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Archive for the ‘Sunset’ Category

SB 655 by Hegar, or the Texas Railroad Commission Sunset Bill, suffered a setback in the Senate today. (more…)

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The Public Utility Commission (PUC) sunset bill (H.B. 2134) would give the PUC the authority to approve or change the annual budget of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT),  stipulates that no member of the PUC could work for ERCOT for at least two years after he or she had stepped down, and fines would quadruple (from a maximum of $25,000 per day to $100,000 per day) for any company found to have manipulated the electric market for its own gain under the Sunset bill that will be heard in House State Affairs Committee on Monday, March 14th.

Rep. Burt Solomons (R-Carrollton)

State Rep. Burt SolomonsHouse Bill 2134 largely tracks the recommendations approved in January by the Sunset Advisory Commission and includes language that the Carrollton Republican has been advocating for at least two years to cut the number of ERCOT board members who have ties the electric industry.

State Affairs is scheduled to take up the Sunset bill during its hearing that convenes 30 minutes after the House adjourns Monday. The meeting will be held in Room 140 of the Reagan Building northwest of the Capitol.

To see the full text of H.B. 2134, click here.

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The long-awaited Sunset Bill of the Railroad Commission was released late yesterday, and it’s mostly what we’d expected, but not everything we’d hoped for.

Highlights:

  • The Railroad Commission will be renamed the Texas Oil and Gas Commission
  • It will be headed by one commissioner  (down from 3) who will be elected every four years on the same cycle as Governor, Comptrollerm, Ag Commissioner, etc.
  • Campaign finance reform: Commissioners and candidates for the commission can only raise money one year before an election and 30 days after.
  • Moving contested hearings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).

These are needed reforms and the problems they attempt to correct are huge. For instance, the large influence campaign money has in the election of the Railroad Commission historically, as detailed in our report Drilling for Dollars. Among our findings was that nearly half of all campaign donations were being solicited and received in non-election years. Creating this fund-raising window will help keep at least the appearance of impropriety away from the new Oil and Gas Commissioner for at least 3 out of every 4 years, though we’re fairly certain the money will gush in all the same. This is why we proposed public financing for this important new office, but barring that, at least better disclosure of who is giving the money (specifically the occupation and employer of donors) and putting a cap on how much someone can give.

Unfortunately, this bill also does not offer any new guidance on regulation of fracking and natural gas drilling. Currently fracking regulation is in somewhat of a no man’s land, as Railroad Commission says they do not enforce our environmental laws, but TCEQ says they don’t regulate the operations of drillers. While it’s possible some of these reforms will come from the TCEQ sunset or from separate legislation, the bottom line is that we cannot allow our agencies to play hot potato with this issue.

So, what does this mean that we would get one new oil and gas commissioner from three current railroad commissioners? If passed in its current form, the railroad commission would be abolished- the railroad commissioners would be out of a job. Not a big deal for those like Michael Williams, who has said he will resign next month in order to pursue a run for Senate. Elizabeth Ames Jones has hinted she would do the same.  Upon creation of the new Oil and Gas Commission, the first commissioner would be appointed by Governor Perry, but s/he would only serve until 2012, when the first Oil and Gas Commissioner race in the history of Texas would take place. Whoever wins that race would serve for only two years, then be up for re-election in 2014, and then elections would take place every four years after that.

This is many steps forward from where we began, and we’re grateful that both the Sunset Commission staff and Committee members listened to our (the environmental and good government community’s) thoughtful proposals and adopted some of them into this reform package. It’s a testament to the power of people showing up and making their voices heard. But this is the beginning, not the end. So in the spirit of making our voices heard, please remember to join us Tuesday for ACT Lobby Day. This will be an opportunity for you and us to ask for even more needed reforms both at RRC and TCEQ.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

 

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Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy)

Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) filed a bill (SB 655) to abolish the Texas Railroad Commission and eliminate the three statewide elected positions that govern it and rename the agency the Texas Oil and Gas Commission to be run by a single elected officer who would serve a four-year term.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Government Organization Committee.

