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If you are in Austin on June 30th, register to attend this forum that discusses  what changes happened and what didn’t happen in Texas election law from the 84th legislative session.   Free to the public, but because this is an after-hours event in a downtown office building you will need to register to attend: click here to register.   Building security will have a list of names of all registered attendees.  There is limited seating and it is filling up quickly, so register soon to get a space.

Tuesday, June 30, 6:30 PM-8:30 PM

Seminar Room of the Austin Bar Association
816 Congress Ave., 7th Floor
Austin, Tx 78701

Panelists:

  • Sherri Greenberg – Moderator
  • Glen Maxey – Democratic Party
  • Kurt Hildebrand – Libertarian Party
  • Joanne Richards – Common Ground for Texans – former Coffee Party
  • Roger B. Borgelt – Republican Party
  • Cinde Weatherby – League of Women Voters
  • Linda Curtis – Independent Texans

Hosted by the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign

Parking: metered street parking is available

Over the weekend, Governor Abbott vetoed over 40 bills. Perhaps the most notable bills to fall victim to Abbott’s veto was legislation by state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, (HB 3511 and HB 3637)  that were originally broadly geared toward ethics reform, one of Abbott’s five emergency items.  Eleventh hour amendments added by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, included a so-called “spousal loophole” that ultimately sank the two bills by Davis.  Even the author of the bills, had started to urge a veto after Sen. Huffman added the amendment to allow officeholders to conceal the assets of their spouses.

Earlier in the year, a citizen from Katy filed a complaint alleging that Huffman did not disclose multiple business interests of her husband, Houston businessman Keith Lawyer. In fact, according to Huffman’s personal financial statements, she lives on roughly $12,000 per year derived from her Senate salary and some stock dividends.

Texans for Public Justice and Public Citizen had been calling on Abbott for weeks prior to the June 21st deadline urging him to veto HB 3736 and HB 3511 because “both contain amendments by Sen. Joan Huffman which would have allowed Huffman and other officials to exclude a spouse’s assets from Personal Financial Disclosures.”

Late Saturday, Tom “Smitty” Smith with Public Citizen released a statement saying that Abbott’s vetoes “closed the doors to a new wave of corruption.”

“This is a community property state and so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Smith said. “If these bills had become law legislator’s spouses could have become enriched by those who wanted favors from the member and we’d never know if there was a payback.”

Below is Abbott’s statement on his veto of HB 3736.

Pursuant to Article IV, Section 14, of the Texas Constitution, I, Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, do hereby disapprove of and veto House Bill no. 3736 as passed by the Eighty-Fourth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, because of the following objections:

At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for meaningful ethics reform. This legislation does not accomplish that goal. Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans’ trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws. Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session – the right way. Texans deserve better.

Since the Eighty-Fourth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, by its adjournment has prevented the return of this bill, I am filing these objections in the office of the Secretary of State and giving notice thereof by this public proclamation according to the aforementioned constitutional provision.

GREG ABBOTT
Governor

Thank you Governor Abbott for standing up to efforts to weaken Texas’ ethics laws.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Can End Wall Street’s Practice of Stripping Customers’ Right to Go to Court

More than 78,000 consumers are calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to take swift action to ban forced arbitration clauses in terms attached to financial services and products in a petition delivered to the bureau today. The CFPB is empowered by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 to ban or limit this anti-consumer device in products under its jurisdiction.

Forced arbitration clauses, tucked in the non-negotiable terms of consumer financial products, prevent consumers who have been harmed or ripped off from holding their bank, credit card issuer or other unscrupulous lenders accountable in court. Instead, financial institutions force them to plead their case to a private arbitration provider that is named by the banks before a dispute arises. The result is that consumers cannot practically or fairly resolve disputes with powerful institutions or seek remedies for harm caused by their wrongful conduct.

In March, the CFPB released a 728-page data-based report detailing results of its comprehensive study of financial institutions’ use of forced arbitration. This report shows that forced arbitration clauses hinder cheated consumers from obtaining any relief when corporations break state and federal consumer protection laws.

“These petitions send a loud and clear message: It’s time to end the insidious practice of forced arbitration,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice. “The CFPB has the power to give consumers a fair shot at justice against banks and other large financial institutions that often stack the deck against them. It should do so without delay.”

