STIFLING COMPETITION: Margaret Keliher says DFW risks losing federal funds due to air-pollution issues. photography by Trevor Paulhaus

Margaret Keliher Helps Clear the Air

Dallas' first female county judge is harnessing corporate clout to curb smog in North Texas.

On paper, clean-air champion Margaret Keliher looks like a success addict. The first female Dallas County Judge in history (she served from 2002-2006), Keliher boasts a B.S. degree from the University of Virginia, a J.D. cum laude from Southern Methodist University, and a job record spanning  firms from Deloitte to Jones Day to Locke Lord. 

In person, however, she’s as chummy as a sorority girl. “I married my high-school sweetheart,” Keliher says over coffee one recent day.  She also shares that her favorite books are “whatever my [three] kids are reading.”

Is this lady for real? Fortunately for North Texas, she is. As executive director of the nonprofit Texas Business for Clean Air Foundation, Keliher is mobilizing companies to help clean up the air in Dallas-Fort Worth. That’s important because the Environmental Protection Agency has classified North Texas as a “non-attainment area” for ozone formation. “We risk losing our federal funding unless we address this,” says Keliher, who joined the foundation in the fall of 2007.

Established in late 2006 by businessmen David S. Litman, Garrett Boone, and Trammell S. Crow—who had joined forces to fight the permitting of 14 coal-fired power plants—the foundation isn’t Keliher’s first clean-air rodeo. “While I was county judge, citizens were dying because they couldn’t afford their electricity,” she recalls. “So I knew that raising people’s [electricity rates] couldn’t be our only option.”

The clean-air group hired Rice University to do a study of alternatives to the proposed plants. “We discovered that by reducing Texas’ demands through energy-efficiency and ‘demand response,’ we could meet our energy requirements for another 15 years without adding more coal plants,” Keliher says. (Demand response refers to technologies, devices, and strategies designed to reduce consumption.)

These days, the group is also working with businesses to fight the issue of dirty air caused by on-road/off-road vehicles, which account for 74 percent of our air pollution, Keliher says. “Mary Kay Inc. once provided us with a calling center, for example. We’ve even enlisted CEOs to call legislators in order to help the region earn state money for air-quality improvements.”

During the 2009 legislative session, Texas Business for Clean Air helped introduce bills that would accomplish goals inspired by the Rice University study. “Everything was moving along great, and then Voter ID [legislation] came up,” Keliher says. “I believe that 2011 will be the year they receive the legislative attention they deserve.”


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