The Railroad Commission, a 121-year-old agency whose mission has changed dramatically over its lifespan, and which many have said has grown unwieldly and ineffective, has three elected commissioners who, with their separate staffs, often stumble over one another.  Still, whether a single commissioner would be preferable to three is likely to be the most contentious piece of energy-related Sunset legislation that lawmakers take up this session and even the three sitting commissioners are split on how the agency should be structured.

Hegar’s bill also contains language that would have the newly restructured agency adopt the model of the State Office of Hearing Examiners (SOAH) on rulemaking dispute-resolution matters. It also calls for establishing a $20 million oilfield cleanup fund to be financed by fees from various industry activities.

To see the Railroad Commission Sunset bill, click here.

Senator Joan Huffman (R-Southside Place)

Representative Wayne Smith (R-Baytown)

Meanwhile, Senator Joan Huffman (R-Southside Place/Houston) co-filed the Sunset bill (SB 657) to reauthorize the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy).  A companion bill was filed in the house (HB 2694) by Representative Wayne Smith (R-Baytown).

All of these legislators are from areas of Texas whose air quality is highly impacted by the decisions of the TCEQ and dominated by the oil and gas industry. 

To see the TCEQ bill SB 657, click here.  If you also want to follow the House companion bill HB 2694, click here.

Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) said he plans to introduce the legislation affecting the Public Utility Commission and related agencies before the bill-filing deadline.

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State Rep. Warren Chisum, a Republican from Pampa, Texas plans to seek a place on the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), either by gubernatorial appointment once Michael Williams resigns in April or by running for the seat expected to be vacated next year when Elizabeth Ames Jones declines to seek re-election because of her aspirations to the U.S. Senate.

The 72-year-old lawmaker has served in the House since 1989 and is an oil and natural gas producer and rancher who began his career on oil drilling rigs and in truck yards.  A key lieutenant of former Speaker Thomas Russell “Tom” Craddick, Sr., and an active candidate in the ill-fated attempt to unseat Speaker Joe Straus at the beginning of the current session, Chisum has not had a committee chairmanship since Tom Craddick was toppled in 2009.

Recent recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission call for changing the name of the agency to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission and restructuring it to be governed by a single statewide elected official who would serve a four-year term concurrent with the governor and the other major statewides.  Chisum disagrees with the move to change the RRC from a three member elected commission to a single elected commissioner.

If he does enter next year’s Railroad Commission primary, Chisum starts with a heavy “war chest.”   His current report on file with the Texas Ethics Commission shows him with more than $632,000 cash on hand.

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Senate Intergovernmental Relations will meet at 9:30 AM, Wednesday, February 09, 2011 in E1.028 (Hearing Room) to hear invited testimony from representatives from the representatives from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  Click here to watch the hearing online tomorrow morning.
 

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The Sunset Advisory Commission is putting the wheels in motion to overhaul the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).  And, the chairman of the Sunset Commission is telling two of RRC commissioners that their agency “badly broken.” 

Commissioner Michael Williams, the longest-serving member of the trio, has endorsed the overhaul.

The Sunset Commission has recommended the Railroad Commission be renamed the Texas Oil and Gas Commission and that the three-commissioner structure be replaced with a single commissioner who would be elected to a four-year term that would coincide with the terms of most other statewide elected officials.

Late last year, during the public hearing, several Sunset members expressed concern that railroad commissioners are too chummy with the industry they regulate and that the three-commissioner make-up means that at least one commissioner is campaigning while making decisions affecting the industry that constitutes their largest campaign contribution pool.

Two of the three sitting Texas Railroad commissioners have appealed to the legislative leadership not to push through a restructuring that would likely eliminate both of their jobs.  But Senator Glenn Hegar, chairman, and State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, vice chairman of Sunset, pushed back, telling the Railroad Commissioners that “maintaining the status quo” was never considered by Sunset.

The Sunset recommendations for the state agencies that were up for review during the interim must be incorporated into legislation and taken up this session for the agencies to continue their existence.  The Legislature has the opportunity to make meaningful reforms to the Railroad Commission, however members from either house can modify the recommendations, meaning that the proposed overhaul is not a done deal.  