“Forced arbitration functions as a license to steal, making it impossible for customers to hold banks and lenders accountable when they break the law,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “With 78,000 signatures and counting, these petitions demonstrate that consumers can spot a rigged game. They’re counting on the CFPB to take action.”

“Financial institutions pull the rug from under consumers already cheated by predatory lending by also denying them proper legal redress,” said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The CFPB has all the evidence it needs to remove forced arbitration from the fine print of financial products and services.”

“Consumers across the country are outraged that corporations and Wall Street banks have granted themselves a license to steal and evade the law using forced arbitration and are looking to the CFPB to stop it,” said Ellen Taverna, legislative director of National Association of Consumer Advocates. “The CFPB must act quickly to prohibit abusive forced arbitration clauses in all consumer financial products under its jurisdiction and restore consumers’ rights to protect themselves.”

“These petitions highlight that this problem isn’t just an abstract legal issue ‒ forced arbitration harms individual consumers by preventing them from protecting themselves against corporations from large banks to smaller payday lenders and credit repair companies,” said David H. Seligman, staff attorney of National Consumer Law Center. “Forced arbitration is a real problem affecting real people, and the CFPB should act quickly to eradicate it.”

“For far too long, forced arbitration has stacked the deck against consumers who have been cheated or harassed by Wall Street,” said Lisa Blue, president of American Association for Justice. “This petition should send a clear message that the American people demand to have their rights restored to hold even the most powerful financial institutions accountable when they break the law.”

Petition: We, the undersigned, call on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to prohibit forced arbitration in the terms of service of all consumer financial products and services under its jurisdiction. Stand up for consumers and restore our right to hold banks accountable when they break the law.

The Good the Bad and the UglyThe 84th Texas legislative session was a challenging one for progressives.  We had to fight hard just to try to maintain the status quo.

Local control – long a hallmark of Texas politics – became a bad word and state legislators attacked cities’ and counties’ rights to enact local regulations.  Despite widespread outcry, house bill 40, which eliminates almost all meaningful local regulation of oil and gas operations, passed with bipartisan support.  Other anti-local control bills were stopped. House bill 2595 would have essentially banned citizen referendums, but it was left in committee after passing the House.

The state’s few pro-renewable energy policies came under attack, even as wind and solar industries are creating thousands of jobs in Texas.  Thankfully our efforts and those of our supporters and allies paid off and we were able to stop those bad bills, including senate bill 931, from becoming law.

We did make a few small steps forward on renewable energy policy.  Senate bill 1626 will make it illegal for developers in Texas to ban people in developments with 51 or more homes from installing solar, even while the build out is ongoing.  Read my previous blog for more on SB 1626House bill 706 made it so that homeowner only need to apply for the on-site renewable energy property tax exemption once, instead of yearly.  Senate bill 933 improves the reliability of the Texas electric grid and may allow wind and solar energy producers to sell their electricity to other states by improving the connection between the Texas grid and the rest of the country.

Senate bill 19, the main ethics bill, didn’t pass primarily because the Senate wouldn’t agree to disclosure of dark money (contributions to political non-profits).  The bill also would have reduced conflicts of interests.  Instead, house bill 1690 passed and will limit the authority of Public Integrity Unit and gives elected officials who commit certain illegal ethics violations the special legal privilege of being prosecuted in their home counties instead of where they committed the crime.  Apparently Governor Abbott’s designation of ethics reform as an emergency issue wasn’t that serious.  At least we and our allies were able to stop house bill 3396, which would have allowed political contributions up to $1,000 to be anonymous.

And of course there were some bills that were open attempts to protect polluters.  A couple of them passed.  Senate bill 709 limits citizens’ rights to challenge pollution permits.  This includes permits for air pollution, waste disposal, and wastewater disposal.  House bill 1794 places an arbitrary cap on civil penalties for polluters, regardless of the magnitude of the pollution caused, the harm done, or how difficult it will be to restore the area.  Bills like this make it clear who the majority of Texas legislatures are representing – industry, not the people of Texas.

Some progress was made on water issues. House bill 1232 passed, providing for a study by the Texas Water Development Board to map and analyze the quality and quantity of water in aquifers around the state. Senate bill 1356 established a statewide tax free holiday for water-efficient products. House bill 1902 requires the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to adopt rules and standards for the expanded use of household greywater such as from air conditioning condensate, washing machines, rainwater, and swimming pool backwash for residential outdoor and limited indoor reuse. Senate bill 551 created a state Water Conservation Advisory Council which will submit a report regarding progress on statewide water conservation efforts and recommendations to advance water conservation to the Governor and state officials every 2 years.

