Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Tom "Smitty" SmithTom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, will retire early next year after 31 years of championing consumer rights and clean energy policies in Texas.

Smitty is widely known as the man in the white hat around the state Capitol. He has testified more than 1,000 times before the Texas Legislature and Congress. He has led a team based in Austin, but also includes staff in Houston and Dallas. And he has effected reforms that have improved public health and safety, protected consumers’ pocketbooks and helped curb climate change.

Texas State Representative Rafael Anchia of Dallas had kind words for Smitty upon learning of his planned departure, “With the wisdom of Yoda and the dogged determination of the Lorax, Smitty Smith gave voice to the common man in the Texas Legislature for decades.  Smitty is that rare person who always put the best interests of the people of Texas first, and whether he was advocating for more honest government, voting rights, or the environmental, he did so with boundless knowledge, grace, good humor and patience.”

Smitty’s accomplishments at Public Citizen include:

  • Helping to make Texas the top wind energy state in the country by conducting studies, organizing Texans and assembling a coalition of groups to push for wind power;
  • Working with state policymakers to create the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), which has awarded more than $1 billion to replace 10,000-plus diesel engines and has cut more than 160,836 tons of smog-forming NOx;
  • Organizing with Karen Hadden of the SEED coalition, now his wife, to create 16 local groups that stopped the construction of 12 of 17 proposed coal plants over the past decade and four proposed nuclear reactors;
  • Helping pass the state’s building energy code, which has significantly reduced energy use in homes build after 2003;
  • Helping craft and pass major ethics reforms that included the creation of the state’s ethics commission;
  • Helping craft insurance reforms passed in 1991;
  • Successfully pushing for a better state lemon law; and
  • Co-founding and mentoring 13 nonprofit organizations including Solar Austin, Clean Water Action in Texas, Texas ROSE (Ratepayers Organized to Save Energy) and the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) coalition.

Smitty has been a great leader for Public Citizen’s Texas office and he knows that his success was thanks to our supporters.

“The only way to beat political corruption is with organized people,” Smitty said. “Time after time I have seen a small group of citizens organize and speak out, and change happens. Our job as citizens is to take back our government and keep our government open, honest and responsive.”

We will miss working with Smitty, but he will continue to contribute to the betterment of the world as a public citizen wherever he goes.

Please help us find a new Executive Director.  The job description is posted here.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released a study today that examines the finances of seven large Texas coal plants.  The news isn’t good for the owners of those plants, but it’s great for those of us fighting keep climate change to a manageable level, clean up air pollution and preserve our water resources.  The report – “The Beginning of the End: Fundamental Changes in Energy Markets Are Undermining the Financial Viability of Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas” – describes how the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.

The report, presented by IEEFA in partnership with Public Citizen, analyses the performance of four merchant generators—the Big Brown, Martin Lake and Monticello plants owned by EFH’s Luminant subsidiary, and the Coleto Creek plant owned by Dynegy. It also analyzes three coal-fired plants owned public power utilities or power agencies—the Fayette Power Project (co-owned by Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority), Gibbons Creek (currently up for sale by the Texas Municipal Power Agency), and J.K. Spruce Unit 1 (owned by San Antonio’s CPS). The 8,100 MW of capacity from these seven plants represents a little more than 40 percent of the total coal-fired capacity in ERCOT.

The study shows that all but one of the plant is losing money and that even that one – Martin Lake – is barely making a profit.  If output or market prices dip below those assumed in the base case scenario, Martin Lake will also lose money – and all of the other plants will lose even more than they already are.

Print“None of the units is financially viable, as none can be expected to produce substantial pre-tax earnings for their owners or be economic for ratepayers in coming years. Indeed, all but one of the plants can be expected to produce pre-tax losses for their owners in coming years,” report author David Schlissel summarized.

“The key finding is that fundamental economic transformations are undermining coal plants in Texas and that six of seven Texas coal-fired generators they studied in Texas are at risk of retirement,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “The coal industry is undergoing rapid changes in Texas as EFH resolves its bankruptcy and considers retirement of its oldest plants, as Gibbons Creek is being sold, as Austin Energy has begun to put money toward the retirement of its Fayette plant, as CPS retires rather than retrofit its JT Deeley coal plant,” Smith said. “We think other Texas utilities should follow their lead. The transition will reduce costs, clear the air and create jobs.”

