Part one of a three-part series.

While the nation remains focused on other issues, the Environmental Protection Agency has been engulfing vast areas of economic activity and long-held state authority with all the power, speed and silence of a snowy mountain avalanche. EPA’s new rules in a host of areas are starting to freeze investment and job creation under a blanket of onerous new mandates that promise little environmental benefit.

Americans should be proud of the gains we’ve made in protecting our environment since passing clean air legislation in the 1960s and 70s.

In just 30 years, emissions of lead, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide (the main ingredient in “acid rain”) have mostly disappeared from our environment.

Today’s new vehicles emit 88 percent less nitrogen oxide (the key precursor of ozone) than cars and trucks 10 years older.

While most of the credit should go to cost-driven efficiencies and technological innovations, EPA regulations that struck some balance between environmental and economic priorities played a major role.

But today’s EPA is far more like an activist for whom no standard is too high, no burden too onerous, no risk too low, and no science too speculative. Despite being a world center of energy production, Texas has dramatically improved air quality. Yet it is disproportionately burdened by EPA’s actions.

Houston, long among the nation’s most polluted cities, attained the nationally applicable ozone standard last year. If the real goal is “ending the era of fossil fuels in our generation,” as President Obama has repeatedly declared, Texas is a good place to start. The Texas model of limited government and economic freedom, which has created more jobs than the rest of the country put together in the last 12months, is also a threat to Obama’s statist agenda.

Last July, EPA invalidated the 16-year old Texas Flexible Permitting Program. A strategic mechanism for achieving huge emissions reductions, the flexible permits impose tight emission caps for industrial facilities, while leaving plant operators some flexibility to innovate.

Now, purportedly because of concerns about specificity in the language of the permits, EPA has thrown the operating authority of more than 120 of the largest facilities in Texas into legal limbo.

EPA has yet to explain how the state permitting rules should be changed to satisfy these newfound concerns, but it has now imperiously decreed the Texas rules fall short of federal requirements. The affected facilities are in full compliance with state-issued permits, but EPA views them in violation of the Clean Air Act and subject to enforcement.

As an alternative to full-blooded EPA enforcement or revocation of their permits, EPA has offered a “voluntary” audit to conclude with an enforcement decree — a coercive fist hidden inside a velvet glove. EPA has apparently invented a new method of rulemaking through the threat of enforcement — entirely outside the constraints of the Administrative Procedures Act.

Texas is now challenging EPA’s invalidation of the Texas Flexible Permitting Program in federal court. EPA’s action jeopardizes the planned construction of a new $6.5 billion Motiva refinery in Port Arthur and Total’s planned $3 billion refinery expansion. Thousands of new highly skilled and well-paying jobs are at risk. And it’s not just Texas that suffers.

EPA’s heavy-handed response to a dispute over permit rules strikes at the heart of the state’s industrial base, one of the vital engines of the U.S. economy.

Texas produces more than 25 percent of the country’s transport fuel and more than 60 percent of its industrial chemicals. The state has become the country’s leading job creator.

Alas, Texas is not the only target of the Obama administration’s regulatory avalanche, and it won’t be the only victim.

Kathleen Hartnett White is former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Mario Loyola directs the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.