Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Texas Legislature’ Category

The recently retired director of the Public Citizen Texas office, Tom “Smitty” Smith, was honored by the Texas House of Representatives for his 30+ years of service.

An emotional Smitty says goodbye to friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

A fixture at the Texas Capitol for more than 3 decades, Smitty has fought long and hard on issues around the environment, renewable energy, ethics reform and nuclear waste disposal, but perhaps his hardest battle will be to be able to walk away from it all. He still cares deeply about the issues and knows there is yet much to be done.

“Smitty has always been an invaluable resource for Public Citizen and for the Legislature,” said State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez on the House Floor as he warmly spoke about Smitty’s work. “Thank you for your service,” he added, prompting warm applause from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Throughout his long years of service, Smitty organized the citizens of Texas around issues close to his heart, like campaign finance reform, shutting down dirty coal plants, increasing the state’s renewable energy portfolio and combating global warming. “Organized groups of students, teachers and concerned citizens can have a powerful impact on U.S. policy,” was his mantra and he applied it over and over again.

Smitty walks through the halls of the Texas Capitol prior to his send off on the House floor.

His hard work seems to have paid off. Today, Texas leads the nation in wind energy production and solar energy is growing. Programs Smitty championed (TERP) have removed more than 170,000 tons of nitrous oxides from our atmosphere and the energy efficiency codes he helped pass have saved the average homeowner around 30% of their average energy costs.

Undoubtedly, there is still a long and bumpy road ahead for environmental issues in the Lone Star State. However, Smitty’s life’s work will serve as a blueprint for the next generation of activists. The torch is lit, Smitty. Thanks for lighting the way.

Read Full Post »

By Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen

In 2011, when I was serving as the Environmental Director and Counsel for Houston Representative Jessica Farrar, I met a remarkable man. He had a white hat and a penchant for storytelling, and he was well known around Austin.

“Smitty’s” presence became a usual sight at our State Capitol.

It’s an interesting experience walking around the Capitol with Smitty, the Director of our Texas Office for thirty-one years. He knows every third person in the building, and he usually has a story or two about something they did together several decades ago. They’re not all work stories either.

Something else Smitty has is an unparalleled reputation. Not everyone agrees with him, but they all respect him. One of the reasons he’s gotten so much done over the years is that he isn’t afraid to look for supporters from across the spectrum. As a young legislative staffer, I was sometimes bewildered by the unlikely alliances he proposed. Many of them came to nothing, but when they succeeded, you can be sure it was because Smitty believed they were possible.

There is a quote on the wall in our office by Kurt Vonnegut, “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. Big, undreamed-of things—the people on the edges see them first.”

Here in Texas, Smitty is definitely out on the edge. As for me, I started this work from my vantage in Houston, the city where I was born and raised. Growing up in the “Energy Capital of the World,” I had firsthand experience of the benefits that come with a thriving energy economy. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, surrounded by families who knew the board rooms better than the well pads. It wasn’t until I was interning for Air Alliance Houston in my twenties that I gained an appreciation for the term “fenceline communities.” Until then, those neighborhoods and the people in them had been invisible to me. When I first saw the people whose health and quality of life suffered at the hands of the petrochemical industry, I was amazed. Even ashamed.

How could a native Houstonian—well aware of the economic benefits of the energy industry—be so blind to its human cost? The unfortunate answer is that those communities, which are predominantly low-income communities of color, do not have a voice.

This is where Public Citizen comes in. Public Citizen advocates for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed. When marginalized people are drowned out by global corporate interests—Public Citizen is there to speak up. In Texas, the loudest voice speaking on their behalf has been, for many years, Tom “Smitty” Smith.

Smitty’s voice and vision have driven our work in Texas for three decades. Now that he has handed the reins to me, many people are wondering what my vision is.

It’s not going to be easy to fill Smitty’s shoes, but nothing that’s worth doing ever is.

I can’t tell you how many time in the last week someone has issued a good-natured warning: “You have some very big shoes to fill.”