The report notes several forces arrayed against coal-fired generation and that suggest retirement of coal-fired plants is likely:

  • The collapse of natural gas prices and subsequent declines in the cost of generating power and the increases in generation at natural gas-fired power plants.
  • Increased competition from thousands of megawatts (MW) of new wind and solar resources due to steep declines in installation prices, improved operating efficiencies and transmission upgrades.
  • Low energy market prices in ERCOT’s deregulated wholesale markets driven by lower natural gas prices and increased generation from renewable resources. (Unlike in some regions of the country, ERCOT does not have a “capacity” market, which often serves to subsidize older plants and keep them on-line when they are no longer cost competitive.)
  • Sharp reductions in generation from coal-fired plants as their output has been displaced by increased output from renewable and natural gas-fired capacity. Many coal-fired power plants in Texas no longer act as “baseload plants,” and are instead limited to operations during the peak load seasons. Although coal-fired plants generated 39 percent of the electricity in ERCOT in 2015, by May of 2016 they provided only 24.8 percent.
  • Public health and environmental regulations, including the EPA’s regional haze rule, that are forcing coal-fired power plant owners to decide whether to make expensive investments in their aging coal fleet.

Schissel said it is not a question of whether ERCOT reliance on coal will fade, but when. “The discussion should shift now to how to phase out these plants, what to replace them with, and how to retrain their workers.”

Public Citizen Texas and Common Ground for Texans  are hosting a Railroad Commission Candidate Forum.

Do you know what the Texas Railroad Commission regulates? (And no it is not railways as the name might imply) If not, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to learn about it, and three of the candidates running for Railroad Commissioner, next weekend at a candidate forum with:

  • Grady Yarbrough (Democratic Party)
  • Wayne Christian (Republican Party) – had originally accepted, but had to cancel due to family obligations
  • Mark Miller (Libertarian Party)
  • Martina Salinas (Green Party)

The Railroad Commission is the regulator of oil and gas in Texas which make it a very important office. This forum should be a great chance to get acquainted with these candidates!  This is your opportunity to become a well-informed voter and learn about:

  • the roles and responsibilities of the Railroad Commission and its commissioners.
  • the differences between the candidates running for this important position.

The forum is Saturday, Sept. 10 Hope you can make it!

What: Texas Railroad Commissioner candidate forum
When: Saturday, Sept. 10th from 2 to 4 pm
Where: Yarborough Library, 2200 Hancock Drive, Austin, TX 78756 (see map)

  • You can also join from your computer, tablet or smartphone.

https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/520109357

  • Or you can dial in using your phone.

United States +1 (872) 240-3212

Access Code: 520-109-357

 

Texas legislation and subsequent court rulings have made it difficult to know what you need to vote.  The League of Women Voters has put together this quick video and we have also included additional information about what you need and what constitutes voter harassment around the voter id issue.  So check out the post below and vote in local, state and federal elections.  It’s your right!

Great news for Texas Voters!

New Procedures for Voting in Person All citizens wishing to vote must still be on the official list of registered voters. For the November 8th election, the deadline to register is October 11th.

Voters may still use one of seven (7) forms of photo ID, listed below. IDs may be expired up to four years. (Previously IDs could be expired no more than 60 days.)

  • Driver license
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate (EIC)
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS
  • Texas license to carry a handgun issued by DPS
  • US military identification card containing the person’s photograph
  • US citizenship certificate containing the person’s photograph
  • US passport

ADDITIONALLY, new procedures allow registered voters without photo ID to sign a simple form* and present one of the following documents to vote a regular ballot:

  • Valid voter registration certificate (card)
  • Certified birth certificate
  • Current utility bill
  • Bank statement
  • Government check
  • Paycheck
  • Any other government document with the individual’s name and address
  • *The one-page form is called the “Voter’s Declaration of Reasonable Impediment or Difficulty”

Prohibition of Voter Harassment

  • Election officials cannot question a voter about the use of an ID type
  • Poll watchers may never question a voter about Voter ID issues

  • It was also made clear that the ID address does not have to match the voter registration address.

