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APRIL 22-24 10AM – 6 PM FAIR PARK, DALLAS, TX FREE ADMISSION

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The hunt is on. The City of Austin is searching for a new general manager for Austin Energy. It should take this opportunity to find a visionary leader who can prepare our city-owned utility to remain prosperous as the electricity market changes.

This is a transformational time for electric utilities. The business model that served utilities so well throughout the 20th century – buy or produce energy at large, centralized facilities and profit by selling that energy to customers – won’t keep utilities afloat throughout the 21st century.

As solar prices continue to drop, more and more customers will choose to use solar at their homes and businesses, reducing the amount of energy that utilities, including Austin Energy, can sell. Declining battery prices will only add to the effect and will give customers an affordable off-grid option. And as energy prices and limits on carbon emissions increase, energy efficiency improvements will become even more attractive, further reducing the need for centrally produced energy.

The next leader of Austin Energy needs to recognize this new reality and be fully committed to reform Austin Energy’s business model to enable the utility to not only survive these changes, but to flourish in new energy markets they transform and develop. In addition to prioritizing a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, she should be committed to innovating to incorporate energy efficiency, distributed energy (including solar), energy storage, and demand response into the utility’s business model. Austin Energy must find ways to provide and profit from a wide range of energy services that are compatible with a carbon-free future.

The new Austin Energy general manager will need to be someone who is capable of gaining the respect of the workforce and harnessing their collective abilities to provide excellent customer service, even as the definition of those services is changing. And she will need to ensure that all staff have the necessary technical skills to meet the utility’s needs and avoid costly mistakes, such as the billing system fiasco.

Navigating these changes while keeping the utility prosperous will require excellent financial acumen and experience setting transparent operating and capital budgets. Austin Energy is an important source of revenue for the city, so a strong commitment to public power will be critical. The general manager will need the knowledge and political savvy to continually convince the Texas Legislature that the utility is acting in the best interests of its customers in order to stave off deregulation.

The needed utility transformation will only occur with the blessing of the Austin City Council and the support of the community, so the next general manager must be willing and able to work collaboratively and respectfully with all parties, including public interest groups, citizen commissions, chambers of commerce, and research organizations. Concise, timely, and honest communication with the City Council and the public will be required.

The next Austin Energy general manager must have the ability to bring together diverse community interest groups and contentious parties to garner support for needed changes. As Austin continues to struggle with affordability, she must have experience and empathy in working with low and moderate income customers and be committed to reducing electric bills for this group with energy efficiency and distributed solar programs.

We’re looking for a talented, visionary leader who is committed to working for the public good. If that’s you, please apply.

Wind has become a pillar of economic development

Dallas-based Tri Global Energy leads in wind energy projects under construction in Texas, developing nearly half of current projects, according to a fourth quarter 2015 market report from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

Tri Global Energy projects make up 2,100 megawatts (MW) out of a total 4,600 megawatts (MW) of wind power projects under construction statewide, the report shows. And Texas wind projects make up nearly half of the 9,400 MW of wind under construction nationwide.

“For many communities in Texas, especially those in the Panhandle where wind projects dominate the landscape, wind has become a key pillar of economic development – and I expect this to remain for some time to come,” Tri Global Chairman and CEO John Billingsley said in a statement highlighting the renewable energy company’s contribution.

Texas is the world’s sixth-largest producer of wind-powered electricity, just behind India and just ahead of the United Kingdom, according to Tri Global, which has also designed, constructed and operated more than 1,000 solar projects for utilities, corporations, schools, municipalities and residences.

By Polly Ross Hughes

 

Reprinted from the Texas Energy Report

Copyright January 29, 2016, Harvey Kronberg, www.texasenergyreport.com, All righs are reserved

UPDATE:

Ethics Commission rejects opinion to allow out-of-state donors to pay Paxton’s legal bills

Vote was 4 to 3 with one absent


At the beginning of the last legislative session, Governor Abbott announced he was making ethics reform an emergency priority for the Texas legislature to address.  In the end, very little ethics reform was passed, and now the Texas Ethics Commission is poised to adopt a dangerous “advisory opinion” Monday that hangs a “For Sale” sign on the Texas Attorney General’s office.