The worst water bill, house bill 3298, didn’t pass. It would have directed the Texas Water Development Board to conduct a study on establishing a massive systems of reservoirs, pipelines, canals, and other infrastructure to move water around the state. If ever implemented this would have meant heavy financial, environmental, and social costs to rural areas, state finances, and fish and wildlife habitat.

Texas State Parks did get a boost from house bill 158. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department will now receive 100% of the taxes collected from the sale, storage, or use of sporting goods revenue. Take advantage of the nice weather and go visit a state park to celebrate this bit of good news.

There were also a lot of the good bills we worked on, but that didn’t pass.  House bill 14 would have expanded the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan.  House bill 3810 would have created an alert system for notifying neighborhoods about toxic releases or explosions.  House bill 3760 would have regulated air pollution from scrap metal recyclers.  Senate bill 1786 would have regulated toxic dust from giant piles of petroleum coke, a coal-like substance, which is the byproduct of oil refining.  House bill 2769 would have extended the LoanSTAR Revolving Loan Program for energy efficiency and renewable energy installations on public buildings.  Instead, this program will end this year.  House bill 2254 would have banned minimum usage fees in the deregulated electrical market.  Minimum usage fees drive up consumer costs and discourage energy conservation.  House bill 2392 would have established a loan program for energy efficiency upgrades to existing residential buildings.

It wasn’t all bad, but enough of this 84th Texas legislative session was terrible enough that Texans should be taking a close look at how their state senators and representatives voted on some of the worst bills.  Let you elected officials know if you aren’t pleased with their votes and be sure to vote yourself when the time comes.  Only accountability from the public will provide for a better outcome next time.

When it rains it poursAccording to an article in Scientific America by Climate Central on May 27, 2014, very heavy rainfalls now happen more often across most of the country, delivering a deluge in place of what would have been routine heavy rain.

Below is a reprint of the research report by Climate Central

Record-breaking rain across Texas and Oklahoma this week caused widespread flooding, the likes of which the region has rarely, if ever, seen. For seven locations there, May 2015 has seen the most rain of any month ever recorded, with five days to go and the rain still coming. While rainfall in the region is consistent with the emerging El Niño, the unprecedented amounts suggest a possible climate change signal, where a warming atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor and capable of previously unimagined downpours.

Several people have been killed and hundreds have been rescued from their homes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already declared disaster areas in 37 counties. These torrential downpours follow weeks of unusually rainy weather across the Southern Plains. And they stack up to a broader trend in the region, and across the U.S., toward more heavy precipitation.

Across most of the country, the heaviest downpours are happening more frequently, delivering a deluge in place of what would have been routine heavy rain. Climate Central’s new analysis of 65 years of rainfall records at thousands of stations nationwide found that 40 of the lower 48 states have seen an overall increase in heavy downpours since 1950. The biggest increases are in the Northeast and Midwest, which in the past decade, have seen 31 and 16 percent more heavy downpours compared to the 1950s.

Explore these trends in heavy downpours in your state or town, and some of their impacts in our new interactive above.

These intense bouts of rain can wreak havoc on communities. They cause flooding, close schools, businesses, highways and airports, compromise roads and bridges, trigger sewage overflows, and routinely produce million of dollars in damage and kill people.

In Nashville, for example, a 2010 record downpour dumped 13.6 inches of rain in just 2 days, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. Eleven people were killed, 11,000 homes and businesses were damaged, and 2,700 businesses suffered closures.

Intense rain in Detroit in August 2014 killed two, caused an estimated $1.1 billion of damage, and affected 118,000 homes and businesses.

Heavy rain events may also pose a potential health risk; one recent study found that about half of all waterborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. (between 1948 and 1994) were linked to days of very heavy rain.

Extreme heavy downpours are consistent with what climate scientists expect in a warming world. With hotter temperatures, more water evaporates off the oceans, and the atmosphere can hold more moisture. Research shows that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has already increased.

That means that there is often a lot more water available to come down as rain. Climate scientists have already shown that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations as a consequence of human activity are partially responsible for the average global increase in heavy precipitation.