No Provisional Ballots

Voters who present one of the alternate documents and sign the declaration form “shall be permitted to vote a regular ballot.”

Other Provisions

Mayor Adler speaking about the Austin Energy rate case settlement on Aug 25, 2016. Council Members Casar and Pool also spoke at the press conference focused on environmental aspects of the rate case. Photo by Dave Cortez.

As of yesterday afternoon, Austin Energy’s rate case officially concluded with a unanimous vote of the City Council.  The result – lower bills for everyone and commitments to address two key environmental objectives.  The utility agreed to develop a financial, legal and technical plan that will allow its portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire at the end of 2022.  And the utility agreed to address the need for compensating commercial customers with solar installations for the energy they produce.  These commitments provide a path forward to transition away from burning coal and toward renewable energy.

The 2022 retirement date for Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette was established in the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025, but a detailed implementation plan is still lacking.  The agreement that Public Citizen and Sierra Club struck with Austin Energy as part of the rate case gives the utility until June 2017 to present a plan to the City Council.  And in the meantime, $5 million will be earmarked in Austin Energy Contingency Reserve as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget to be used for repaying debt associated with Fayette.  What to do about the debt is expected to be a significant focus of the research Austin Energy will conduct between now and next June.  Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette is responsible for about 25% of Austin’s community-wide greenhouse gas emissions and about 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions, making retiring the plant a top priority for meeting Austin’s climate goals.  Additionally, the economics of producing power from coal are looking worse all the time, so retiring the plant will ultimately benefit ratepayers, as well as the environment.

The exact details of how to compensate commercial customers with solar will also be decided in the coming months, but a commitment to address this current policy shortfall was part of the rate case agreement.  We will continue to advocate for expansion of the Value of Solar (VoS) tariff to commercial customers.  The VoS, which was pioneered by Austin Energy and first implemented in 2012, is used to calculate bill credits for residential customers with solar.  This formula-based method allows for a transparent examination of the benefits that local solar provides and is structured to be cost-neutral to the utility.  Currently, the VoS doesn’t apply to commercial customers, nor are most commercial customers eligible for net metering (a method of one for one crediting energy produced for energy used).  As incentives continue to be phased out, it becomes even more critical that Austin Energy have good long-term policies in place to fairly compensate customers.  The rate case agreement ensures that the issue of compensating commercial customers for energy produced will be addressed as part of the FY 2018 budget.

We are pleased that the Austin City Council also chose to make adjustments to the residential rates that weren’t detailed in the agreement between Austin Energy and the other parties in the rate case.  Austin Energy had proposed changes that would have raised rates for those who use the least electricity, while reducing them for those who use the most.  We advised the Council that such a change would be contrary to established goals for reducing energy use and would unfairly burden those who had invested in energy efficiency.  In the end, Council agreed and new rates were adopted that will result in reduced bills for all residential customers (rate reductions for commercial customers were already ensured).  The new rate go into effect at the start of January 2017.

Public Citizen’s Texas office worked in partnership with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter for the past seven months to ensure that environmental priorities were reflected in Austin Energy’s rates and financial planning.  Thanks to the many Austinites, including city council members who supported our efforts.

 

Win! In Precedent-Setting Case, Judge Finds Non-Disparagement Clause Unenforceable; Case Dismissed in Dallas Pet-Sitting Suit

Warning to Other Companies: Don’t Use Non-Disparagement Clauses to Silence Consumers
A Texas state court rightfully has dismissed a lawsuit against a Texas couple who was being sued for criticizing a Dallas pet-sitting business on Yelp. Public Citizen believes that this is the first case involving a non-disparagement clause in a consumer contract in which a court has held the clause unenforceable.

The judge for the 160th District Court of Dallas County dismissed both a libel claim and a non-disparagement clause claim and held that the couple – Robert and Michelle Duchouquette – would be awarded attorney fees as well as sanctions to deter future such lawsuits.

