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UPDATE: By 10 am this morning, the Sunset Commission had already voted on the recommendations they were going to adopt for the report to the legislature. 

All the STAFF good enforcement recommendations were adopted, and the recommendation (proposed by the Public Member on the Commisson, Allen West) on induced seismicity was adopted.

The name change recommendation was dropped as we heard it would be, as were the transfer of contested cases to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).  The new issue proposed by Rep. Raymond, calling for bonding for cleaning up abandoned wells at the last hearing fell by the wayside. Raymond did not even bring up his proposals.

The things we do support on enforcement will be in the bill when it’s introduced during the 85th Legislative session, but we expect that it may be a fight to keep them in.

Thursday, November 10th, the Texas Sunset Commission will meet to vote on recommendations to the 85th Legislature regarding the future of the Texas Railroad Commission.  Three times the Legislature has failed to pass a bill reauthorizing and making changes to this agency. 

We are asking that you contact the Sunset Commissioners and tell them to support staff recommendations plus Raymond and West’s new issues as outlined below.  For Sunset Commissioners’ contact information, click here. or contact your state rep and state senator to urge the Sunset Commission to support these recommendations. Find out who represents you here.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Public Citizen, have been following the Sunset review of the Railroad Commission and they are in agreement about supporting staff recommendations and new issues raised by Texas Sunset Commission Members – Representatives Dan Flynn,  Richard Peña Raymond, and public member LTC (Ret.) Allen B. West – to increase transparency, improve safeguards and protect the public.  It is time for more than a name change on failed agency! 

For a full version of the recommendations click here.

Issue 1 – Continue the Railroad Commission of Texas for 12 Years with a Name That Reflects the Agency’s Important Functions. (Page 11)

Change in Statute

Rec. 1.1 (Page 17) Change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the Texas Energy Resources Commission and continue the agency for 12 years.

We support this change. On the eve of another election where most voters had no idea what the Railroad Commission does, and where industry supplied some 70 percent of the funding to those running, changing the name is a needed first step. We also believe that the Commission should only be continued for 6 years.

Issue 2 – Contested Hearings and Gas Utility Oversight Are Not Core Commission Functions and Should Be Transferred to Other Agencies to Promote Efficiency, Effectiveness, Transparency, and Fairness. (Page 19)

Representative Raymond Proposed Modification

Under this modification to Recommendations 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3, the Commission would contract with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to conduct the Commission’s hearings for contested permit and enforcement cases and Gas Utility Oversight would be transferred to the Public Utility Commission (PUC), with potential to contest the rates at SOAH. In conducting hearings, the PUC and SOAH would consider the Commission’s applicable substantive rules and policies.

We are in full support of Issue 2 and the transfer of these functions from RRC to SOAH and PUC, but do agree that the applicable rules and policies related to these issues should be considered in that transfer, as recommended by Representative Raymond.

Issue 3 – Oil and Gas Monitoring and Enforcement Need Improvements to Effectively Ensure Public Safety and Environmental Protection.

Rep. Flynn Modification: Also direct the agency to provide oil and gas production information on its website in a format that is easier for royalty owners to use and understand.

We Support these Sunset Staff recommendations on Enforcement, as well as Rep. Flynn’s proposed modification.

Issue 4 – Insufficient and Inequitable Statutory Bonding Requirements Contribute to the Large Backlog of Abandoned Wells. (Page 43)

We support this change to assure that oil and gas wells pay their fair share in upfront bonding costs.

Issue 5 – Improved Oversight of Texas’ Pipeline Infrastructure Would Help Further Ensure Public Safety. (Page 51)

We support these proposed statutory and appropriations modifications.

Issue 6 – The Railroad Commission’s Contracting Procedures Are Improving, but Continued Attention Is Needed. (Page 55)

We support these proposed management actions.

Issue 7 – The Railroad Commission’s Statute Does Not Reflect Standard Elements of Sunset Reviews. (Page 59)

We support these proposed changes.

Proposed New Issues

Vice Chair Taylor Proposed New Issue 1

Direct the Railroad Commission to study, develop, and implement ways to clean up and revive old oil fields for secondary and tertiary recovery using either the unitization method or other legal means which the Commission may develop or recommend. As part of this recommendation, the Railroad Commission shall consult with the Bureau of Economic Geology. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We have not taken a position on this recommendation.