Our analysis examines the heaviest downpours—the days where total precipitation exceeded the top 1 percent of all rain and snow days—at over 3,000 rain gauges distributed across the country over the period 1950-2014. Although some cities have rain gauges that have been around since the 1860s, by the 1950s, about 90 percent of the current list of 3,000 stations was in existence, giving us a consistent 65-year period of study over the whole U.S.. The vast majority of this heavy precipitation came as rain, although in a few rare instances, major snowfalls also count toward these large events.

Heavy precipitation is highly localized, far more than extreme heat, which typically covers relatively large areas. On a 98°F day in New York City, similar high temperatures are usually also found across the entire metro area. On the other hand, an extreme rainfall event can inundate the Long Island suburbs and leave the city itself relatively unscathed.

This makes heavy rainfall trends difficult to measure, because rain gauges are not always located where extreme rains occur. Moreover, local heavy precipitation trends may not accurately reflect changing patterns happening at a larger, regional level. As a consequence, even in regions or states where there is a strong increasing trend in heavy precipitation, the trend at an individual precipitation gauge that represents the official total for a city may be equivocal, flat, or even down.

Our state level analyses of extreme precipitation events shows a strong increasing trend since the 1950s, with 40 of 48 states showing at least some increasing incidence. Consistent with earlier research, six of the top 10 states with the biggest increases in number of days with heavy downpours are in the Northeast, including Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire, which have seen the number of heavy rain events in the last decade increase by at least 50 percent compared to the 1950s.

Our analysis of cities and metro areas, on the other hand, reveals the highly localized and random nature of extreme rain events and the difficulty of detecting these events even with 3,000 rain gauges across the country. In a number of states and regions with clear increasing trends, individual locations show a weak trend or no clear trend at all. This apparent inconsistency says little about the overall trend in the heaviest precipitation events, but a lot about the weaknesses of single-point measurements for detecting trends in extreme precipitation.

An example of this phenomenon is Boston, where the local trend is flat but at the state level, Massachusetts has seen a relatively steady increase in heavy downpours since 1950.

Of course, many individual locations show strong increasing trends in the heaviest precipitation events. The top 50 cities with the strongest increases are:

Climate scientists predict that the recent trends toward more heavy downpours will continue throughout this century. Climate models predict that if carbon emissions continue to increase as they have in recent decades, the types of downpours that used to happen once every 20 years could occur every 4 to 15 years by 2100. As the number of days with extreme precipitation increases, the risk for intense and damaging floods is also expected to increase throughout much of the country.

To see the interactive data on the original Scientific America article, click here.

photo by: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News A flood-damaged house in Wimberley, May 25, 2015.

photo by: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
A flood-damaged house in Wimberley, May 25, 2015.

This puts Texas leadership at odds on their stated views about climate change and their responsibilities to the  citizens of their state who are reeling from the impacts of flooding throughout the state over the past week.

Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, who was appointed by former Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, said in an interview on Wednesday, “We have observed an increase of heavy rain events, at least in the South-Central United States, including Texas, and it’s consistent with what we would expect from climate change.”

That same day, Senator (R-Texas) and Presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz dodged a question on his views on climate change during a press conference, saying, “In a time of tragedy, I think it’s wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster — and so there’s plenty of time to talk about other issues.”

At what point does Texas take action on climate change with a building national and scientific consensus that climate change is real and the government needs to do something about it?

 

Late in the evening yesterday, the Texas House passed SB 19, the much talked about ethics bill.  The passage of the far stronger House ethics bill is a big step forward in the Governor’s goal of achieving substantial ethics reform this session and we are pleased that the house took on strengthening this bill.

The House version of SB 19 requires reporting of large sums of dark money, improved conflicts of interest standards, toughen disclosure laws,  creates a legislative ethics officer to advise members, requires electronic filing of personal financial statements  (PFS) in a searchable format. In addition it reduces pay to play politics by requiring PFS from Governor’s appointees at the time of appointment and disclosure of  their campaign contributions to the Governor.  While it does not shut the revolving door and prohibit lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists, it does prohibit legislators turned lobbyists  from using campaign funds to contribute to other members or candidates. It also prohibits secret of taping of members.

We expect that the Senate will reject the house version of the bill and so ethics will once again become a cliffhanger bill resolved on the last night of the session as it has been so often in the past.

IMG_4986This weekend, Governor Abbott signed a bill into law that establishes solar rights for a group of people who have sometimes been banned from installing solar on their homes.