They might have added that I have a large white hat to fill as well. Somewhere between the shoes and the hat, I also need to develop the vision. After three days, I can’t say I’ve got it yet. What I know is that I share Public Citizen’s vision for giving a voice to marginalized people. And I’ve seen firsthand what happens when corporate interests prevail over human decency.

My hope is that I can bring Public Citizen’s mission, Smitty’s experience, and my own vision together. Standing out here on the edge, I can see plenty that needs to be done.

Read Full Post »

Public Citizen along with the Alliance for Clean Texas are supporting the following amendments to the bill to significantly improve the
Texas Railroad Commission. These issues were brought up in the public process, but not included in the bill:

  • TABLED – but several stand alone bills exist – CHANGE THE NAME (Alonzo) to one that is more reflective of the agency’s functions and one the public can recognize such as the Texas Oil and Gas Commission.
  • TABLED –  see HB 464 which is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday, March 30th, in the General Investigation and Ethics Committee – LIMIT POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS (Anchia). Limit the amount and timing of political contributions made to Commissioners – statewide elected officials – strictly to election season and also preventing a Commissioner from knowingly accepting contributions from a party with a contested case hearing before the RRC.
  • TABLED – see also HB 247 by AnchiaPUT ENFORCEMENT DATA ONLINE (Walle). While the bill does require the posting of an annual strategic plan, the RRC should also be required to put enforcement, inspection, and complaint data online now in an easy, searchable format with frequent updates.
  • TABLED –  – RAISE MAXIMUM PENALTIES TO $25,000 (Howard). Current penalties for violations (not related to pipeline safety) should be raised from a maximum of $10,000 to $25,000 per violation per day. This increase would put the agency in line with the $25,000 penalty cap of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Attorney General’s office. The RRC should also be required to design new penalty guidelines that take into account the economic benefit of non-compliance, the seriousness of the violation and any hazard to public safety.
  • WITHDRAWN – see SB 1803 by Miles –  INCREASE BONDING REQUIREMENTS (Canales). Increased and expanded tiers of bonding requirements for oil and gas wells will help ensure abandoned wells get plugged.  Currently over 9,000 abandoned uncapped wells in Texas.

And Last but Not Least:

  • TABLED – REAUTHORIZE THE AGENCY FOR 6 NOT 12 YEARS (E. Rodriguez). Due to the lack of agency performance measures and accountability not incorporated into this bill, it makes sense for the Railroad Commission to be reviewed within a shorter timeframe.

Watch for updates on which amendments are adopted by the Texas House.

Read Full Post »

Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

Donate Here

After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

Read Full Post »

No Idling Sign photo from SetonBexar County has joined the other 44 communities in the state of Texas limiting idling by heavy vehicles. The primary reasoning for the ordinance to try to avoid ground level ozone levels that warrant non-attainment status for the county by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from vehicles combine with volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the air to create ground level ozone, which can cause or worsen respiratory diseases, such as asthma.

Non-attainment status refers to “any area that does not meet (or that contributes to ambient air quality in a nearby area that does not meet) the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard for the pollutant.” The county’s decision to limit emissions via prohibiting idling is logical because the decision limits emissions from those passing through the county rather than limiting emissions by its residents. Non-attainment status is established by the Clean Air Act and has multiple consequences that act as incentive to reduce ozone levels that affect the health of a county’s citizens. Consequences include loss of federal highway funding and EPA oversight over air pollution permits. While this measure is not expected to keep Bexar County in compliance once the new ground level ozone standard goes into effect, it will help.

Trucks idling -Idling limits for heavy vehicles are also important because most of them are diesel fueled and produce particulate mater that is harmful to health. The very small particles in diesel exhaust are composed of elemental carbon, which absorbs other compounds and caries them deep into your lungs. Diesel particulate matter is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and is potential human carcinogen.