So if you want to see reforms to the Railroad Commission this session, make a call.  Don’t know who represents you at the Texas legislature, click here.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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“Gasland,” the documentary film by Josh Fox, that examines whether hydraulic fracturing of shale formations threatens water supplies and poses other environmental hazards, was nominated today for an Academy Award.GasLand

The movie is a cross-country tour that included visits to people who live near several drilling sites, including North Texas’ Barnett Shale.

If you want to see this documentary before the Oscars it is probably not going to be shown in a theater near you anytime soon, but it is available on Amazon or through the movie’s website, or you can even rent it through netflix.

Of course, the gas industry is getting verklempt!  They would prefer you talk amongst yourselves about any other movie, and they’ll gladly give you a topic . . . The Prince of Tides was about neither a prince nor tides. Go!  

However, if you still want to talk or watch something about fracking check out some of our earlier posts that talk about the fracking issue being addressed in the popular medium of TV in both a 60 Minutes segment and an episode of CSI.

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On Wednesday, January 26th, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will consider the air quality permit application for the Las Brisas Energy Center, a planned petroleum coke-fired power plant that just last month, two administrative law judges said does not meet emission standards.

Public Citizen, the SEED Coalition and Sierra Club have all argued that the 1,200-megawatt petroleum coke plant proposed near Corpus Christi should be held to the same air-quality standards as traditional coal plants.  The State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) administrative law judges must have agreed, twice recommending denial of this permit because of major flaws in the permit application.

The three-member TCEQ commission will be on thin legal ice if it approves the application tomorrow considering the ALS’s actions to date.  Not to mention that the Texas agency seems to be locked in a death match with the EPA over the regulation of greenhouse gasses.  Nevertheless, were I a betting woman, I wouldn’t bet on them denying the permit.  What do you think?

The TCEQ meeting begins 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the agency’s headquarters near Interstate 35 and Parmer Lane. Click here for the agenda.

UPDATE:

We have learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has urged the TCEQ  to deny the air quality permit to Las Brisas Energy Center petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi on grounds that the project has not demonstrated it can comply fully with the Clean Air Act.

EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Lawrence Starfield  sent a letter yesterday stating, “We continue to have strong concerns about the public health and environmental impacts of this project based on our review . . .  Neither EPA nor the public have had the opportunity to exercise their rights under the (Clean Air Act) to review the (Las Brisas’) demonstrations of compliance.”

Wonder if that changes the odds?

Yet another UPDATE!

Well, if that had been a real bet instead of just a poll then everyone who participated right up to the unbelievable decision would have won.  Of course, the odds that the Commission would have denied the permit were astronomical number : 1

So the TCEQ approved the Las Brisas Energy Center’s air permit, their lawyer said he was dismayed that anyone would say anything bad about TCEQ doing their job.  Go figure.  That makes 3,032 for industry, 0 for the citizens of Texas.

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A Texas Sunset Advisory Commission hearing, which was part of the first legislative review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 12 years, drew hundreds of regular citizens from around the state, with most of them saying the agency had failed to protect them from pollution. Dozens of people, including doctors, school teachers, church-going grandmothers and a rabbi, who were able to stick it out until well after 5pm before the Sunset Commissioners got around to taking their testimony, asked Texas lawmakers to make the state’s environmental agency tougher on polluters.

The Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission evaluates and considers potential reforms at state agencies every 12 years, and its findings have the potential to lead to significant changes in the TCEQ’s operations during the legislative session that begins next month, if the Sunset Commissioners so recommends.

The Sunset commission’s staff, in response to complaints that TCEQ is too lenient on polluters, has recommended that the Legislature increase the statutory cap on penalties from $10,000 to $25,000, as well as change the way the agency calculates fines.  In fact, TCEQ agreed with the two dozen recommendations made by the Sunset commission’s staff, but TCEQ critics are asking for even more changes.  They accused the agency of being too cozy with industry and ignoring public concerns. They expressed frustration over the recent approval of air pollution permits for coal-fired power plants near Abilene and Bay City, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, even though State Office of Administrative Hearings administrative law judges recommended denying both permits.

Texas Sunset Commissioner, State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) asked TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw whether the agency has the authority to deny a permit application. Shaw said yes, and it had done so 14 percent of the time.  However, no one pursued how many had been denied in the past four years or if any of them had been for large industrial projects since TCEQ’s permitting process ranges from permits for auto repair and lube service shops to dry cleaning facilities to waste water treatment plants to billion dollar coal-fired electric plants. 