Right now, any developer can chose to ban or severely restrict the installation of solar panels in communities that are still in the development phase.  In some cases, the development period stretches on for many years because the developments are large, and continually expanding.  This practice traps homeowners under developer control, and in some cases leaves them unable to invest in affordable solar power for their homes.

Senate Bill 1626 by Senator Rodriquez, sponsored in the House by Representative Dukes, states that only smaller developments with 50 homes or fewer can ban or restrict solar.

We would have liked to establish solar rights for all homeowners, but this bill is a great step forward and we appreciate the work put into it by Representative Dukes, Senator Rodriguez, their staffs, the Texas Association of Builders, and the Texas Solar Power Association.

The Texas Association of Builders supported SB 1626 and its House companion HB 3539 because most developers already allow solar installations. As solar has become more mainstream, developers have realized that solar not only doesn’t hurt home sales – it can help actually them.  That’s why some developers now offer solar as an option. It’s the outliers, who are unnecessarily restricting homeowners’ rights that this change in law will address.

There are people in Texas who purchased their homes over a decade ago and still haven’t been allowed to install solar systems because their developments are still being expanded.  Solar panels are silent, non-polluting and no less attractive than many other features of a home or people’s cars parked in their driveways. Everyone should have the right to take advantage of the free fuel from the sun.

The new law will take effect on September 1, 2015.

CommunitySolar_v3eCommunity solar at Austin Energy is one step closer to being a reality. After months of negotiations, Austin Energy signed a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with PowerFin Partners for a solar farm of up to 3.2 megawatts that is to be the first stage of the utility’s planned community solar program. The east Austin site selected by Austin Energy for the project offers some challenges, which is why the negotiations took some time, but now the project can begin. Local solar installers at Native and Greenbelt Solar will do the installation work, when the time comes.

Community solar is eagerly awaited by environmental and affordability advocates because it has the potential to fill a gaps in Austin Energy’s existing solar programs. These gaps are caused by a couple primary factors.

The first gap is low-income residents. While solar costs have dropped dramatically in recent years and solar is undoubtedly a good long-term investment, it still requires either an up-front investment or the credit worthiness to secure a loan or lease. Low-income residents will almost certainly not have cash on hand to buy a solar system and are also much less likely to qualify for a loan or lease because of poor credit scores and/or insufficient income. If the program is structured properly, community solar can provide affordable energy at a fixed rate for decades.

The second gap is people whose homes aren’t suitable for solar. There are many factors that can make a home unsuitable for solar. Many homes have little roof space that is facing south or west, the best orientation for solar. Other homes are shaded by trees or even other buildings. Trees provide cooling benefits in hot Texas summers, increase property values, clean our air, and make our streets and communities more livable, so cutting them down just to make way for solar isn’t a good option. Community solar is a much better solution.

Austin Energy has yet to announce how the community solar program will be structured. Community solar projects across the country come in many forms. Some offer customers the opportunity to purchase or lease a portion of a system. Others offer subscriptions to the energy produced from a portion of the system, at a fixed cost. Whatever program design Austin Energy comes up with, hopefully it will reflect the benefits of solar – low costs and fixed pricing.

TERP logo

The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) is the most cost effective way to reduce mobile source air pollution and comply with current and upcoming federal standards for ground level ozone (smog). The Texas Legislature should appropriate all the money that is collected from Texas taxpayers for this purpose to the TERP fund, not let it sit unused in an account. Please call the State Budget Conference Committee leaders (contact information below) to request additional funding for this successful program.

What’s TERP?

TERP, established by the legislature in 2001, collects fees to provide voluntary financial incentives to upgrade or replace older polluting heavy-duty vehicles, off-road equipment, locomotives, marine vessels, and stationary equipment with much cleaner models. The primary goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions which react with volatile organic compounds (VOC) in sunlight on hot days to form ground level ozone. Reducing NOx emissions from these sources is less costly than getting similar reductions from major industrial sources.

Why Reduce Smog?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for 6 major pollutants. States monitor air quality and develop state implementation plans (SIPs) to improve air quality meet these standards in areas that currently do not. The Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and El Paso metropolitan areas, encompassing 22 counties in Texas, have unhealthy air and do not meet the ground level ozone NAAQS. Non-attainment of these standards can result in federal sanctions impacting the time, cost, and ability for economic growth of large industry, and some transportation projects. That’s on top of the significant health impacts of breathing smog, in the form of asthma and other respiratory illnesses that most severely impact children and the elderly.