The Bexar County decision follows after Houston, the state’s largest city, approved a similar ordinance that limits vehicles weighing more than 14,000 pounds to five minutes of idling. Heavy vehicles include semi-trailer trucks and school buses. Idling school buses are of particular concern because children are especially vulnerable to the impacts from diesel exhaust.  The Bexar County court order allows buses to idle for up to 30 minutes though. The order also includes many other exemptions and should be revisited in the future to better protect public health.

Idling limitations are protected by the Locally Enforced Vehicle Idling Limitations Rule, established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The rule limits the idling of heavy vehicles of jurisdictions that have signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the TECQ for the local enforcement of idling restrictions. The Locally Enforced Vehicle Idling Limitations Rule was established in 2005 and with the addition of Bexar County, 45 communities have adopted idling limitations. The city of San Antonio is also set approve a similar measure later this month.

Read Full Post »

Dylan Petrohilos - Gov Census

2014 and 2015 were back-to-back years that both earned the title for hottest year on record. and February 2016 was the warmest month, globally, ever recorded. And yet U.S. lawmakers continue to deny the facts.  Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) released an analysis of climate change denial in U.S. Congress called “The 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus.” Their research found that more than 63% of Americans are represented by someone in Congress who denies that climate change exists.

Dylan Petrohilos - CAP182 members of Congress don’t believe the science behind climate change: 144 members in the House of Representatives and 38 members in the Senate. 67% of Americans want the U.S. to take action on climate change, but 202 million citizens are represented in Congress by a climate change denier. Since the Republican Party’s platform on environmental policy never mentions climate change, it’s no surprise that every single denier is a member of the Republican Party.

A recent poll revealed that 76% of Americans believe global climate change is occurring, including 59% of Republicans. According to a poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 67% of Americans support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The results of these polls don’t correlate with the fact that that the number of Congressional climate deniers has increased from previous years. From severe weather, wildfires, drought, and flooding, climate change is impacting Americans every day, and it’s evident that human activity is the dominant cause. Despite this evidence, 70% of the Senate GOP still denies climate change.

Dylan Petrohilos - Open SecretsIn the analysis, CAPAF also looked into dirty energy money’s influence over Congress members. They found that climate deniers in Congress received more than $73 million in contributions from coal, oil, and gas companies. This is an increase of nearly $10 million from last year. When asked about their views on climate change, many deniers dodge the question by saying “they aren’t scientists”.

According to Sondre Båtstrand, a Norwegian researcher, the U.S. Republican Party is the only conservative party in the world which denies the reality of climate change. Båtstrand believes the GOP’s denial is due to three factors: the fossil fuel industry’s political spending, a commitment to free-market ideology, and the intense political polarization that punishes moderate-minded party members.

In February 2016, over 200 lawmakers in U.S. Congress signed onto a court brief opposing the president’s Clean Power Plan. At the end of 2015, the House of Representatives passed two resolutions to kill the Clean Power Plan. The Plan would regulate power plants’ carbon emissions and 67% of Americans support it. So it’s clear that Congress isn’t working the way it’s intended to. Members of the House and Senate are elected to represent the interests of American citizens, not their own fat wallets and the interests of dirty energy companies.

Regarding the state of Texas specifically, the 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus found that 17 out of 38 Texas Congressional members are climate change deniers. In 2016, this is not only unacceptable, but is dangerous for Texas families who depend on their elected leaders to protect their futures. When the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent each year – more severe storms, deadly wildfires, crippling drought, and rising sea level – it’s clear there’s no time to waste. Climate change deniers in Congress, like Ted Cruz, stand in the way of these common sense safeguards. Texans and Americans across the country deserve leaders who will stand up to face this threat head on – not those following the playbook of their largest campaign donors.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Killing me softly

Killing me softly

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

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

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

If this bill is enacted into law, the contested case process that has a track record of improving permits and protecting the environment from the biggest and longest lasting environmentally hazardous projects, would be substantially amended.
(more…)

Read Full Post »

courtroom symbolUPDATE: SB 709 passed in the Senate on Thursday, April 16 and then passed in the House on Thursday, April 30.