Colonel West Proposed New Issue 2

Direct the Railroad Commission to incorporate findings from the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology as they become available into its oil and gas disposal well rules or guidance, as applicable. The rules should seek to prevent any induced seismicity caused by disposal wells. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. Utilizing the information that is being collected to develop more protective rules and procedures makes sense.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 3

Amend RRC’s statute to require the agency to publish comprehensive oil and gas enforcement data (complaints, inspections, violations, enforcement actions taken, and penalties levied/collected) online, in a publicly accessible, searchable, trackable format. Make data available by operator and on a well-by-well basis and by bulk download.

We are in full support of this recommendation. We would note this could also be accomplished as a management action by direction of the Director to publish this information on-line.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 4

Management recommendation to direct RRC to: review all relevant rules on spill reporting and response, and make changes to increase environmental protection and cleanup during flooding, such as specifying time frames for responding to spills; clarify its rules, so that both oil and gas spills and other spills like brine, produced water, or fracking fluid are also reported, tracked, and cleaned up; and report these spills and the results of any cleanup effort in an accessible way, either directly on its website or by sharing the information with TCEQ as part of its joint work on spills. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. This is considerable confusion about reporting and clean-up requirements, particularly in the event of floods.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 5

Amend Chapter 26 of the Texas Water Code to require operators that treat “domestic wastewater” or “mobile drinking water treatment system wastewater” at oil and gas well drill sites to obtain a permit from TCEQ instead of RRC.

We are in support. TCEQ is the appropriate agency to assure water is cleaned up to the appropriate level.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 6

Improve inspection, regulation, and reporting of injection wells by: either removing the specific permit fee amount in Chapter 27, allowing the Commission to set a more reasonable amount, or raising it to $1,000 (Change in statute); requiring RRC to require monthly reporting of liquid injection in all disposal wells and make the information publicly accessible (Change in statute); and directing RRC to conduct a comprehensive review of its rules and programs regarding oil and gas disposal wells, and consider changes related to casing and cementing, aquifer exemptions, notice and public participation, seismic activity, and wastewater reporting and tracking. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in support of both the management and statutory changes. Permit fees for disposal wells are too low and the rules should be reexamined to assure proper notice, and proper safeguards.

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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

 

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I’m a Texas Voter! ID? No Problem!

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

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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.

 

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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2016 Gonna Be Too Hot To Handle

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.

 

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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.
(more…)

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CT-JoReprinted from CleanTechnica
https://cleantechnica.com/2016/07/04/coal-royalty-fraud-loophole-closed-export-terminal-nixed/
July 4th, 2016
by Tina Casey

 

cleantechnica 1Now what, indeed. The domestic market for US coal has been shrinking faster than you can say Clean Power Plan, and now it appears that the door is shutting on the export market, too. In the latest development, last week the US Interior Department announced a new rule aimed at closing off a coal royalty loophole. The loophole enabled exporters to pocket millions in revenue that could have gone back to the taxpaying public.

The Coal Royalty Loophole

The new rule comes under Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. It is included in a new regulatory package that also covers oil and gas as well as coal leases on federal and American Indian lands.

We’re zeroing in on the coal royalty rule because it has been the focus of considerable attention by regulators and industry observers, especially as applied to coal from federal lands in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

The region is home to the largest coal reserves in the US, as illustrated by this recent snapshot of federal coal leases:

cleantechnica 2The coal royalty loophole has been described in detail by a series of reports in Reuters, which trace the scheme to a 2003 loophole that applied only to natural gas exports. Coal industry stakeholders have argued that the Interior Department gave it the go-ahead to apply that regulatory framework to coal exports in 2009.

The scheme worked by using affiliated brokers to buy US coal at artificially low prices, then sell high in coal-hungry Asia. US taxpayers received royalties based on the lower price, not the higher price.

By 2011, the Interior Department was well aware that US taxpayers were getting the short end of the stick. At least one regulatory reviewer argued that the coal industry clearly misapplied the 2003 natural gas loophole, and the agency began taking steps to tighten up its regulations.

In the meantime, in February 2013 the Interior Department launched an investigation into the practice on the request of US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Aside from the lost revenue, US taxpayers are also left holding the bag for the environmental impacts of coal extraction and transportation, so there’s that.