Wesley Stafford, an asthma and allergy specialist in Corpus Christi who opposes a proposed petroleum coke-fired plant in Corpus Christi because of the potential public health effects, asked lawmakers to require that one of the TCEQ commissioners be a physician to “bring more balance to the commission than we’ve seen in recent years.”   In the face of these criticisms, TCEQ Commissioner Buddy Garcia defended the agency’s performance, saying that it protects public health by “following the law”.

The Sunset staff’s 124-page analysis does not address the heated dispute between the federal government and Texas over the way the state regulates industrial air pollution that resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently rejecting some of the state’s permitting rules, saying they fall short of federal Clean Air Act requirements.  Texas has challenged the decision in court, even though the problems were first brought to the TCEQ’s attention shortly after the Texas rules were implemented, as far back as the Bush administration.  It is unlikely that the Sunset Commission will address these issues, and they will probably leave it to the courts to sort out that conflict.  But the Sunset Commissioners do have the opportunity to address the issues put to them by the citizen’s of Texas who pleaded with them yesterday for change.  Their recommendations will be released on January 11th, the day the 82nd legislature convenes.

Cross your fingers and hope they take up that mantle.

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Far from the madding crowd

It’s well after 10pm and the crowd at the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing has dwindled, including the commisioners.  Of the 12 commissioners, I’m only seeing five still on the dias and as the camera periodically pans the audience, one can see that it has thinned considerably since this morning. 

Here at Armadillo Christmas Bazaar Jimmy LaFavre is winding down his final set, and so am I.  Look for updates from folks who were at the hearing (and could actually hear the testimony) tomorrow. 

The Commission will announce their decisions on January 11, 2011, the first day of the Texas 82nd legislature.  We will see then what they do with all the input they have received from agency staff, industry, ordinary citizens and the environmental community.

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Here I am at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar people watching Christmas shoppers (for those readers not  from Austin, the Armadillo Bazaar is an annual artist Christmas venue which has been happening in our fair city for 30+ years and runs every day the two weeks before Christmas – yes they are here until 11pm on Christmas eve for those last minute shoppers).  I’m talking to people  about workplace giving and Texas environmental organizations while Jimmy LaFavre is performing about 300 feet away from me. 

At the same time. I’m streaming the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission hearing, which is finally getting around to TCEQ.   I can’t hear anything that is being said (what with that Jimmy Lafavre concert going on in the background), but I keep seeing folks, who showed up at 8:30 this morning ready to testify, finally getting to say their piece.  Many of them have a 3 to 8 hour drive home ahead of them.  All I can say is “Bless their hearts”, they are, in fact, the stuff of which Texas is made and I admire them greatly.

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pecan pie

It would be a shame to have to forego the Thanksgiving pecan pie because of air pollution - photo via Flickr

As the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s hearing on TxDOT, TxRRC and TCEQ continues, visiting citizens have been sharing their stories with us.  Many of them are here to testify about issues they have had with TCEQ, and we hope the commission will move the hearing along so that those who have traveled 3 to 8 hours to get to the hearing will have the opportunity to have their time at the mic. 

One of folks who came in from Victoria, TX was telling us about the impact that the Coleto Creek coal-fired plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions have been having on the  trees in their area – including his pecan trees.  We have been hearing similar stories from pecan growers in other parts of the state whose pecan groves are located near other coal-fired power plants and showing signs of decline. 

This Victorican was kind enough to give us a copy of a letter that he sent to TCEQ last week, detailing his ongoing saga of trying to elicit support, from the agency charged with regulating air quality issues in the state, in protecting his property from pollution.  Because this is a public forum, we’ve “redacted” his personal information. 

Click here to read Charlie’s letter.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Concurrent with Public Citizen‘s release of its report - Drilling for Dollars: How Big Money Has a Big Influence at the Railroad Commission, which details how fundraising by incumbents increased 688 percent between 2000 and 2008 with the biggest driver of the increase donations from individuals associated with the fossil fuel industries – the same industries the commission is charged with regulating – The Texas Observer released an investigative report on the Railroad Commission detailing how decisions by the Railroad Commission have a significant effect on consumers’ monthly gas bills.