The draft opinion (AOR-605) invites out-of-state donors to give indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton unlimited amounts of money to pay his ballooning criminal defense bills (see Houston Chronicle story below). This opinion is a powerful magnet for political corruption, one drafted for the exclusive benefit of Ken Paxton, who is under indictment for alleged criminal securities fraud.

Send an email message today urging the Ethics Commission to:

  1. Reject the Paxton Loophole; and
  2. Pursue an absolute ban on all gifts for the AG’s criminal defense. 

Email your brief comments to:  Commissioners, Texas Ethics Commission at:  [email protected],

Below is an article by the Houston Chronicle on the proposed ethics opinion

Proposed ethics opinion would let AG tap out-out-of-state donors for defense funds
By David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy
January 26, 2016 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN – Indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton could tap out-of-state supporters to pay his legal defense team but must ensure those funds have not been funneled from any Texas donors, according to a draft advisory opinion from the state’s ethics regulator.

The Texas Ethics Commission is scheduled to vote Monday on legal guidance that would give Paxton, or any employee in the attorney general’s office, the green light to accept gifts from some donors.

If approved, it would clear the way for the embattled attorney general to accept contributions to cover his legal expenses from out-of-state donors, with certain conditions.

State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight.

However, the ethics commission has said situations exist in which Paxton and his employees could accept gifts – namely from an out-of-state donor with no pending matters before the attorney general’s office – but that safeguards would have to put in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest.

The draft opinion for the first time addresses the possibility of money bundling and suggests heightened disclosure for gifts to employees of the attorney general’s office to avoid the perception of corruption.

It comes as Paxton and his team of high-profile defense attorneys appeal a recent court ruling while preparing for a possible trial in his pending felony fraud case.

‘Diligent inquiry’

Paxton is accused of breaking state securities laws by encouraging investors to buy stock in a North Texas tech company without disclosing that he was being paid by the firm, and for funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being properly registered as an investment advisor representative with the state.

He faces two first-degree felony charges, which carry a sentence of five to 99 years in prison and a fine, and one third-degree charge.

Paxton repeatedly has declined to detail how he is paying for his attorneys, saying only that neither his $2.5 million in campaign funds nor taxpayer money is being used.

A draft opinion released in late November provided the initial blueprint for Paxton to avoid violating the state’s gift-giving laws while accepting a “benefit” from a donor in certain circumstances.

The opinion was crafted in response to an anonymous request that specifically addressed situations in which potential donors are from outside Texas, minimizing the possibility they could be subject to the attorney general’s vast umbrella of jurisdiction.

The commission sent the proposal back for more internal vetting after questions were raised about the possibility that an out-of-state supporter could bundle or mask the fact that funds were coming from Texas donors.

The commission now is set to take up the refreshed guidance, which makes clear that Paxton or anyone in his office accepting a gift first will have to root out the “true source of the benefit” to ensure he is abiding by the law.

“We do not think that a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of a public servant or a law enforcement agency can evade the restrictions … using another person as a conduit for making a gift to the public servant (e.g., by giving a benefit to another with the instructions that the benefit then be passed to the public servant),” commission staff wrote in a draft opinion released this week. “Similarly, the public servant would be prohibited from accepting a benefit if the public servant knows that the true source of the benefit is a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of the public servant.”

The draft also proposes a set of “best practices” for disclosure, including recommendations that any such gift, along with its source, value and a description, be revealed publicly within 30 days.

A “diligent inquiry” also would have to be performed by whomever receives a gift to make sure the donor has no connection to Texas and is not under the attorney general’s jurisdiction. That inquiry, according to the latest draft, also would need to verify that the out-of-state donor “is not operating as a conduit” for someone else.

Not for sale

Watchdog groups reacted with swift criticism, saying the latest proposal invites the potential for an already-indicted attorney general to put a “for-sale sign on the AG’s office to pay for his criminal defense.”

“A close reading suggests that the commission has qualms about this convoluted ethical blank check,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which has filed multiple criminal complaints against Paxton, including one related to his current indictments. “The opinion should have been written in one word: No!”

