Our Blog

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Heart of Houston: Lessons in Servant Leadership by Kelly Frels

Kelly Frels

Business community's leadership in cleaning Houston's air

The Heart of Houston - Lessons in Servant Leadership by Kelly Frels was originally published by Bright Sky Press, Houston and reprinted with permission from Kelly Frels.

In the fall of 1998, the Chair of the Greater Houston Partnership Board told his Executive Committee that Houston had a clean air problem that had to be addressed. Ansel Condray, President of Exxon USA, charged the business leaders of the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) with cleaning the air.

Houston had the dubious reputation of having some of the worst air in the country in the late 1990s, almost as bad as Los Angeles. High concentrations of ozone presented a health hazard, and not meeting the ozone standards of the federal Clean Air Act was certainly a public relations problem. The Houston area's failure to meet the legal requirements could affect its eligibility to receive federal transportation funding—an intolerable possibility for a fast-developing city that depended on highways for travel.

Houston's local governments, including the city of Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments, had not addressed solving the air pollution problem, and the governmental leaders apparently had no immediate plans to do so. Thus, the business community took the lead in reducing the Houston region's ozone levels.

Contemporaneously with the need to reduce the levels of ozone in the Houston region came the recognition that the quality of life in Houston needed enhancement. Houstonians were not pleased with how the city looked, with its many billboards and lack of public landscaping. Residents also expressed concern about the availability of parks, hikeand-bike trails and other amenities. Business leaders pointed out that Houston's quality-of-life reputation, coupled with dirty air, was adversely affecting their companies' ability to recruit employees to Houston. Banker Charles McMahan, along with a leadership class of the Center for Houston's Future: The Region's Think Tank and others, urged the business community to improve Houston's quality-of-life.

Faced with these serious needs, and a lack of leadership from the city of Houston and other responsible governmental entities, the business community acted through the Greater Houston Partnership and crafted a corrective plan. The action focused on reducing the ozone levels and enhancing the quality-of-life, while maintaining Houston's vibrant growth economy—a very ambitious goal.

The Greater Houston Partnership leaders created the Business Coalition for Clean Air (BCCA), a 501(c)(3) organization that was chaired and ably led by GHP board member and former Secretary of Energy, Charles Duncan. The BCCA raised several million dollars from GHP members to fund a community effort to improve air quality that was centered oil engaging businesses, working with governmental officials, developing ozone control strategies and getting helpful legislation passed. A major focus was educating the public on what causes ozone and what actions each person or business could take to help control its contribution to ozone. (Ozone is formed when chemicals classified as volatile organic compounds combine with nitrogen oxides. Hot days with little or no wind are ideal for ozone formation.) The development of the campaign, "Clean Air, It's Everybody's Business," featured informational publications and television spots, some of which included school children, concluding with "Clean Air, It's Everybody's Business." John Nau of Silver Eagle Distributing led the development of the community education campaign. His company led by example, importing "green diesel from other states to operate its fleet when green diesel was not available locally.

The business community developed plans, made speeches, conducted meetings and educated its members and the public about the challenge to clean the region's air while maintaining a vibrant economy. Many lawmakers were engaged in the passage of the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), which provided essential funding for air quality scientific research. The legislative effort, led by GHP vice-president Ann Culver, was developed by the GHP leadership and sponsored in the Senate by Senator James "Buster" Brown, and in the House by Representative Warren Chisum.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the GHP community education and involvement program by asking the GHP and the BCCA to co-host a national workshop with the EPA on community involvement in Washington. A number of cities facing clean air problems have sought guidance from the GHP on how to set up effective organizations and plans.

The GHP then created the Texas Environmental Research Consortium (TERC), which has worked closely with oilman George Mitchell's brainchild, the Houston Advanced Research Center, to use TERP funds to advance air quality science. TERC research, undertaken with the predecessor of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), led to the identification of the role of highly reactive organic compounds coming from refineries and petrochemical plants, generally during "upsets" and startups of industrial plant units in the formation Of ozone. The results of these studies and other research conducted by TERC guided companies in effectively and economically decreasing emissions. The results were central in the regulators' development of the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria region's State Implementation Plan (SIP) for the onehour ozone standard. The Dallas-Fort Worth region also benefited from other TERC research in the preparation of its region's SIP.

The GHP, headed by Vice-President George Beatty, led in the creation of the Texas Clean Air Working Group (TCAWG), a loosely knit group with statewide clean air stakeholders. TCAWG meets in Austin with the assistance of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. This networking group, with representatives from governmental entities, businesses, environmental interest groups, councils of governments, TERC, the EPA Regional Office and the TCEQ, plus other interested parties, meets to discuss clean air strategies. The TCAWG meetings also aid in the development of understanding and trust among the groups that have wide and sometimes competing interests. The GHP provides a businessperson as co-chair of the group with the other co-chair coming from a governmental entity in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

Developments, such as the infrared camera technology used to identify leaks of volatile organic compounds, higher national standards for automobiles and truck engines and other technology-related developments, have been significant in the accomplishment of lowering levels of ozone. The GHP encouraged volunteer efforts on the community level, such as businesses converting fleets to natural gas or using clean diesel or engine retrofits. Governmental entities, including the city of Houston and Harris County; the Port of Houston; Continental (now United) and Southwest Airlines; the railroads and other businesses joined the effort and took actions to decrease emissions. Federally mandated cleaner fuel standards and engine manufacturing requirements also played significant roles in ozone reduction.

While the GHP leaders were successfully helping reduce the ozone levels in the region, the organization also took a lead on improving Houston's quality of life. A GHP Quality of Life Committee was established and facilitated networking among numerous independent quality-of-life-focused organizations.

The Quality of Life Committee addressed tightening Houston's billboard regulations and securing state set-aside funding for the landscaping of freeways and state highways. Graffiti removal and general cleanliness were high on the agenda. Planting and maintaining trees along city streets was a priority undertaken by Trees for Houston and similar groups. The city of Houston, the Houston Independent School District and the reinvestment tax districts began to include landscaping in their building plans.

Tropical Storm Allison brought major flooding to Houston June 6th through 8th in 2001. The flooding caused major damage at the Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston, and throughout the city. The GHP's Houston Area Flood Control Task Force brought the Harris County Flood Control District and the city of Houston together with others to evaluate the flooding problem and to plot solutions. The city is responsible for getting the water to the bayous and major waterways, and the Harris County Flood Control District is responsible for moving the water to the bays. Through the efforts of many, federal funds were secured, and over the years some of the major bottlenecks for water flow have been corrected. The hike-and-bike trails system and the development of parkland along the bayous are in large part derivative of the discussions after Allison.

The Quality of Life Coalition emerged as the umbrella organization to address quality-of-life issues. Through the efforts of many, Houston today looks very different from the Houston of the past, with the most positive aspect being that quality-of-life considerations are now a part of virtually everyone's planning and implementation process.

In 2010, the Houston region met the eight-hour ozone standard. This marked a milestone for the effort to clean Houston's air. The quality of Houston's life is noticeably improved, and the city is receiving national notice for what it is today. The business community in Houston played a huge role in these achievements—as servant leaders whose leadership was joined by many others. Much remains to be done because the federal ozone level has been lowered. Meeting the tougher standard will require a significant effort from business, governmental entities and all in our community. We can enjoy our success, but we must keep our eye on providing for the future. We have done it, and we can continue.