Closing The Coal Loophole

The new coal royalty regulations took a while in coming, but they’re finally here under the moniker of “Consolidated Federal Oil & Gas and Federal & Indian Coal Valuation Reform Rule,” which took effect on July 1.

The rule was last updated in the 1980’s, which is where the modernization comes in. Here’s the money quote from Interior:

…the rule reaffirms that valuation, for royalty purposes, is best determined at or near the lease and that gross proceeds from arm’s-length contracts are the best indication of market value.

The rule specifically eliminates non-arm’s-length sales (that’s regulatory parlance for transactions with a hidden agenda) between affiliated companies as a benchmark for valuation. Instead, valuation is based on gross proceeds from the first arm’s-length-sale, which generally means the sale closest to the lease.

The idea is to ensure a more accurate valuation of the actual coal marketplace, rather than continuing the historically difficult task of benchmarking transactions down the line.

The End Of Coal: But Wait, There’s More

The new rule puts another dent in the profitability of the US coal industry, and BLM isn’t finished yet. In a press release announcing the new rule, BLM reiterated its intent to fold public health and environmental impacts into the federal coal program. The review, now under way, was motivated in part by “many concerns” raised during the public comment period for the coal rule:

For that and other reasons, Interior recently launched a comprehensive review to identify and evaluate potential reforms to the Federal coal program in order to ensure that it is properly structured to provide a fair return to taxpayers and reflect its impacts on the environment, while continuing to help meet our energy needs.

Yikes!

The coal industry is also facing pushback from other federal agencies. Most notably that includes the Environmental Protection Agency, but the US Army Corps of Engineers has also stepped into the fray.

Earlier this year, the Army Corps halted the permit process for a key coal export terminal in Washington State. The agency based its decision on the relatively narrow issue of treaty rights with Native American tribes in the region, but it also evoked a set of environmental principles that date back to the early years of the Bush Administration.

Whither Coal?

We’re not saying that the US coal industry will eventually vanish from the face of the earth — for that matter, BLM is still issuing new leases in the Powder River Basin — but it will play a marginal role in the sparking green future.

Over the short term, the domestic market for US coal has been hit by competition from low cost natural gas, a fuel that is “cleaner” at the burn point but is also fraught with public health and environmental issues including water and air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and other side effects including earthquakes.

A more sustainable approach to energy management is well under way with the growth of renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, transmission infrastructure, “smart grid” technology and related fields.

There is also a movement afoot to revive nuclear energy as a key element in low-carbon economies, spearheaded by billionaire Bill Gates, founder and chair of the nuclear company TerraPower.

If you have some thoughts about that, drop a note in the comment thread of the original story.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter and Google+.

Images: via US Bureau of Land Management.

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Today is the first day of summer, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality offers these tips with the arrival of hot weather.

In Texas, cooling and heating accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual home energy expenses. Take Care of Texas offers the following easy ways to keep your home cooler, helping you to save money and keep our air clean.

  • Use a programmable thermostat. Or adjust your thermostat during overnight hours or when no one is home. Try setting it to 78 degrees or warmer in the summer. Setting it to 7-10 degrees higher than you normally would for 8 hours a day can reduce energy consumption as much as 10 percent.
  • Maintain your air conditioner. A properly functioning air conditioner is an efficient one. Replace filters every month or two during the cooling season. And that big hunk of metal outside? That’s the evaporator coil. It needs plenty of airflow, so clean it once a year. Remove debris and trim foliage too, leaving at least two feet of space around it.

You can also take the burden off your air conditioner by using other methods to keep the heat down in your home:

  • Use ceiling fans. They circulate the air in the house and allow you to raise the thermostat setting about 4 degrees without discomfort.
  • Limit the heat from your appliances. Cook outdoors on the grill, and try not to use the dishwasher, washer, and dryer during the heat of the day.
  • Move lamps, TVs, and other appliances away from the thermostat. The extra heat they produce can cause the air conditioner to run longer.
  • Install efficient lighting. It runs cooler. Only about 10 percent of the electricity that incandescent lights consume results in light — the rest is turned into heat.
  • Plant shade trees and install window blinds. With less sunlight shining on your house, the internal temperature can decrease by three to six degrees in the summer and save up to 25 percent in cooling costs. Use energy-efficient window treatments and close them during the day to block direct sunlight.
  • Weatherize your home. Find air leaks and seal them with caulk and weather stripping.
  • Seal your heating and cooling ducts. Leaky ducts can reduce your system’s efficiency by as much as 20 percent. Start by sealing ducts that run through the attic, crawlspace, or garage using duct sealant or foil tape. Then wrap the ducts in insulation to keep them from getting hot.