The ethics commission does not identify who asks for an advisory opinion, but the circumstances laid out in the request mirror those of the attorney general.

At a recent hearing, the commission debated the issue with pointed comments specifically aimed at how the opinion could help establish the equivalent of a legal fund for Paxton.

Paxton also recused himself, without explanation, from all matters pertaining to the ethics commission just as the opinion request was being considered publicly.

The question of who is footing Paxton’s legal bill has become one of the mysteries in his ongoing criminal saga. His defense is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Paxton, a Republican, took office in January 2015 and was indicted six months later for allegedly violating state securities laws during his time as a state lawmaker. He was fined and reprimanded in April 2014 for not registering with the state as an investment adviser representative but has pleaded not guilty to all charges and asked for a jury trial in his home county.

No gift ban

Meanwhile, ethics regulators have been wrestling with the issue of gifts for employees in the attorney general’s office since July, when the request for an opinion first was lodged.

A blanket prohibition on gift-giving exists for the governor, lieutenant governor and members of the Legislature, along with their staffs, though there are several exceptions that allow freebies to flow to those elected officials and their employees.

There is no such comprehensive ban for the attorney general’s office, however, and the commission chairman has said he does not believe lawmakers ever intended for that to be the case.

“The Legislature didn’t make it illegal for an employee of the attorney general’s office to receive a gift,” Commission Chairman Paul Hobby said at a November meeting. “It did for other offices.”

 

At Mass Convergence on Washington, D.C., People Will Demand That Policymakers Address Barriers to Voting, Curb the Influence of Wealthy in Elections

Thousands of people will converge on Washington, D.C., this spring as part of an unprecedented movement to demand a democracy that works for all Americans, one in which everyone has an equal voice and elected officials are accountable to the people, not the wealthy.

The landmark three-day mobilization, called “Democracy Awakening” and scheduled for April 16-18, brings together two advocacy communities in one movement. Together, they will press for reform proposals focused both on restoring and expanding voting rights protections, and curbing the influence of wealthy interests and corporations on elections. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly agrees on the need for reforms in both arenas, but this will mark the first mass demonstration calling for change on both these fronts.

More than 100 groups representing a diverse array of issues are organizing Democracy Awakening. Lead organizations include the American Postal Workers Union, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, Democracy Initiative, Every Voice Center, Food & Water Watch, Franciscan Action Network, Greenpeace, NAACP, People For the American Way, Public Citizen, Student Debt Crisis and U.S. PIRG. A list of all endorsing organizations is available here.

Democracy Awakening will feature a rally and march on Sunday, April 17, as well as targeted actions at the “Congress of Conscience” on Monday, April 18, that will call for voting rights protections, measures to curb the influence of money in politics and more. Democracy Awakening will include teach-ins and cultural events throughout the weekend.

For both money in politics and voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated laws that once protected the voices and votes of everyday Americans. Congress has solutions in front of it, but has failed to pass them into law or even hold a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“That’s why it’s time for us to fight back on a scale that’s never been done before,” announces a video about Democracy Awakening created by Brave New Films.

City by city and state by state, a national movement is growing to ensure voters are fully heard. In communities throughout the country, voters have turned back efforts to impose discriminatory barriers to voting, won measures for public financing of local and state elections, and passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other rulings.

Solutions being sought as part of Democracy Awakening include legislation to restore the protections against voting discrimination that were struck down by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County, modernize voter registration, prevent deceptive practices that keep people from the ballot box and ensure equal access to voting for all.

Activists also will call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections. They will press for increased disclosure of the source of election spending and public financing of elections.

Democracy Awakening will follow a march and demonstrations organized by 99Rise and Avaaz as part of a separate event called “Democracy Spring.” The march will go from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in early April.

Stay tuned for more – THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!

From Gasland: The Movie - http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking/faq/methane-levels

From Gasland: The Movie – http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking/faq/methane-levels

On Monday, February 1, 2016 from 11:00 am – 6:00 pm EST, EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB)’s Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel will hold a public teleconference to review and discuss the Panel’s first draft of the peer review report regarding SAB’s review of EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing Drinking Water Assessment.