“Seeking to silence negative criticism, the owners of Prestigious Pets may well have put their whole company on the line,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “Not only did the company lose business when customers were disgusted over the non-disparagement lawsuit, it now is responsible to pay attorney fees and sanctions. This case should serve as a warning to other companies.”

The story began in October 2015, when the Duchouquettes hired Prestigious Pets to watch their two dogs and a fish while they were on vacation. After being dissatisfied with her experience with the company, Michelle wrote a one-star review on Yelp explaining that she didn’t like the fact that she could not reach the pet sitter directly when problems arose. She also wrote that the fish bowl water appeared cloudy, suggesting that the fish was overfed.

Prestigious Pets then brought a small claims lawsuit against the Duchouquettes, alleging that the review was defamatory and that the posting and subsequent statements to media violated a non-disparagement clause in the fine print of its standard contract. The couple filed an anti-SLAPP motion, seeking to have the suit dismissed because it chilled free speech while lacking a sound legal or factual basis. The company dismissed its small claims proceeding and sued in state district court alleging that the broader media attention resulting from the lawsuit had hurt the company’s business. The company also sought an award of up to one million dollars in damages.

Public Citizen entered the case on behalf of the couple, filing both an appeal from the implicit denial of the anti-SLAPP motion in small claims court and a new anti-SLAPP motion in the Texas district court. The appeal in the County Court, which seeks to recover the roughly $10,000 that the Duchouquettes had to spend for their private counsel in the small claims court, is still pending.

“I am thankful to have a ruling that supports our right to free speech. We should all have the opportunity to express our opinions without the fear of a lawsuit,” said Michelle Duchouquette. “We are so grateful for the attorneys who have supported us through the case. It took lots of hours and many smart minds spending too much time talking about Gordy the betta fish. Thank goodness they did not lose sight of the real issue: the threats posed by non-disparagement clauses to our right to free speech.”

Nicole Williams, Andrew Cookingham and Christopher Dachniwsky from the Dallas firm of Thompson and Knight are co-counsel.

Learn more about the case.

Been wondering what all those Bernie supporters are going to do now that their “candidate” is no longer running for President?  Well they have now  announced the creation of a new organization whose mission will be to carry forth the ‘political revolution’ through the general election and beyond. The Bernie Sanders “campaign” has issued a call to action for those inspired by the historic primary challenge and a message aimed at its detractors: We’re not done yet.  The new organization will be called ‘Our Revolution.

Sanders will begin activating his grassroots supporters for enacting a longer-term vision.  Around the country supporters of the new movement will host house parties on August 24th as a way to begin fueling Our Revolution. The kick-off evening, will include “a major live stream address where Bernie will talk about the specifics of what we can do going forward to fight for every single issue that drove his campaign.

If you want to find a house party in your area, go to the map and put in your zip code.

Sunset Commission Logo

Monday, August 22, 2016
House Appropriations Committee Room
Room E1.030, Capitol Extension
1400 Congress Avenue
Starting at 9:00 a.m.

This is not the Railroad Commission’s first rodeo.  It was punted in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions with a temporary re-authorization because the legislature failed to agree and pass a bill that would reauthorize the agency for another 12 years.  So once again this dysfunctional agency is in front of the Sunset Commissioners who must make recommendations about how the RRC should continue (and in case you were wondering – NO – the Railroad Commission does not regulate railroads.  Pipelines, oil and gas wells, and mines are among the things it oversees/rubber stamps.  And it does have some enforcement duties that don’t amount to much  So this is an agency that could use some serious changes, but unless the Texas legislature via the Sunset Commissioners know that the public is paying attention to what they do, they could just re-authorize the RRC for another 12 years with no significant changes.  This is where you come in.  Below is a description of the Sunset Advisory Commission and their process.  You can see the agenda for the August 22nd hearing here.