The TERP program spurs new technology development and helps create jobs.

Funding TERP

The TERP benefits to Texans have been restricted by not fully appropriating the funds in the TERP account. This year, Texas missed an opportunity to fund more than $100 million in projects to clean up the air because of the lack of appropriations of the TERP funds. By the end of 2015, the TERP account is expected to have an unappropriated balance greater than $1 billion.

The legislature needs to prioritize the additional spending of TERP revenues for their intended purpose when considering its spending cap. TERP funds reduce far more air pollution than any other road or highway project and has broad support – including Texas business associations; petroleum, chemical, manufacturing and natural gas industries; environmental groups; local governments; and many others. Local governments and councils of governments need compliance with clean air standards and “transportation conformity” to get federal funding to build new roads.

Why Now?

Full expenditure of the TERP funds will be even more important in the coming year as the EPA has proposed to lower its ground level ozone standard this summer from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 65-70 ppb. If the new lower ground level ozone standard is adopted, many more counties in Texas will likely be designated as nonattainment areas. TERP is the most cost effective way to get ahead of the game to avoid restrictions that are detrimental to economic development, transportation projects, and the growth of Texas.

Take Action

Please call Senator Nelson and Representative Otto and ask them for additional TERP appropriations in Article VI of the state budget. When you call Senator Nelson and Representative Otto, who lead the State Budget Conference Committee, please tell them that the TERP appropriation is needed now to improve the health of our air and to avoid additional EPA nonattainment designations.

Representative John Otto, Chairman House Appropriations
Phone: (512) 463-0570
Fax: (512) 463-0315
Chief of Staff: Nikki Cobb, 512-463-0570

Senator Jane Nelson, Chairwoman Senate Finance
Phone: (512) 463-0112
Fax: (512) 463-9889
Chief of Staff: Dave Nelson, 512-463-0112

If you have time and to call the rest of the State Budget Conference Committee members:

Continue Reading »

gas pipeline warning signAccording to Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), the Texas Railroad Commission repeatedly misled the public about its involvement in two controversial gas pipelines. The pipelines will be built across West Texas by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), which has given almost $225,000 in recent years to the three Railroad Commissioners.

After repeatedly claiming that it had no role in the project, the Railroad Commission quietly approved permits to allow ETP to condemn the land of hundreds of ranchers. Explaining such takings to the commissioners’ xenophobic GOP base could be rough–given that the purpose of the pipelines is to supply gas to Mexico’s state-owned electric company.

Read the report: Eminent-Domain Billionaires Spark West Texas Pipe Lying at TPJ.

The United Nations of Confusion - Just how effective are climate pledgesDespite year after year of United Nations talks on climate change, there is still no comprehensive plan. This policy vacuum is leading to an incomplete patchwork of pledges and policies. The United States, Mexico, the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and Gabon have made climate action pledges. France also continues its ban of cars in attempts to clean the air. However, on the flip side, Japan is giving its money to coal-fired power plants in numerous countries, claiming that it is for “climate finance”.

This raises some questions: How effective are these climate talks and pledges anyway? Are they really helping the global environment? And what happens when countries like Japan move in the opposite direction?

The upsurge of climate activities started when Mexico became the first country to make its climate pledge in 2015, prior to the United Nations climate talks later on this year. The announcement came as a surprise to all, but Mexico started a precedent for other nations. In its pledge, Mexico expressed its plan to decrease its greenhouse emissions by 25% by 2030. Mexico’s plans are ambitious, as the profoundly oil-producing and heavily manufacturing nation wants its greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2026 and hopes to help establish an international carbon price. Even China, which announced a plan to make emissions cuts back in 2014, and had a year to get ahead, has a goal for its peak year to be 2030. While this is a momentous step in climate change, it will be interesting to see how Mexico commits to the pledge in the upcoming years.

On March 31st, President Barack Obama followed Mexico by pledging to make emission cuts in the United States. The United States has pledged to reduce emissions between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. This year, the United States joined forces with Mexico, hoping to work together on a variety of climate solutions, including clean electricity.

Environmentalists praised Mexico and the United States for their ambitious plans, but will they lead to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will result in the warming of 2 degrees Celsius or less? Having only a few countries commit to limiting emissions will be ineffective – all of the major greenhouse gas contributors will have to participate to stop the most catastrophic warming. Scientific evidence shows that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius is already impossible, but every bit of warming above that mark puts our planet in worse danger.