EPA will use the comments from the SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to augment and revise the draft assessment. The final assessment will also reflect relevant literature published since the release of the draft assessment.

To participate in the meeting and view meeting materials, visit SAB’s website.

 

The Texas PACE Authority today announced the first PACE project in Texas.  The Simon Property Group, Inc. will use Travis County’s PACE program to finance $1.5 million in retrofits at Barton Creek Square, an enclosed mall in southwest Austin built in 1980.
Simon’s water conservation, mechanical and lighting retrofits will lower utility costs and help Travis County conserve water and power.  Construction is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2016.
PACE is an innovative financing tool that enables owners of commercial properties to obtain low-cost, long-term loans for water conservation, energy-efficiency and distributed generation retrofits.
Texas adopted a commercial PACE statute in June 2013 and Travis County established Texas’ first PACE program in March 2015, using the PACE in a Box uniform “plug and play” model available at no cost to counties and municipalities throughout Texas.  The Texas PACE Authority administers the Travis County program.
“The Travis County program is strong and growing,” said Jonathon Blackburn, Managing Director of the Texas PACE Authority.  “There is a solid pipeline of additional PACE projects in development and billions of dollars available from private lenders.”
“Austin is poised to have the best first year of any commercial PACE program in the country to date,” Said Beau Engman, Founder and President, PACE Equity, LLC.  “We currently have $20 million of projects under contract with applications submitted and an additional pipeline of $15 million.
“Petros is nearing completion on a number of projects, from nonprofits and churches to retail facilities. We expect to close $30 million in the next few months, representing a wide range of clean energy technologies such as solar PV, energy efficient HVAC, and LED lighting” noted Mansoor Ghori, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Petros PACE Financing.
“I’m proud to have sponsored a program that promotes economic development and protects the needs of the environmental community, which are both so important to Travis County,” stated Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, Precinct 3.
“My congratulations to Simon Properties and the Texas PACE Authority,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea, Precinct 2.  “Travis County’s leadership on PACE is proving how to be better stewards of our water, energy and economy.”
Bruce Elfant, Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar, said “PACE offers our community a great opportunity to conserve limited energy and water resources and lower costs for participating businesses.  I look forward to approving the first PACE project in Texas.
The Barton Creek project is part of Simon’s $500 million commitment to use PACE to finance improvements to its malls throughout the country.  Simon supported the Texas PACE legislation and the open market Texas PACE in a Box program and is a member of Keeping PACE in Texas.
“In addition to Barton Creek Square, a number of other projects are primed to position Texas as one of the most dynamic areas in the country for PACE,” noted Blackburn.

Happy Holidays to All

Texas director, Tom "Smitty" Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Texas director, Tom “Smitty” Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Last Friday, the Texas office of Public Citizen celebrated the holidays, 30 years of its work in Texas and had an open house at our new offices located at 309 E 11th Street, in Austin, TX.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  Mayor Adler, Jim Hightower and Representative Elliott Naishtat all spoke about the good work Public Citizen has done in Texas.  Mayor Adler’s proclamation says it all.  Click here to see the proclamation.

If you wish to make a donation toward the work of the Texas office, click here.

 

 

2015-10-15 Austin City CouncilThe Austin City Council voted today to approve an additional 100 to 150 megawatts of solar energy projects for Austin Energy for 2016 and directed Austin Energy to bring another 150 megawatts online by 2019. Together with the projects approved on October 1, Council has given the go-ahead for between 400 and 450 megawatts of new solar energy to be completed by the end of 2016.

At prices reported around 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, these solar energy projects are some of the cheapest ever reported. The prices will be fixed for contract periods of between 15 and 25 years.

This is a huge win for Austin Energy customers and the environment. It comes thanks to the dedicated efforts of many Austin residents and collaboration with our partners at the SEED Coalition, Climate Buddies, Texas Drought Project, Clean Water Action, the Faith Energy Action Team and many others.  We no longer have to choose between clean energy and saving money. The Council has made a decision that will keep bills low for years to come.

“When Warren Buffett received record-low solar prices, he proclaimed the victory to the world. Austin Energy received bid that are just as competitive, making this a golden opportunity,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition. “Mayor Adler and the City Council have taken a financially sound path.”