If you plan to testify, you will need to fill out a witness card upon your arrival at the Capitol in Room E1.030. We will have our internal sessions and refreshments in reserved rooms at the Capitol.  Parking is available in the Capitol Visitors Garage accessible on 12th or 13th Streets between Trinity and San Jacinto on the east side of the Capitol., please fill in the sheet here, so we can plan to accommodate everyone and for you to get information about the rooms we have reserved.  If you cannot come in person, there are other options (see below)

The Sunset Advisory Commission is an agency of the Texas Legislature that makes recommendations to the Legislature on whether to continue various state agencies.

The Commission was created in 1977 under the auspices of the Texas Sunset Act (now codified as Chapter 325 of the Texas Government Code).

The Commission consists of twelve members, ten of whom are legislators and the remaining two are members of the general public (see the current Commissioners below). The leader of each chamber of the Legislature (the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, who presides over the Texas Senate) each appoint five legislators and one public member to serve on the Commission. The chair and vice-chair rotate annually between the two chambers. The Commission appoints a director, who hires staff to carry out agency duties.  (A list of the members is located at the bottom of this post)

Under the Act, every state agency (excluding universities, courts, and agencies mandated under the Texas Constitution) has a specific date on which it will automatically be abolished, unless the Legislature passes specific legislation continuing the agency’s existence. This issue came into play during the 2009 Legislative session, when the session adjourned without the Legislature providing for the continued existence of several agencies, thus requiring the Governor to call a special session.

Prior to the scheduled cessation date of an agency, the agency’s functions are scheduled for review by the Commission. Each agency provides to the Commission a Self-Evaluation Report; the Commission staff prepares its recommendations (coordinating with other state oversight agencies, such as the State Auditor’s Office and the Legislative Budget Board) and takes public comments. A final public hearing is held prior to the Commission making its final recommendations to the Legislature. The final recommendation can be any of the following:

  • Continue the agency as is
  • Continue the agency with modifications (including moving functions from the agency to other agencies, moving functions from other agencies into it, and most commonly, making improvements to the effectiveness and efficiency of an agency’s functions.)
  • Merge the agency with another agency
  • Disband the agency and either transfer its functions to other agencies, or abolish them altogether

If the Commission recommends continuation of the agency, it must provide draft legislation to continue the Agency and to make other recommendations. Generally, the legislation will allow the agency to continue for an additional 12 years (six biennial sessions), but may be shortened in order to equalize the number and size of agencies to be reviewed each biennium. Should an agency be abolished, the Act provides for a one-year wind-down period so the agency may conclude its operations. The Legislature must pass specific legislation to continue an agency’s existence and to define its roles and responsibilities, and has complete freedom to amend or reject the Commission’s recommendations (either to continue or abolish the agency).

The Sunset Process:

The Commission generally considers each agency under review during two public meetings.  About a month after release of a Sunset staff report, the Commission discusses the report’s recommendations and takes testimony from the public.   Any person is welcome to attend the public hearing and provide feedback on the staff recommendations or other issues relating to the agency.  For the Railroad Commission this hearing is August 22, 2016 at the capital.  Please note, however, testimony about individual cases or appeals is generally not allowed. The Sunset Commission cannot override an agency’s decisions.

At least a month after the public hearing, the Sunset Commission meets again to vote on its recommendations to the full Legislature about an agency. No additional public testimony is taken at this second meeting.  The Railroad Commission’s second meeting is scheduled for November 10th.  At this point the commissioners will issue their recommendations for any changes at the agency that will be considered in the reauthorizing legislation that needs to pass during the 85th legislative session, should the bill fail the agency is abolished but may continue business for up to one year.  Should no reauthorizing legislation pass, there is an omnibus bill that will allow an agency to undergo the sunset process during the next interim session, but the Railroad Commission’s reauthorizing process was already delayed last session.

Public participation is the cornerstone of the Sunset process.  It is how Sunset staff gains the broad perspective needed to conduct its review of state agencies and programs.  It is how the Sunset Commission receives feedback about the Sunset staff review and hears new ideas and issues beyond what staff has presented.  Ultimately, it is how the public itself can be assured of a say on fundamental matters affecting state agencies.

The public may participate in the Sunset process at this point by:

Giving feedback directly to the Sunset Commission.