Visit TakeCareofTexas.org for more ways to conserve energy and water, reduce waste, keep the air and water clean, and save money.

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This Sept. 29, 2009 photo shows Albert Naquin, the chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha indians, answering a question on Isle de Jean Charles, La. Holdouts in the hurricane-damaged Indian village refuse to give in to urges from a tribal chief, scientists and public officials to relocate inland, despite frequent floods and disappearing marshland that brings the Gulf of Mexico closer every year.  (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha (Sept. 29, 2009, AP Photo/Bill Haber)

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians are not strangers to the idea of forced migration. As a consequence of the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s, the tribe’s ancestors moved to the Isle de Jean Charles.  Almost two hundred years after, they are being forced to move again as a result of climate change.

To address this issue, the federal government has provided 48 million dollars in order to move a majority of the island’s population of 85 people. Although the federal government has provided grants totaling one billion dollars for thirteen states, funding for “climate change refugees” is unprecedented.

The results of this program are fundamental in providing a potential blueprint for future resettlements resulting from climate change.  It is estimated that 13.1 million Americans living seaside might face flooding as a result of rising sea levels. The issue of resettlement is complicated in itself. The issue in Isle de Jean Charles, however, is particularly complex because of the need to preserve what remains of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian community.

Isle DeJean Charles - photo by Karen Apricot

Isle DeJean Charles – photo by Karen Apricot

The story of the Isle de Jean Charles is particularly intriguing because of just how severe the ramifications of climate change combined with the increased rate of natural land loss due to the construction of dams and oil drilling. Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its territory. Furthermore, frequent flooding and hurricanes have made farming impossible, contributing to the outward migration that has been occurring since 1955. The ones that have stayed behind despite worsening conditions, however, are strongly attached to their land, raising the broader question of how resettlement be carried out if the population in peril, refuses to move.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians have voted twice before against resettlement. The issue of resettlement came up in 2002 when the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), which had originally planned to include the Isle de Jean Charles in Gulf Hurricane Protection System, decided the cost and benefit did not add up. Because of the Isle’s remote location and relatively low economic value, ACE did not see the benefit. Instead, they offered the locals a plan of resettlement which, lacking unanimous support from the locals, were not implemented.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians certainly won’t be the last U.S. climate refugees. In Alaska, more than 180 villages are currently directly affected by melting ice glaciers. A village called Newtok, according to Army Corps of Engineers is expected to be under water by next year. The locals, Eskimos, have been noticing the sinking for twenty years now and have been slowly rebuilding their community further inland. However, just as can be seen with the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the effect displacement will have on a community so intimately connected to its land, given that they live off of it, is yet to be seen. Newtok, Alaska is one of many locations under the danger of going underwater. Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay and Quinault Indian Nation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are undergoing a similar catastrophe.

As part of the legacy he wants to leave on the issue of climate change, President Obama should ask Congress to set aside special funding for the next wave of climate refugees.

 

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West fertilizer facility explosion 2Friday, May 13 Marks Deadline for comments to the proposed EPA Rules for Chemical Facilities such as the fertilizer plant involved in the West, Texas explosion.

The draft EPA Rule Fails in Protecting the Public as 87% of such Facilities Are Exempted by Federal Agency

Friday the 13th marks the deadline for the EPA’s proposed new rules on unique high risk chemical plants which are to urge the use and access to safer technologies to protect public health and welfare.

Public Citizen maintains that the new rules fall short of any real teeth to require industry to do what is needed, instead opting for too many voluntary measures of compliance to be protective of communities where these hazardous chemical facilities are sited.

“Though we commend the EPA’s attempt at new rules to rein in careless plant owners and operators,” commented Rita Beving, Public Citizen North Texas organizer,  “These rules are simply weak, falling woefully short in the effort to protect the communities where these plants are located.”

“More than 87% of the facilities of the 12,543 facllities that should be regulated are exempt including water treatment facilities,” added Beving. “The way this rule is currently written still places cities such as DFW along with smaller communities which have such hazardous facilities at risk.”