Austin Energy’s solar purchases also represent a significant step toward achieving the climate protection goals adopted by the City Council, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the entire Austin community by no later than 2050 and eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from Austin Energy controlled sources by 2030.

“Our best scientists are sounding dire warnings about the imminent possibility that climate change will accelerate in the next few years. We need to do everything possible to head of the possibility of runaway climate change,” said Jere Lock of the Texas Drought Project. “Action taken by City Council today are a step in the right direction.”

“400 megawatts of solar will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 620,000 metric tons, which is over 11% of all emissions from Austin Energy. That is significant,” ” said Joep Meijer of Climate Buddies. “Solar will also allow Austin Energy to use its expensive gas plants less, saving customers money and reduce local air pollution.”

Although it runs less than 5% of the time, Austin Energy’s natural gas-fired Decker Creek Power Station is a significant source of location air pollution in Austin and is located right next to neighborhoods and schools in East Austin.  Because it is so old and inefficient, that plant is only turned on when high demand for electricity drives up prices.  The solar farms approved by the City Council will produce large amounts of energy when electricity demand is high on hot afternoons, so this offers Austin Energy an opportunity to retire the Decker plant.  In addition to being a major source of air pollution, the plant loses money most years, according to Austin Energy’s own data.

The increased use of solar energy will also protect and preserve Texas’s limited water resources.

“Austin’s decision to go big on solar is great news for our state’s water resources. Unlike solar, gas and coal plants require massive amounts of water to operate,” said David Foster of Clean Water Action. The extraction of natural gas through fracking has been proven to contaminate groundwater, and coal plants create millions of pounds of toxic coal ash each year, much of which finds its way into our water.”

The Austin City Council have made a great decision that brings Austin Energy closer to meeting the goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030.  This process took eight months to complete and required two different Council resolutions before proposals were voted on in October.  Both of those resolutions were sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen.  The solar contracts approved today were also supported by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston.  Please send the Austin City Council members who voted “yes” an email to thank them for embracing solar energy.

The Austin City Council voted 9-2 today to authorize Austin Energy to enter into contracts for up to 300 megawatts (MW) of new solar energy.  This decision comes as a result of the generation planning process that began in February 2014 and has included numerous studies, briefings, public hearings, and recommendations from citizen advisory groups and Austin Energy.  Those voting in support were Mayor Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Garza, Pool, Casar, Kitchen, Gallo, Renteria and Houston.Go Green to Save Some Green - Affordable Solar for AustinAs consumer advocates, we cheer this wise decision by the Austin City Council because these solar contracts will provide energy at affordable rates for all Austin Energy customers.  While the utility will pay slightly more for this energy in the first few years than it would if it just purchased energy from the market, that dynamic will be short-lived and these solar contracts will offer more affordable rates than market purchases for most of the contract periods.  Solar contracts can be for up to 25 years and are at a fixed price of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, offering an excellent opportunity to keep prices low and predictable for customers.

This addition of solar energy will bring the city and its electric utility closer to achieving the climate protection goals that Council has adopted.  Those goals are to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier, if possible and to make all Austin Energy-controlled electric generating assets carbon-free by 2030.  The later goal will require retirement of the utility’s coal-fired Fayette Power Project and the natural gas-fired generators at the Decker Creek Power Station (Austin’s single largest source of air pollution) and the Sand Hill Energy Center.  In order to protect customers against fluctuating prices in the electricity market, Austin Energy will need new carbon-free energy sources to replace those coal and natural gas-fired power plants.  These new solar contracts will help enable that transition.

Even before Austin Energy begins retirement of its fossil fuel fleet, these new solar farms will displace dirty energy from the Texas electric grid.  Because they have no fuel cost, solar farms will take the place of the most inefficient (and most polluting) natural gas plants that currently provide Texas electric consumers with energy when demand is high in the afternoons and early evenings.  By placing solar installations in sunny west Texas, the utility (and its customers) will benefit from high energy production that will continue even as solar intensity is starting to decline in central Texas.