After the Sunset staff report has been issued, the Sunset Commission conducts a public hearing to receive feedback on the staff’s work.  Interested persons may provide feedback in writing or by testifying at the hearing.  Because of the public nature of the proceeding, feedback received at this stage is public and will generally be placed on the Sunset Commission’s website for the public to see.  To be most effective, this feedback should be short and to the point and clearly indicate support, opposition, or changes to recommendations.  One may also present any new issues or solutions that were not raised in the Sunset staff report.  Sunset staff compiles this feedback to help the Sunset Commission make decisions about an agency.

If you cannot attend but want to submit written testimony, you can use the Public Input Form and watch a live stream of the hearing. or you can go to Public Citizen’s Action form with pre-written testimony.  Once you take action here  you will both automatically receive an email about the hearing and will be directed to the page to sign up to attend the hearing

If the reason you cannot attend is because they happened to schedule this hearing on the same day school starts in your area, be sure to mention this in your written testimony.

Sunset Commission Members

The Commission has five Senators, five Representatives, and two members of the public, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House.  The position of chair rotates between the House and the Senate every two years.

Senate Members House Members
Van Taylor
Vice Chair
2015 to 2019
Plano
Larry Gonzales
Chair
2013 to 2017
Round Rock
Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa

2013 to 2017
McAllen

Cindy Burkett

2013 to 2017
Sunnyvale

Robert Nichols

2015 to 2017
Jacksonville

Dan Flynn

2015 to 2019
Van

Charles Schwertner

2013 to 2017
Georgetown

Richard Peña Raymond

2013 to 2017
Laredo

Kirk Watson

2015 to 2019
Austin

Senfronia Thompson

2015 to 2019
Houston

LTC (Ret.) Allen B. West
Public Member
2015 to 2017
William Meadows
Public Member
2015 to 2017

 

WCS Radioactive

Looks like a safe way to store radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. :j

As it decides what constitutes community consent to a nuclear waste dump, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should acknowledge its past mistakes, be responsive to public input and disavow attempts by the private sector to site a nuclear waste storage facility in Texas, Public Citizen has told the agency.

Public Citizen submitted its comments (PDF) on Sunday in response to the agency’s invitation for public input on how it should go about establishing sites for high-level nuclear waste facilities.

Over the past six months, the department has been holding public hearings across the country to solicit public input on and move forward consent-based siting, a new approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities.

The concept of consent-based siting, part of recommendations made in 2012 by the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, reportedly has enjoyed success in other countries pursuing nuclear waste disposal. It has been touted as a potential antidote to the four decades of failed nuclear waste policy in the U.S. and has been embraced by the Department of Energy (DOE).

But the success of this process and its aim to reset the federal radioactive waste program is already jeopardized. While the DOE is deciding what constitutes consent, an application for a new, high-level radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, Texas, is moving through the process at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at breakneck speed. Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which now operates a low-level radioactive waste dump there, wants to expand. Its plan would involve more than 10,000 shipments of radioactive waste generated across much of the United States over 20 or more years.

“This proposal for ‘interim storage’ in Texas is putting the cart before the horse and is clearly at cross purposes with the DOE’s effort to develop a new approach that is safe, adaptive, staged and aimed at achieving state and community consent for storing our country’s lethal nuclear waste,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “While the Blue Ribbon Commission and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tout Texas and New Mexico as communities that might want this waste, the DOE has failed to even hold hearings in the targeted West Texas community to ascertain what the citizens think would constitute consent. This blatant omission further erodes public trust in the DOE and could derail its new approach before it even begins. To correct course, the agency should publicly oppose WCS’ proposal as premature.”

The DOE has an opportunity to overhaul an agency culture that has systematically disregarded the public and failed to meet its commitments. But it is already wasting it. Acknowledging its past and present shortcomings – including failing the people of Andrews County – and taking steps to correct its mistakes are the first step to saving consent-based siting from becoming another blot on the DOE’s record.

Click here to view Public Citizen’s recommendations.