Texas legislators have once again taken aim at the long-standing contested case hearing process that provides opportunity for public participation in ensuring an environmental permit is protective of public health and the environment.

Senate Bill 709 by Senator Fraser and its companion House Bill 1865 by Representative Morrison reduce public participation and rights in a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) contested case hearing for an environmental permit application.

The changes to the state’s permitting process proposed in SB 709 reduce the rights of Texans to participate effectively in the permitting process on the basis that the contested case process has become burdensome to the state’s ability to competitively attract businesses due to the uncertainty created by the threat of a lengthy permit process.

However, the truth is that there are just not that many permit applications that are affected by the contested case hearing process. In 2014, there were 1,960 applications received by TCEQ. Of those applications, only 10 were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings – that’s only one half of one percent of applications received in that calendar year. The other 99.5% of permit applications to the TCEQ go uncontested and are processed and issued in time-frames similar to or even faster than our neighboring states that we compete closest with for business.

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

First, the length of any hearing would be limited to 180 days without regard to specific needs of parties. This time frame does not allow sufficient time for meaningful discovery, or analysis of the facts removing any discretion by the Administrative Law Judge to grant an extension of time even when such a denial would deprive a party of due process.

These bills would also allow the TCEQ to deny a hearing request based on the merits of the application without allowing an opportunity for discovery, presentation of the evidence, or cross examination. The contested case hearing process was created to provide an affected party a chance to argue against the TCEQ decision in front of an impartial decision maker as part of a sound democratic system.

Further, the bill places the burden of proof on the wrong party by shifting it from the applicant to the protestant. In this legislation, the draft permit itself, is evidence that is presumed to be true that the permit meets all federal and state requirements declaring it protective of public health and the environment. However, this is often not the case of draft permits and if this bill passes the burden to find fault in a supposedly perfect draft permit shifts to the protestant. Protestants are often individuals or small organizations who often do not have the resources nor expertise to collect the necessary evidence to bring a strong a case against a large cooperation.

The bottom line is that the burden of proof should remain on the party seeking to change the status quo by filing permit. If an applicant wants to discharge waste into the air, water or land, it is their responsibility to show that they are using the best technology available, so that the activity can be done safely, rather than forcing an affected member of the public to prove otherwise.

Although most permits don’t go through the contested case hearing process, those that do are often the most significant permits that would allow the most pollution. In those cases, Texans should have the right to protect their health, land and livelihoods.

The contested case hearing process reflects longstanding Texas values of transparent and accountable government, private property rights, and local control. In a state where these values are held sacred it will be interesting to see how legislators handle these bills.

Email your state representative to voice your opposition to HB 1865 and SB 709.

Read Full Post »

Texas wind farmToday, the Texas Senate passed Senator Fraser’s anti-renewable energy Senate Bill 931.  If passed by the House, this bill will abolish two of Texas’ few renewable energy programs – the renewable portfolio standard and building of competitive renewable energy zone transmission lines.

Job growth, economic development, stable business climate – I thought those were conservative bread and butter.  The wind industry should have earned the good graces of Texas lawmakers.  Wind farms annually pay over $85 million in taxes to rural Texas counties, plus about $65 million in lease payments to landowners.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockAnd the solar industry is rapidly becoming a significant driver of Texas job growth as well.  As of November 2014, there were almost 7,000 solar jobs in Texas.  That’s a 68% increase from 2013, a job growth rate 24 times greater than in the Texas economy overall.

And yet, the Texas Senate has decided that Texas should have no renewable energy goal and that it should be more difficult for the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) to build transmission lines to prime areas for wind and solar energy development.

Abolishing the Texas renewable energy portfolio standard would cause a devaluing of the Texas Renewable Energy Credit (REC) market and would cause renewable energy developers to lose a revenue stream they counted on when making investments.  Existing projects used REC revenue when applying for financing.  Now developers will have to go back to their financers and let them know that the Texas market has changed, and not for the better.