Austin Energy and other utilities have been able to obtain exceptionally low prices for solar contracts recently because solar companies are eager to complete projects before the impending decline of the federal solar investment tax credit from 30% to 10% for commercial projects at the end of 2016.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that development of new utility-scale solar projects will decline from a high of over 11 gigawatts (GW) in 2016 to just over 3 GW in 2017.  Installations are projected to slowly increase after 2017, but Bloomberg doesn’t project a return to the boom levels we are seeing now and will continue to see through 2016.

2015-09-15 Bloomberg - Utility-scale solar build forecast with and without ITC extension

This boom is exciting, but it means that some proposed projects won’t be able to be completed by the end of 2016.  Several companies, including First Solar are running out of capacity to produce enough solar panels to keep up with demand.  That’s great for solar manufacturers to have, but it means that utilities wanting to benefit from low prices need to get contracts signed right away.

The Austin City Council also voted today to postpone authorization for up to another 350 MW of solar energy until October 15 to give Austin Energy staff additional time to negotiate more favorable prices on those contracts.  Although the prices for those contracts are already competitive, they are closer to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and can likely be negotiated to closer to the first batch of contracts that was authorized today.  That will result in additional savings in the years to come.  Just as no savvy consumer walks on to a car lot and pays sticker price, utilities can and should use proposed energy prices as a starting point for negotiations.  We applaud the City Council for acting on the most affordable contracts now and for employing this strategy to get the best possible deals on the second batch of solar contracts.

In a new study released by George Thurston of New York University’s Langone Medical Center that surveyed more than 500,000 Americans, shows that as air pollution levels rise in the areas where they live, rates of death rise, specially deaths from heart disease.

Diesel Particle

An example of particulate matter is a diesel particle, which have carbon at their core with toxics and carcinogenic substances attached to their surfaces.

Even with new, stricter standards on emissions, their data adds to a growing body of evidence that particulate matter is really harmful to health, increasing overall mortality, mostly deaths from cardiovascular disease, as well as deaths from respiratory disease in nonsmokers.  Specifically the study looked at air pollutants called particulates, in this case tiny particles 2.5 micrometers or less (sometimes referred to as PM 2.5). These particles can settle into the lungs, pass from there into the blood stream, and are not coughed up. They also often contain dangerous heavy metals such as mercury or arsenic.

The team used a survey run by the National Institutes of Health and AARP, looking at more than 500,000 volunteers aged 50 to 71 in six states and two large cities, Atlanta and Detroit. They used Environmental Protection Agency data that breaks down exposure to air pollution by county or city.

Every extra 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air raised the risk of heart death between 2000 and 2009 by 10 percent, they report in the government journal Environmental Health Perspectives. And that increase in air pollution raised the overall risk of death over the decade by 3 percent.

People who are poorer and less educated often live in more polluted areas and also have higher death rates, so the researchers accounted for that, along with age, race, marital status, smoking, weight and alcohol use. The effects held even when those other factors were considered.

This study should be of particular interest to those living in areas that are in non or near non-attainment for Federal air quality standards.

While Houston is currently in attainment for PM 2.5 standards , this new study would indicate that that is no guarantee that Houston residents are not at risk for increased health impacts.

The Austin City Council will vote this Thursday (September 17) on a resolution to push Austin Energy one step closer to signing contracts for up to 600 megawatts of solar energy.  About 8,000 megawatts worth of proposals have been submitted, some at the lowest solar prices ever seen.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockThese are exciting times for solar energy – in Texas and around the world.  Solar energy is finally cost competitive with fossil fuel-based energy.  Utilities that have shown little or no interest in “going green” or being socially responsible are investing in solar.  Luminant, Texas’ largest electric generating company, has traditionally invested in coal, but just last week, the company announced its first solar purchase.  And in Georgetown, Texas the electric utility has signed contracts for wind and solar energy that it will have a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2017.  In the words of Georgetown Mayor Ross:

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.

It is in this setting that the Austin Council will make its decision.  Despite the record low prices, Austin Energy has pushed back against contracting for the 600 megawatts of solar that the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 calls for.  The plan set a goal of 600 megawatts by 2025, but also states that the utility should contract for up to that amount by 2017, if available and affordable.   Clearly it’s available.