RRC townhallTuesday, August 2 at 6:30 PM

Grapevine Convention Center

1209 S Main St, Grapevine, Texas 76051

The Texas Railroad Commission governs all oil and gas activities including the building of pipelines within the state. The RRC is up for Sunset Review this coming legislative session. Sunset works by setting a date on which an agency is abolished unless the Legislature passes a bill to continue it. Sunset staff evaluates the agency and issues recommendations for positive change. The Commission considers the recommendations, hears public testimony, and decides on a package of changes to bring to the full Legislature.

If you are concerned about the lack of enforcement and fines related oil and gas drilling, about deep injection and earthquakes and about Commissioners taking donations from companies with cases pending before the RRC, then come learn about the Sunset process, express your concerns and your questions about this agency, and how you want it reformed.

Also, public testimony in Austin is tentatively set for Monday, August 22.

For more info,
https://www.sunset.texas.gov/reviews-and-reports/agencies/railroad-commission-texas-rrc

https://www.sunset.texas.gov/meetings#meeting_1764

Sunset of an agency happens once a decade. Real reform for the RRC has been pushed aside in recent years for Legislative budget wrangling and other politics around the Capitol.

Numerous legislators have been invited to the event and we are awaiting confirmation. But this is your opportunity to come together with others where we can document your concerns and comments regarding this agency. This event is sponsored and being put on by Public Citizen, Sierra Club and Earthworks.

A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

IMG_1653Around 10:10 AM on Sunday July 17th, a pipeline leaked propylene in the community of Baytown, TX, near the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery. Propylene is a dense, colorless gas that is considered non-toxic but flammable. The pipeline leak highlights some of the challenges associated with emergency response along within the Houston region.

At 10:30 AM, according to the Houston Chronicle, three houses were evacuated and all others within the vicinity of the leak were told to shelter in place. The emergency response was mixed. Residents who signed up for city notifications through Baytown Alert were apparently notified by phone and by email around 10:30 AM about the order to shelter-in-place. Yet some confusion remained – who exactly did the shelter-in-place include? What had happened, and what kind of chemical was released – something flammable or something toxic? Should residents downwind be concerned?

The CAER line, which is supported by the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, provides a hotline for Harris County residents to call to obtain more information regarding emergency situations. During the incident on Sunday, several people known to us called CAER to hear the messages it posted regarding the situation. It is unclear how quickly the first message regarding the incident was posted to CAER; a Baytown resident stated that it took about an hour following the incident before CAER posted a message. On Sunday at 1:05 PM, there were no current messages, even though the shelter-in-place had not yet been lifted. At 2:30 PM, CAER’s message stated that a propylene leaked resulted in the shelter-in-place warning. The City of Baytown reported via twitter that the shelter-in-place had been lifted at 2:38 PM. At 3:30 PM, CAER’s message line mentioned the leak without any mention of a shelter-in-place. Around 4:20 PM there were no current messages on the CAER line.

Although the City of Baytown notified residents of the shelter-in-place, the residents we spoke with never received the all clear and were not informed when the shelter-in-place had been lifted either via siren or via email and phone. In fact, it is unclear if sirens were used to communicate the shelter-in-place, which is an important way to inform people who may be visiting the area or who may not have access to other technology. Many questions remain unanswered and the Healthy Ports Community Coalition (HPCC) is actively researching to fully understand the emergency response.

The HPCC is also proposing a system like an amber alert system to make use of our modern technology so that residents can be informed immediately when emergency evacuations or a shelter-in-place is called for, notified when it is all clear to return to normal, and they can be instructed specifically on what steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. In this case, Baytown residents were lucky that the chemical leaked was not deemed toxic and that no one suffered any known health impacts from the leak. HPCC is working to keep residents safe and informed for when the next incident happens.

hpcc

 

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is growing a strong base of well-informed and active local residents who engage public and private stakeholders directly on priority issues including jobs, pollution, health, neighborhood safety, and economic opportunities.

 

melting earthMany of us are asking, can it get any hotter?  The National Weather Service is issuing heat alerts for more than a dozen states from Minnesota to Louisiana this week.  In the meantime, NASA says 2016 is already on track to be the hottest year ever on record, with each of the first six months, from January to June, setting new temperature records.  Click here to read LiveScience’s report on what NASA is projecting.

