limit could put hundreds of U.S. counties out of compliance.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned the White House in January that 43% of total particulate emissions come from wildfires, and called the pollution standard "the wrong tool to address this problem.''

The EPA said it will work with states, counties and tribes to account for and respond to wildfires, an increasing source of soot pollution, especially in the West, where climate change has led to longer wildfire seasons, with more frequent and intense fires. The agency allows states and air agencies to request exemptions from air-quality standards due to “exceptional events," including wildfires and prescribed fires.

Besides Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas, other states challenging the EPA rule include: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

All three cases were filed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

A University of Houston team looked into what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation. Photo via UH.edu

UH team unlocks innovative approach to pinpoint pollution factors

zooming in on emissions

A team of researchers at the University of Houston are using machine learning to help guide pollution fighting strategies.

As reported in the journal Environmental Pollution last month, the team used the SHAP algorithm of machine learning (a game theory approach) and the Positive Matrix Factorization to pinpoint what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation.

The paper was authored by Delaney Nelson, a doctoral student at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of UH, and Yunsoo Choi, corresponding author and professor of atmospheric chemistry, AI deep learning, air quality modeling and satellite remote sensing.

The team's research closely tracked nitrogen-based compound and volatile organic compound measurements from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's monitoring stations in the Houston area. After importing measurements from The Lynchburg Ferry station in Houston's ship channel and the urban Milby Park station, the machine learning and SHAP analysis showed a chemically definitive difference between the two areas.

For example, at the industrial station, the most impactful sources of pollution were from oil and gas flaring/production. At the urban site n_decane and industrial emissions/evaporation had the most impact on ozone.

According to Nelson and Choi, this shows that the machine learning and SHAP analysis approach can be used to tailor more precise air quality management strategies in different areas based on the site's unique characteristics.

“Once we know the specific emission sources and factors, we can develop targeted strategies to reduce emissions, which will in turn reduce ozone in the air and make it healthier for everyone," Choi said in a statement.

“Pollution is a critical issue in Houston, where you have extreme high heat and high concentration of ozone in the summers. The types of insights we got are very useful information for the local community to develop effective policies. That’s why we put our time, effort and technological expertise into this project," he continued.

Next the team envisions applying their approach in different cities and across the country.

“Austin, San Antonio and Dallas all have different characteristics, so I expect (volatile organic compound) sources will also be different,” Choi said. “Identifying VOC sources in different cities is very important because each city should have its own unique pollution fighting strategy.”

This summer, the City of Houston released an updated report on its major strategies to combat climate change and build a more resilient future for its residents.

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Houston's energy industry deemed both a strength and weakness on global cities report

mixed reviews

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

New collaboration to build data center microgrid in Houston

coming soon

Two companies are teaming up to build a natural gas microgrid in Houston that will reduce emissions by 98 percent.

Provider of prime and backup power solutions RPower has teamed up with Houston’s ViVaVerse Solutions to build a 17-megawatt (MW) microgrid at the ViVa Center campus in Houston, which is expected to be commissioned by the end of the year.

The microgrid plans to employ ultra-low emissions and natural gas generators to deliver Resiliency-as-a-Service (RaaS), and this will connect to ViVaVerse's colocation data center operations during utility outages.

RPower will also deploy the microgrid across different ERCOT market programs, which will contribute to assist with essential capacity and ancillary services for the local grid. ERCOT has increased its use of renewable energy in recent years, but still has faced criticism for unstable conditions. The microgrids can potentially assist ERCOT, and also help cut back on emissions.

“RPower's pioneering microgrid will not only deliver essential N+1 resiliency to our data center operations but will also contribute to the local community by supplying necessary capacity during peak demand periods when the electric grid is strained,” Eduardo Morales, CEO of ViVaVerse Solutions and Morales Capital Group, says in a news release.

ViVaVerse Solutions will be converting the former Compaq Computer/HPE headquarters Campus into an innovative technology hub called the ViVa Center, which will host the High-Performance Computing Data Center, and spaces dedicated to mission critical infrastructure and technical facilities . The hub will host 200 data labs.

“We are thrilled to partner with ViVaVerse to deploy this `first of its kind' microgrid solution in the data center space,” Jeff Starcher, CEO of RPower, adds. “Our natural gas backup generation system delivers the same reliability and performance as traditional diesel systems, but with a 98 percent reduction in emissions. Further, the RPower system provides critical grid services and will respond to the volatility of renewable generation, further enabling the energy transition to a carbon free future.”