An in-depth study of 10 major rate cases to be released on Tuesday by the Atmos Cities Steering Committee, a coalition of North Texas municipalities, shows that the commission has sided with natural gas utilities over consumers and their own impartial hearing examiners in every single case since 1997.

The Observer’s review shows a clear pattern: The Texas Railroad Commission has repeatedly, over the past decade, found ways to boost the bottom line of gas companies to the detriment of Texans’ pocketbooks. The study compares the recommendations of the commission’s hearing examiners, impartial arbiters who often spends weeks reviewing evidence and taking testimony, to the final decision by the three elected commissioners.

Check out the Observer’s story by Forrest Wilder – Overrated: How the Texas Railroad Commission costs Texans millions on their natural gas bills.  Then read Andy Wilson’s blog about Public Citizen’s new report – Drilling for Dollars: How Big Money Has a Big Influence at the Railroad Commission

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Andy Wilson talking at a press conference on campaign finance in the Railroad Commission at the Texas Capitol

 

Hey folks, here’s our press release about the report I’ve been slaving away over working on. Money’s a problem at the Railroad Commission. How bad? You have no idea. Read on, if you dare, and join us for our 1pm press conference in the Speaker’s press room in the Texas Capitol.

Sweeping changes are needed at the Texas Railroad Commission because of the huge amount of industry money being poured into the campaign coffers of sitting commissioners, a study released today by Public Citizen found.

The report, “Drilling for Dollars: How Big Money Has a Big Influence at the Railroad Commission,” details how fundraising by incumbents increased 688 percent between 2000 and 2008. It also shows that the biggest driver of the increase was donations from individuals associated with the fossil fuel industries – the same industries the commission is charged with regulating.

“We need fundamental reform at the Texas Railroad Commission,” said Andy Wilson, a campaign finance researcher with Public Citizen and one of the authors of the report. “The Legislature needs to change how railroad commissioners are elected or do away with electing commissioners all together.”

Cover of report Drilling for Dollars

The report details where the commissioners’ campaign money is coming from. By 2010, 80 percent of all donations to incumbents were from industry, up from 45 percent in 2000. The volume of donations from industry also increased nearly fivefold, from just over $420,000 in 2000 to more than $2 million in 2008. And while “big money” has always played a role, it has gotten even larger: In 2000, 80 percent of all money came in donations of $1,000 or more; by 2008, it was 85 percent and an astounding 92 percent for 2010.

“The Sunset Advisory Commission called campaign fundraising a ‘possible conflict of interest,’ and that is putting it mildly,” Wilson said. “What we see is the absolute domination of campaign money by the fossil fuel industries in Texas. One of every two dollars raised by sitting railroad commissioners comes from individuals and corporations whose fortunes rest upon the decisions made by the commission. Commissioners may play coy and act innocent – they may not even see themselves as being influenced – but the people writing the checks know exactly what they are doing.”

This is of particular concern to Texans because decisions made at the railroad commission affect them every day. Charged with regulating the oil and gas industry, the Texas Railroad Commission has failed to protect Texas families who live on top of the Barnett Shale. Gas drilling on the shale contributes more to air pollution than all of the cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth region combined, according to research done while at Southern Methodist University by EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armindariz. And just this week the EPA issued an endangerment order, ordering gas drillers to clean up contaminated drinking water.

Public Citizen’s report examined and catalogued campaign finance disclosures from the Texas Ethics Commission and identified those individuals and entities who identified themselves as being a part of the fossil fuel industry, a lobbyist or from a law firm. Concerned industry insiders and other public interest advocacy groups identified additional individuals and entities as being members of the industry.

The Texas Railroad Commission is undergoing a sunset review, mandatory every 12 years for every Texas state agency. In a special session of the Legislature in 2009, the review of the railroad commission, along with several other state agencies, was moved up by two years to be done in the 82nd Legislature, which convenes in January. The Sunset Advisory Commission will hear public testimony on the railroad commission on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

A copy of the report can be found at: http://www.citizen.org/drillingfordollars

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

 

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