 

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

During the last week of June, President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the North American Leaders Summit (known as the Three Amigos Summit) in Ottawa to focus primarily on climate-related issues. These climate accords are essential not only in combating climate change, but also in seeing how countries can forge multi-lateral partnerships in addressing environmental issues.

This summit was the first in two and a half years. The trilateral summit last year was postponed due to disputes over the Keystone oil pipeline between President Obama, who saw the pipeline as a threat to the environment, and Canada’s former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was a strong advocate of it. Now, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, a close ally of President Obama’s, US, Canada, and Mexico are unifying their energy policies more than ever.

The new agreement calls for 50 percent of North America’s electricity to come from clean power sources by 2025. According to the agreement, clean power sources include renewable energy, efficiency, nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technology. Currently, 37% of North America’s electricity is powered by non-carbon-emitting power plants, mostly nuclear and hydro. Among the three countries, Canada is leading in carbon-free energy with 81 percent (if nuclear energy is included), coming from clean energy sources. United States and Mexico lag behind. In Mexico, only 22 percent of its energy is carbon-free. The statistics for the United States are not much better given that only 33 percent of electric power (including 20 percent nuclear) comes from carbon-free energy sources. Another 33 percent of our electricity is fueled by coal which is primarily composed of carbon.

The trilateral agreement opens up new avenues for carbon-dependent states to replace their energy sources through the transmission of power from Canada’s electricity grid. Another way the countries are looking to decrease carbon emissions is by boosting deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, as well as cutting emissions from the shipping and airline sectors.

The agreement’s main targets are methane and carbon dioxide (CO2), along with other greenhouse gas pollutants. Cutting down on methane emissions should be a priority for North America given that it produces 20% of the world’s methane emissions.  The pollutant traps 25 times more heat over a 100 year period and 87 times more over a 20 year period, compared to CO2. The pressure of being accountable to your neighbor will hopefully bring all three of the North American states to significantly reduce their methane emissions.

A part of the accord that U.S. and Canada had previously decided on before the summit, promises to reduce methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in refrigerators, by 40 to 45 percent. During the Three Amigos Summit, the Mexican President agreed to the terms as well.

Finally, the Three Amigos also agreed on protecting biodiversity, particularly preserving migratory birds and butterflies that fly every year between the three countries, but are losing their habitat due to environmental threats.

The climate change goals of the North America Leaders Summit are aligned with the Paris Agreements of 2015, in which U.S. committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.
Continue Reading »

HPCC-Dee-Blast-Zone-768x1024

Dee Arellano (t.e.j.a.s.) shows the oil train blast zone for East Houston.

The news of the fiery explosion of two trains in Panhandle, Texas broke as organizers in Houston were discussing how to reduce the high risks of accidents involving toxic trains in Houston. That day, June 28th, two trains collided, resulting in a fiery explosion, the presumed death of three workers and the hospitalization of another. The trains in Panhandle, TX, were fortunately not carrying crude. However, the collision and explosion reminded us of the importance of standing up for safety in rail transport during the Stop Oil Trains Week of Action, July 6th – 12th.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) kicked off the week of action on July 6th with a press conference and a community meeting to discuss the risks that we Houstonians face as a result of rail traffic within our communities. This was especially poignant as less than a week earlier, on June 28th, two trains collided near Panhandle, TX, leaving 1 employee injured and 3 employees presumed dead. Fiery and fatal incidents over the past few years have increased concerns around rail, public safety, and chemical security, and we shared our concerns with media (“Exigen a autoridades frenar la contaminación por el transporte de combustible” and “Crude-by-Rail Plummeting In Texas But Critics Insist Risk Of Accidents Remains“) and with community members. From our discussion, community members wanted to find out more information about exactly what kind of chemicals are transported through their neighborhoods to better understand the risks. The HPCC is taking a stand against oil trains because we are concerned with hazardous, flammable materials coming into the Houston area. Toxic trains put Houstonians at risk through the possibility of explosion and by polluting the air with cancer-causing diesel and other toxic gases, through collisions, and by trapping folks behind stalled trains. One person reported being trapped behind a train for 90 minutes! Continue Reading »