The Electric Utility Commission (EUC), whose job it is to oversee Austin Energy, evaluated the impact on rates of contracting for 600 megawatts of solar.  The Commission found that it would reduce rates in all but the first couple years and recommended that Austin Energy present its best plan for achieving an additional 600 MW of solar by the end of 2017.  So, contracting for 600 megawatts of solar is also affordable.

Austin Energy executives have argued that prices could fall further, but how much they will fall and how fast are unknowns.  The 30% federal solar investment tax credit declines to 10% at the end of 2016, so we can count on a price bump after that.  As solar prices continue to decline, they will eventually make up for that lost tax credit, but will that be in 18 months, as Austin Energy claims, or longer.  Solar companies are especially eager to get contracts right now, so that they can build up their portfolios before the tax credit is reduced.  Austin Energy ratepayers could be the beneficiaries of that eagerness, if the Austin City Council decides to take action.  If solar is even cheaper in 2018, Austin Energy can contract for more then.  Either way, this 600 megawatts of solar, which would supply about 12% of the energy the utility sells, would be an affordable source of energy during times when electricity use, and therefor prices, are highest.

Affordable solar prices should make it easy for the Council to support a big solar buy, especially given that converting to renewable energy is a key strategy in achieving the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or earlier.  Climate change is happening now.  For any entity (such as the City of Austin) that claims that addressing the problem of climate change is a priority, passing up opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emission while also saving money isn’t an acceptable option.

If you live in Austin and would like to help get this resolution passed, please sign up to attend the City Council meeting on Thursday (September 17).

We are asking everyone to wear green to make it easy for the Council members to see how many clean energy supporters are there.  We’ll be there starting at 5:30, and will have stickers and talking points for everyone.  Parking is free with validation in the garage under City Hall.

Public Utility Chair was Donna Nelson was reappointed by Governor Greg Abbot to another term today. The new term will expire on September 1, 2021.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, implements respective legislation, and offers customer assistance in resolving consumer complaints.
Donna Nelson of Austin is chairman of PUC, and is the past director of the PUC telecommunications section. Prior to her work at PUC, she was an assistant attorney general of Texas, where she specialized in antitrust lawsuits. She is a member of the State Bar of Texas, ex-officio member of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and a past member of the Texas Council on Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Nelson received a Bachelor of Science from Black Hills State College and a Juris Doctor from Texas Tech University.
The salaries of the Public Utility Commissioners is currently $180,000.
For more information See http://www.guidrynews.com/story.aspx?id=1000072360

by Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
September 2, 2015

While filling a cattle trough 15 months ago, Ashley Murray noticed something odd occurring in the shack housing her family’s water pump. High-pressure water was spraying everywhere. She switched off the pump, went into the house and asked her husband to take a look. So out walked Cody Murray with his father Jim.

Ashley stood holding the couple’s four-year-old daughter just outside the wood-and-stone pump house. As Jim Murray flipped on the pump, it let out a “woosh.” Cody, a former oilfield worker, knew the sound signaled danger. He threw his dad backwards — just before a fireball shot from the wellhead and transformed the Murrays’ 160-acre Palo Pinto County ranch into an emergency scene.

Somehow, everyone survived the explosion, detailed in legal filings. But the flames severely burned each of the four.

Now, as the Murrays continue their recovery, the family wants to hold someone accountable for the blast, sparked by a buildup of methane gas. They say blame lies with a pair of companies that drilled and operate two gas wells roughly 1,000 feet away from their water well.

Those gas wells are among thousands that dot the Barnett Shale, which stretches some 5,000 square miles beneath at least 25 North Texas counties.

The wells drilled and operated by Houston-based EOG Resources and Fairway Resources, a partner of Goldman Sachs, “are the only possible sources of the contamination,” the Murrays allege in a lawsuit filed last month.

(Family members were not immediately available for interviews.)

“I have scientific testing showing that Mother Nature did not put this gas in the Murrays’ well,” said Christopher Hamilton, the family’s attorney, who called it “a landmark case in Texas.”

Through a spokeswoman, EOG Resources declined to comment on the litigation, citing company policy. Fairway Resources did not respond to messages left at its Southlake office. As of Tuesday, neither company had responded in court.