Competitive renewable energy zones have been established and transmission lines built to bring electricity from west Texas to the parts of the state where electricity is needed.  But that project is not yet complete.  Some of the best areas for solar energy development still have no transmission lines.

So, just as the solar energy is really starting to boom, the Texas Senate has voted to put the brakes on the policies that would best be able to allow this industry, as well as the wind industry, to grow successfully.

SB 931 heads to the Texas House of Representatives next, now is the time to call your Representative to voice your opposition to this anti-renewable energy bill.  If you don’t know who represents you, look it up.

Read Full Post »

There’s plenty to be disappointed about with the Texas Legislature.  The ill-conceived policy proposals that would harm the Texas economy, its residents, and the environment keep piling up.  Sweeping changes for the better are off the table.  However, there is still opportunity for incremental progress and for at for having conversations about important environmental, energy, ethics and consumer issues in Texas.

It might be a long time until we can get any policy home runs in Texas, but stringing together a bunch of singles is way better than forfeiting.  We’re working to find common ground with progressives and conservatives to make improvements where we can.

Protecting Texans from Air Pollution:

House Bill 14 by Representative Morrison and Senate Bill 1619 by Senator Watson would extend the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) programs, which reduce air pollution from diesel engines in trucks, construction equipment, buses, locomotives and harbor vessels. TERP is one of the best tools the state has to reduce smog and toxic diesel particulates. This bill would extend the programs, including a rebate program for electric and natural gas cars and provide some opportunities to reduce emissions from fracking.

House Bill 3810 by Representative Walle and Senate Bill 1787 by Senator Garcia would create a system to send emergency alerts via texts, tweets and reverse 911 calls to nearby residents when toxic chemicals are released from industrial facilities. Currently, many residents who live in industrial communities rely on sirens to let them know that it might be dangerous to go outside.

Senate Bill 1786 by Senator Garcia and House Bill 3809 by Representative Hernandez would allow Texas counties and cities to regulate the air pollution from storing and transporting petroleum coke, a by-product of petroleum refining. Toxic black soot that blows from rail cars and giant uncovered piles (as high as elevated highways) piles of petroleum code often coats people’s lungs, homes and cars.

Senate Bill 1501 by Senator Garcia and House Bill 3760 by Representative Peña would require scrap metal recycling facilities to use the best available pollution control technologies, such as fences and sprayers dust suppression, to reduce air pollution from fine metal particle that blow off the recycling facility. The respiratory diseases caused by breathing fine metal particles can be avoided.

Senate Bill 1894 by Senators Garcia and Hinojosa would require sea ports to take actions to reduce air and water pollution.

Improving Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, Demand Response and Climate Change Policies:

House Bill 3539 by Representative Dukes and Senate Bill 1626 by Senator Rodríguez would make it so that large residential developments can’t ban or restrict homeowners from installing solar at their properties. Currently, state law allows developers to ban or restrict solar installations while the development is being built out, which can take years. This bill would only allow solar bans or restrictions in developments with 50 or fewer lots.

House Bill 706 by Representative Farrar would make the tax exemption for solar and other renewable energy installations at homes and businesses permanent until the property is sold, rather than requiring property owners to file for exemption annually.

House Bill 2392 by Representative Anchia would direct the comptroller and the State Energy Conservation Office to establish a loan guarantee program for improvements that increase the energy efficiency of residences that are not newly constructed.

House Bill 2254 by Representative Sylvester Turner would bar electric companies from charging minimum usage fees in the competitive power market. Such fees penalize customers for using less electricity and therefore reduce the incentive for customers to be as efficient as possible with their electric use. Minimum usage fees also often cause bill increase for customers who can’t afford them.

House Bill 3363 by Representative Keffer would adjust the financial requirements for property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs that will make PACE programs for residential property feasible. PACE will help homeowners pay for renewable energy, energy efficiency and water efficiency improvements through low-cost loans that are tied to the property, not the individual, because they are repaid on participants’ property tax bills.