Committing is one thing, but action is another. China, Mexico and the U.S.’s climate pledges will only matter if they result in swift and effective action.

It is unclear if there really is a global effort or ability to combat climate change, when there are situations such as the ones in Japan, who has been investing in “climate finance”. What “climate finance” means to the Japanese government is investing in Indonesian coal-fired power plants. Japan’s environmental agenda remains unclear because although it is providing Indonesia money for its coal plants, it states that the money is used to “address the problem of climate change, through measures to either mitigate it (i.e. emit less carbon dioxide from power plants). Japan states that their investment will help developing countries protect themselves from climate change, but there is no guarantee as to what the developing countries actually do with the coal-fired power plants.

Through the different environmental approaches countries worldwide have taken, it is clear that there is not international consensus about the specific details that climate pledges should include and what is considered beneficial to the climate. For example, is “climate finance” a solution? The public may support these climate change pledges, but these promises remain only promises if there is no plan that incorporates all of the major climate change contributors and address the concerns of developing countries that do not have the sufficient funds ore equipment to combat climate change. Combating climate change is a global effort.

Last week, federal regulators passed new safety rules governing crude by rail, which has boomed because of the growth in U.S. oil production. Just days later, another oil train derailed in North Dakota, punctuating the need to more robust regulations that have so far been enacted. Six of the oil tankers caught on fire, causing the small town of Heimdal, ND to be evacuated. Thankfully the accident didn’t occur in a more populated area.

ND Oil Train Explosion

Oil train explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota – photo from KX News, Bismarck

Nearly 450,000 tankers of crude oil moved through North America last year, up from 9,500 in 2009 – a 4,700% increase in five years. In spite of the new rules, with this increase in traffic, we can expect to see more accidents involving oil trains.  So far in 2015, there have been 5 major accidents involving oil trains.  While most have occurred in relatively unpopulated areas, it is only a matter of time until an accident occurs in an urban area like Houston as trains head to Gulf Coast refineries and perhaps to major ports for export (if the ban on crude oil exports is lifted).

This chart was provided by Forest Ethics.

Date and type Location Impacts Fuel Source Link to Story Cars affected
2/14/2015

Derailment

Gogama, ON, Canada Six day fire – “The accident occurred at 38 mph. Initial impressions are that the Class 111 tank cars, which were compliant with the CPC-1232 standard, performed similarly to those involved in the Lac-Mégantic accident which occurred at 65 mph.” Canada http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/medias-media/communiques/rail/2015/r15h0013-20150223.asp 29
2/16/2015

Derailment

Mount Carbon, WV Explosion, spill into Kanawha River, multi day fire. Two homes destroyed US Bakken http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20150216/DM01/150219449 27
3/5/2015

Derailment

Galena, IL Explosion, multi day fire. Almost into Mississippi River US Bakken http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fires-finally-dwindling-days-after-illinois-oil-train-derailment-n319666 21

5 burned

3/7/2015

Derailment

Gogama, ON, Canada Explosion, multi day fire, river pollution. Toxic inhalation issues. Canada http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/medias-media/communiques/rail/2015/r15h0021-20150317.asp 39
5/6/2015

Derailment

Heimdal, ND Fire, fuel spill, evacuation US Bakken http://www.valleynewslive.com/home/headlines/North-Dakota-Town-Evacuated-After-Train-Derailment-302754661.html?device=phone&c=y 10
Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital today. Photo by Carol Geiger

Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital today. Photo by Carol Geiger

Today, just hours after the House Energy Resources Committee heard from scientists at Southern Methodist University that oil and gas extraction and injection wells for fracking wastewater are causing earthquakes in Texas, the Texas Senate passed a bill that will almost completely end local control over oil and gas industry activities.

House Bill 40 was conceived of in the backlash against Denton’s ban on fracking, but it goes way further than overruling bans.  City ordinances adopted to protect public health and safety in are just a pen stroke away from being invalid and Governor Abbott isn’t going to veto this bill.  The Texas Legislature has decided that the people of Laredo, Dallas, Houston, College Station Nacogdoches, Southlake, Harlingen, Sherman, Port Aransas, Fort Stockton and so many other cities across the State of Texas shouldn’t have the right to protect the communities they live in from the very real dangers that fracking and other oil and gas industry activities pose.  This is an unprecedented retreat from Texas’ long tradition of local control.