Scientifically proving the case, a difficult task, would put pressure on the state’s oil and gas regulator — the Texas Railroad Commission — and could reboot an emotional debate about whether years of frenzied drilling in one of the country’s largest gas fields has put groundwater at risk.

The agency has quietly investigated the Murrays’ case over the past year, its records show.

The agency — which straddles the line between industry champion and watchdog — has not openly linked groundwater contamination to drilling activities, and it frequently repeats a refrain that it has not implicated hydraulic fracturing, in particular — the revolutionary method of blasting apart rock to free up gas.

“To be clear, Commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas,” Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

Lasts spring, the agency effectively shut the door on a high-profile case dating back to 2010 — once reopened — concerning methane-tainted wells in Parker County. The last agency analysis said evidence was “insufficient” to determine whether the accused driller unlocked deep-resting Barnett gas, or if the methane naturally bubbled up from shallower depths.

A few months later, five universities published peer-reviewed research concluding that oil and gas activities (but not fracking itself) tainted some of the same water wells in Parker County. High levels of methane escaped poorly constructed natural gas wells and migrated into shallow aquifers, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science paper said. Substandard cementing likely caused the problem, said the researchers, relying on a set of geochemical tracers different than what the Railroad Commission used.

The Parker County gases arrived in the aquifer without undergoing typical geologic changes, data showed, leading researchers to conclude that they came up through a pipe — likely part of a gas well — and didn’t interact with any water or rocks below the surface.

The commission panned that study and declined to reopen its investigation.

Hamilton, the lawyer for the Murrays, said his evidence points to cementing problems similar to what researchers at the five universities identified, implicating the energy companies.

That analysis, he claims, comes from a team of highly recognized scientists who are working for free, save for travel costs.

“This is the first case I’ve ever had where none of my experts will accept compensation,” said Hamilton. “These guys won’t take any money because they’re totally in it for the science and they don’t want anyone to question their credibility.”

However, the attorney said he could not immediately reveal his data, or the names of his experts because of the discovery timeline in his lawsuit.

The family’s complaint details the explosion’s grizzly results, including several first and second degree burns for Cody, Jim and the child. With burns on his arms, upper back, neck forehead and nose, Cody spent a week in a hospital’s intensive care and burn units. With his nerves damaged, the 38-year old cannot drive — because he can’t grip a steering wheel — and cannot work, the document says.

The Murrays are seeking more than $1 million in relief.

So far, the Railroad Commission has documented high methane levels in the Murray well, and others nearby. One family’s well registered methane at more than five times the federal limit. But the data were “inconclusive with respect to specific migration pathways from shallower sources,” that analysis said.

Nye said the agency is looking at records for local oil and gas wells to make sure companies built them correctly.

After examining the Railroad Commission water well analysis, Hugh Daigle, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, agreed that the data was inconclusive, and said it looked like the agency was on the right track in investigating the contamination.

“There’s a lot of different places that gas could be coming from,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing to try to figure this out.”

Meanwhile, water concerns extend beyond the Murray ranch.

Rebecca and Larry Norris, a couple living just west of the Murrays, said their water has been turning everything orange — the sinks, the tub — for the past few years, beginning around the time the drilling companies arrived.

They reported the problem to the Railroad Commission shortly after the explosion, but haven’t heard back — “not a peep,” Rebecca, 65, said. (Nye said the agency was looking into why it may not have responded.)

In her house sitting near six wells, Rebecca, said, “you wonder, just wonder” what’s in the water.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/02/well-explosion-could-put-pressure-texas-regulators/.

What: Rail Safety Community Meeting
When: Monday, August 31 @ 6:30pm
Where: Magnolia Multi-Service Center (7037 Capitol St, Houston, TX, 77011)
Why: Join Congressman Gene Green, Senator Sylvia Garcia, and industry experts for a community meeting to discuss improving rail safety in urban areas.

When oil trains derail we all pay the price. How close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen? Use the blast zone map below to find out and take action. If you live in a blast zone, you may want to attend this meeting on Monday.
Where oil trains travel into Houston. See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston. See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/