Senate Bill 1284 by Senator Watson and House Bill 3343 by Representative Sylvester Turner would establish customers’ rights to participate in demand response programs. Demand response programs provide payment to customers for reducing their electric use. Demand response is an affordable way to avoid using inefficient gas-fired power plants when electric demand is especially high. The bill would direct the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to encourage development of demand response programs and encourage customers to participate.

House Bill 3069 by Representative Eddie Rodriguez and Senate Bill 1954 by Senator Hinojosa would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to develop a state compliance plan to meet the requirements of the Clean Power Plan, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting State Agencies to Protect Texas Residents from Industries:

House Bill 2901 by Representative Rodriguez and Senate Bill 1865 by Senator Zaffirini would improve accountability to the public within the Railroad Commission (RRC) by creating a clear process for citizens to file complaints to the commission, including a website listing the information the RRC would need to begin an investigation.

The Texas Legislature is Considering Many Bills that would be take Texas policy Backward: 

(more…)

Read Full Post »

TACPublic Citizen calls for strengthening SB 19 the Senate ethics bill during Monday, March 30 testimony in the Texas Senate Finance Committee.

As a member of the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign (TAC), Public Citizen’s Texas office called for strengthening the Texas state senate bill aimed at combating government corruption. The 12-member alliance also released a fact sheet (see attached) detailing scandals that have cost Texas taxpayers more than $1 billion in the past decade.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, TAC member and director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, described Senate Bill 19 as a good first step that is still too weak to resolve the corruption crisis gripping the Capitol. He called for adding amendments that would go further to close the revolving door for lobbyists, state employees and contractors; strengthen requirements for disclosure of public officials’ financial information; and toughen conflict of conflicts of interest laws.

“We agree with Gov. Abbott that corruption in Texas government amounts to a state of emergency,” said Smith, who testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee (see attached). “Day after day, headlines reveal abuses in contracting, pay to play politics that result in payoffs to big donors and former officials gaining riches by stepping through the revolving door.  Senate Bill 19 addresses important areas of reform, but it’s not nearly comprehensive enough. We need more teeth in the bill so that it forces transparency and ends pay-to-play politics as well as closes the revolving door.”

Smith drew attention to the fact sheet released by the alliance, which summarizes more than a dozen cases of misappropriation, contract scandals, pay-to-play politics and mismanagement. Together, the cases have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion in wasted funds.

“When we add up the damages, we calculate more than a billion dollars wasted or lost to corruption or mismanagement,” Smith said.  “The measure of any ethics reform should be that it puts an end to these kinds of corruption. The bill must be strong enough to ensure that public officials and their allies in private business can no longer dip into the pockets of Texas citizens.”

Read Full Post »

2014-11-02 Plastic Bags in Tres - Public Domain ImagesOn January 8th, Governor Abbott announced his intention to rollback regulations that ban fracking for oil and gas, ban the use of plastic shopping bags, and limit which trees property owners can cut down on their land. Unfortunately, although many Texas cities have local control laws in place, Abbott appears to have the support of much of the Texas Legislature in this effort to restrict home rule. With the opening of the Legislative session last month, we have seen the opposition to local control begin to mount.

Representative Phil King, (R- Weatherford) has introduced two bills that, if passed, would restrict cities from adopting municipal ordinances. Specifically, HB 540 would give the Attorney General the right to review local petitions before they are placed on the ballot. In other words, Attorney General Ken Paxton would decide whether local petitions or referendums in cities across Texas would break federal or state laws. Cities would not be able to place items on the ballot if the Attorney General found them to violate any of these laws. King’s second bill HB 539, relates specifically to the banning of oil and gas activities, and would require cities to pay the state back for any lost in revenue due to the passage of a city ordinance. If passed, both HB 540 and HB 539 would make it very difficult for cities to ban practices such as fracking in their own backyards

On the Senate side, Senator Konni Burton (R – Tarrant) introduced SB 440 that would restrict a county or municipality from prohibiting hydraulic fracturing treatment of oil and gas wells. Even worse, Senator Don Huffines (R – Dallas) introduced SB 343, that expressly bans local governments from implementing an ordinance, rule or regulation that conflicts with an existing state statute. In other words this bill would effectively end local control and have far reaching consequences way beyond environmental ordinances.