Why, you might ask, would our elected officials choose to so dramatically curtail the rights of Texas citizens and cities?  The answer is money.  According to a recent report by Texans for Public Justice, the energy and natural resources industries were the number 1 financial contributors to non-judicial Texas politicians in 2014.  31 Texas senators received $1.7 million – an average of $56,000 each.  144 Texas representatives received $3.8 million – an average of $25,000 each.

The oil and gas industries’ use of campaign contributions to curry favor with elected officials is nothing new and it crosses political lines.  That’s HB 40 ended up with 78 authors, co-authors and sponsors.  The people who are elected to protect the people of Texas can’t wait to show the oil and gas industry how great of an investment they made with their campaign contributions.

The Texas Legislature is tearing apart local control to protect oil and gas interests instead of public health and safety.  Only voters can change this pattern.  Take a look at how your state representative and state senator voted and hold your elected officials accountable.

Killing me softly

Killing me softly

Senate Bill 709, which passed in the Texas Senate on April 16th and has now passed in the Texas House, would scale back the public’s right to participate through a contested-case, an administrative hearing process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Last night this bill was discussed and passed to third reading in the Texas House.   During the discussion of this bill, it was alleged that “Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a ‘serious disadvantage’ compared to its neighbors,” according to Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who carried the bill in the House.  However, the truth is that there are just not that many permit applications that are affected by the contested case hearing process. In 2014, there were 1,960 applications received by TCEQ. Of those applications, only 10 were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings – that’s only one half of one percent of applications received in that calendar year. The other 99.5% of permit applications to the TCEQ go uncontested and are processed and issued in time-frames similar to or even faster than our neighboring states with whom we compete most closely for business. This was based on an analysis of public records by Public Citizen and later confirmed by the agency to the Texas Tribune.

This analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.  When pressed for one facility Texas might have lost to Louisiana because of a misconception about our permitting process, on the floor of the Texas Senate, Senator Fraser gave the example of Shintech, Inc. (a Japanese subsidiary of Shin Etsu and the largest producer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the United States).  In 1998, Shintech backed out of its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent, LA (which is in the heart of what has become known as “Cancer Alley”, an environmental justice community of low-income, minority residents)  This community fought back and won because of legal opposition by the local residents.  Since that time, Louisiana put rules in place that makes it harder for citizens to obtain legal help to fight off industry – sound familiar?  So now Shintech will be able to expand their operations in Louisiana without much opposition and if they come back here . . . well, they may find the same “business-friendly” fast-track environment.

If this bill is enacted into law, the contested case process that has a track record of improving permits and protecting the environment from the biggest and longest lasting environmentally hazardous projects, would be substantially amended.
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Statement of Tyson Slocum, Energy Program Director, Public Citizen

The recent spate of oil train disasters requires a rewrite of safety rules. While the rules unveiled today represent a step forward in some respects, the rules also do not go nearly far enough in two crucial areas. First, the rules allow the very same dangerous oil train cars that have been involved in the recent derailments and explosions to remain on the rails until 2020 in some cases. Second, the rules do nothing to lower the volatility of the crude oil being transported. That means the rule does little to minimize the magnitude of any explosion that occurs after an oil train derails and explodes. Requiring rail cars to become more puncture-resistant and have more effective braking systems is a necessary first step. But the directive does not fully safeguard communities from the threat of oil train infernos.

Legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) – the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act (S. 859) – represents the apex of what a regulatory response to the threat of oil train disasters should be. It should set aggressive but fair standards for new and existing cars and immediately ban the use of any car without increased puncture resistance, stronger flame retardants and enhanced braking systems. Cantwell’s legislation goes above and beyond today’s proposed rule by setting a federal oil volatility standard and by requiring that community officials be notified before oil trains travel through their neighborhoods.

America’s crude-by-rail crisis stems from the rapid expansion of oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, which lacks adequate pipeline capacity to move the 1.2 million barrels of oil produced there every day. As a result, 70 percent of the oil is shipped on railroads that are not designed to accommodate these treacherous loads. Bakken crude is extremely volatile, making it more prone to combustion upon a puncture-inducing derailment.

A small step like today’s DOT rule does not do enough to address the real oil train safety crisis.

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