The proposed rules entitled “Modernization of the Accidental Release Prevention Regulations under the Clean Air Act” were devised as a result of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas and other chemical plant disasters.  Since West’s disaster in 2013, 82 people have been killed and 1,600 have been injured in more than 400 chemical plant incidents.

“There is still time to comment today and tomorrow on these proposed rules,” commented Tom “Smitty” Smith, Public Citizens Texas director.  “We need to tell the EPA that too much of these new rules are voluntary. The rule fails to have the needed mandates that require industry to comply or improve the safety aspect of their operations.

“Instead of a patchwork of locations where these hazardous industries will be allowed to disclose their chemical information, there needs to be one singular database for emergency responders and officials to get the information they need in regards to these facilities,” added Smith.  “This is just common sense safety for all our communities.”

According to facility reports to the EPA, over 100 million Americans still live in chemical hazard zones. In addition to putting facility employees at risk, communities closest to hazardous facilities are disproportionately African American and Hispanic.

Public Citizen asks that the EPA rule be strengthened by adopting the following measures within the new rules to protect public health and the communities in which they live:

  • Require these unique hazardous facilities to use safer technologies and alternatives where they are feasible to prevent future disasters.
  • Require all hazardous chemical facilities to conduct Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis (STAA) –  including water treatment facilities.
  • The proposed rule now exempts 87% of the 12,543 (RMP) chemical facilities from requirements to conduct Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis (STAA) including water treatment facilities, some of which put major cities at risk of a catastrophic release of chlorine gas. An Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis shouldbe required of all facilities.  An STAA involves reducing risks through a tiered approach of minimizing risk by reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals stored, employing physical barriers to mitigate hazard, utilizing emergency controls/sensors, and having safety and evacuation procedures in place.  These plants’  STAA plans should also be accessible to the public.
  • The proposed rule now exempts 87% of the 12,543 (RMP) chemical facilities from requirements to conduct Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis (STAA) including water treatment facilities, putting major cities and other      communities at risk of a catastrophic release of chlorine gas.
  • The rule should require chemical facilities to report their Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis to the EPA.  These analyses should be accessible to the public.
  • The EPA should establish an online clearinghouse of safer technology and available alternatives for these unique chemical facilities that would encourage and support plants’ adoption of safe technology alternatives.
  • The EPA should devise a one stop, 24/7 accessible database of information via web requiring information about  a chemical facility’s hazards that is accessible to public officials and emergency responders.

Currently, the proposed rule suggests using a patchwork of company web sites, libraries or government offices to disclose information on facility hazards to emergency planners and community residents. By not having these facilities utilize one accessible database of disclosure, companies can conceal the results of their assessments from local residents, schools, and hospitals near these facilities.

  • Require buffer zones around existing facilities or restrictions on the location of new facilities in populated areas.

Comments are to be submitted online, identified by docket EPA-HQ-OEM-2015-0725 to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov or paste https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OEM-2015-0725-0001 into your browser.

 

Below are examples of chemical incidents that led to the EPA rulemaking:

  • April 17, 2013 – an explosion at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas killed 15 people.
  • March 23, 2005 – explosions at the BP Refinery in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 people and injured more than 170 people.
  • April 2, 2010 – an explosion and fire at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Washington, killed 7 people.
  • August 6, 2012 – a fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, involving flammable fluids endangered 19 Chevron employees and created a large plume of highly hazardous chemicals that traveled across the Richmond, California, area.       Nearly 15,000 residents sought medical treatment due to the release.
  • June 13, 2013 – a fire and explosion at Williams Olefins in Geismar, Louisiana, killed 2 people and injured more.

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Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final rule to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Today’s announcement of a regulation designed to monitor and capture methane emissions from not-yet-built oil and gas operations is an important step for the U.S. to combat climate change in the decades to come. But under this rule, methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations will remain unmonitored and uncontrolled.

The EPA’s March announcement of an Information Collection Request to poll the industry as to the feasibility of monitoring and controlling emissions from existing operations will take years, and it could be years before a final rule that applies to existing operations is developed. The climate simply can’t wait that long. The EPA can and should start working on a rule to cover existing methane emissions now.

Research into one of America’s two major oil fracking sites found that the Bakken Shale is leaking 275,000 tons of methane annually. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 87 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. The oil and gas industry has a responsibility to begin monitoring and reducing emissions from existing sources immediately – and the public has the right to expect the EPA to do as much.

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