Governor Abbott and his Texas oil and gas industry backers argue that allowing local control over fracking risks creating a patchwork of regulations in different cities instead of a comprehensive solution to solve an issue that is paramount in our state.

Conversely, towns advocating for local control to solve environmental problems say they, not the state, should be able to decide the terms of matters that affect the health and well-being of their residents. And they are well within their rights to do so. Texas is a state with a long standing proud tradition of home rule and when our state agencies don’t do the best job of protecting Texans and taking responsibility for the clean- up cost of industrial operations, local governments should have the power enact home rule.

One of the targets for the attack on local control is the ban on plastic bags currently in place in ten Texas cities including Austin and Dallas; an ordinance Governor Abbott calls overregulation. However, these bans reflect the fact that the majority of residents in these ten cities simply want to make an effort clean up their cities and it’s cheaper to stop using so many single-use plastic bags than to pay people to pick them up. If people don’t want to see bags in their trees, they should be able to take action.

The Legislature this session wants to crack down on municipal ordinances passed by local governments around the state. However, these are ordinances that have been deemed necessary by the cities and have the support of the majority of their residents. As the attacks mount in the Legislature, it will be important for local leaders and citizens to show their support for local control or else risk that right being taken away.

Read Full Post »

In the midst of Texas’ worst drought since the 1950s “drought of record,” we face serious issues regarding water consumption and waste, water rights, and how conservation efforts can be integrated into public policy. Texas’ population is projected to double by 2060. So how can we sustainably plan to serve the water needs of an estimated 52 million people by then? Water conservation, management strategies, and planning were the top environmental issues put on the table during the 83rd Texas Legislative Session.

Several water conservation bills were passed into law this session. HB 4, introduced by Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), marked the most significant and impactful among those he signed. The bill allocates $2 billion toward a new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” pending voter approval in the November 5th election. If approved, SWIFT will be used to fund water-related projects, infrastructure, and conservation projects with loans. The bill requires that 20% of funding go toward conservation and re-use, with another 10% toward agricultural water projects.

Faucet dripping Earth dropThree bills passed that will address the problem of wasted water. HB 857, by Rep. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), requires water utilities to conduct annual water loss audits. HB 1461, from Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), requires customer notification of audit results. Rep. Lon Burnam’s (D-Fort Worth) HB 3605 requires utilities to use a portion of state financial assistance funds to repair municipal water main leaks, which would save an estimated 20 billion gallons annually.

Austin’s Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson got his SB 198 signed into law as well. It makes it illegal for homeowners associations to prohibit members from utilizing xeriscaping and drought-resistant landscaping. Watson noted that residential lawns are commonly made up of St. Augustine and Kentucky bluegrass, both of which require extensive watering. This is a significant problem in arid regions like west Texas. It takes much less water to grow native plants like yuccas, creosote, and Texas sagebrush, all of which are favorable for lawn aesthetics. An increase in drought-tolerant plants as opposed to traditional lawn grasses could save 14 billion gallons of water by 2020.

Other water-related bills signed into law include SB 385, 654, 700, and 1870. SB 385 created the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which authorizes collaboration amongst municipalities, counties, commercial lenders, and landowners to develop improvement projects that will reduce water and energy consumption. SB 654 gives municipalities the power to enforce water ordinances through civil action instead of filing criminal lawsuits. SB 700 requires that the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) draft a template for state agencies to use in developing comprehensive water management and conservation plans, which they must annually update. It also requires SECO to biennially submit a progress report to the Governor and publish it on their website. Finally, SB 1870 created the West Fort Bend Water Authority and outlined its powers.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »