Meet Smitty, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office

Smitty MugSustainLane, an on-line “people powered sustainability guide”, recently wrote an in-depth profile piece on Public Citizen’s own Tom “Smitty” Smith.  For an excellent glimpse of the man behind the machine, our very own white-hat-wearing fearless leader and official “American Changemaker,” check out the following:

‘Smitty’ Wrangles Texans for Environmental Battles

by Amy Linn, SustainLane Staff

Tom “Smitty” Smith is one of the leading lights in the environmental movement, in his home state of Texas and beyond.

A large part of wisdom is awareness; another is putting awareness to good use. Taking both those skills—and using them to win countless battles for people and the planet—has made veteran activist Tom “Smitty” Smith one of the leading lights in the environmental movement, in his home state of Texas and beyond.

For 24 years, Tom “Smitty” Smith has been the Texas director of Public Citizen, a consumer and environmental watchdog group that weighs in on nearly every eco-issue, whether it’s fighting the construction of new coal-fired power plants (an ongoing struggle), pushing for renewable energy (one of the group’s major success stories), or combating global warming. Name a progressive battle in Texas, and Smith’s been there, won that.

It’s a path he says he was primed for by his childhood amid the farm belt of Champaign, Ill. In his 20s—before the word “green” meant anything but a color—Smith fought for anti-pollution laws; after graduating college, he stayed on the eco front lines.

What sparked his interest in this tough (and, on bad days, Sisyphusian) line of work?

“My parents,” he says, without hesitation. “When I was a kid we went for walks every Sunday. And they taught me how wonderful nature was, and how little damage it took to the balance of our ecological system to turn a pure little stream into a muddy slough. And they taught me about the impact of pesticides on birds and animals.”

More ominously, Smith recounts what his father told him in the past decade, after attending his 50th high school reunion. “Many of my dad’s classmates were still alive, but he was shocked at how many of their sons had died from cancers,” Smith says. “These were the kids who’d first grown up using pesticides—children who worked on the family farm, who would have been in their late 40s or early 50s and had died.”

Pesticides, unfortunately, weren’t the only things causing deadly problems and planetary distress. And from the time he studied urban planning at Valparaiso University, near Gary, Indiana, Smith has tried to turn things around.

“When I was in college 40 years ago, there were enormous fish kills due to pollution in Lake Michigan, and the skies were blackened several times a day with the soot and the sulfur coming off the big steel mills in Gary,” he recalls. Smith got involved in an air- and water-monitoring research project, and then buttonholed his friends and created student groups to work with environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and push for stronger environmental laws.

Thanks to those types of efforts—and a groundswell of activism nationwide—Congress passed the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act and 1972 Clean Water Act.

“That was when I first began to realize that organized groups of students, teachers, and concerned citizens could have a powerful role in changing U.S. policy,” Smith says. He was hooked.

In 1974, Smith moved to Texas and worked as a VISTA volunteer, a Food bank director, and an anti-hunger advocate. He also worked in a Legal Aid office with struggling low-income families who couldn’t afford to pay energy bills. With the aid of a local church, he helped one woman make her home more energy efficient and—the coup de grace—replaced her ancient air conditioner. The simple changes made the woman’s house 50 percent more efficient. It was another “eureka” moment.

“It showed me the opportunity all of us have to make our lives more energy efficient,” Smith says. “Most of us waste between 20 and 50 percent of the energy we use on a daily basis, and for relatively little money we could reduce that.”

By 1985, Smith took the helm in the Texas office of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group that fights for consumer protections in everything from prescription drugs to power plants. The latter were wreaking havoc in Texas.

“One third of the global warming gases here in Texas come from power consumption, and between one-third and two-thirds of all the toxic air pollutants come from our power plants,” Smith says.

Public Citizen found a cost-saving formula for change. “The fastest and cheapest way to reduce air pollution and global warming is to do efficiency first, and then begin to develop renewable energy,” he says. “For every dollar in energy efficiency, there’s typically a three-dollar savings in energy costs. For every dollar invested in renewable energy, you get 2.5 dollars in reducing energy costs. And at the same time, you significantly reduce air pollution.”

Since 1994, Public Citizen has been promoting renewable energy on every front. Smith has testified before more than 100 legislative committees and has worked to build extensive networks of coalitions among business owners, farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists. He’s also been a relentless lobbyist for green causes, and has launched or served on the boards of groups like Clean Water Action, Texans for Public Justice, Campaigns for People, and the Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy.

The results? Texas today is a leader in wind energy, with a long-term commitment to renewable energy sources. In 1999, state legislation mandated that electricity providers use 3 percent, or 2,000 megawatts, of renewable energy like solar and wind power to serve customers. The so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) became a model for the rest of the country; in its wake, wind power development in the state more than quadrupled.

In 2005, Smith helped win passage of a bill that will increase the state’s use of renewable energy to 10,000 megawatts by 2020, reducing power plant pollution by 8 percent. In addition, Smith helped forge the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, which slashes toxic emissions from dirty diesels and requires new homes and commercial buildings to meet tough new energy standards.

The battles never stop, of course. Smith and other environmentalists are now struggling to defeat five additional coal-fired power plants and a proposed expansion of two nuclear power plants, which—hello, greenwashing—are being touted as “environmentally friendly.”

“There are over 30 nuclear plants on the drawing board right now nationwide,” Smith notes. “The nuclear power industry is saying they don’t emit global warming gases, which is just not true. There are literally life-threatening volumes of pollutants coming from these plants.”

But Texas has managed to make changes nearly as big as its boundaries. And Smith credits dedicated citizens.

The 1999 renewable energy legislation, for example, “basically happened because of five women in the Dallas area who decided they were going to go on a crusade,” he says. The women met at a restaurant with Public Citizen staffers and decided to ask two members of the Texas legislature to sponsor legislation demanding that—as a starting point—3 percent of state energy come from renewables within 10 years.

“They went to their churches, they went to the Sierra Club, and Audubon, and women’s groups. They passed out letters when their kids were playing soccer and they set up tables in front of the local grocery stores. And they literally got thousands of letters to their legislators,” Smith says.

“The message here is that a few people really can make an enormous difference.”

And here’s the best part: “I’ve often found it only takes about 10 letters for a member of the legislature to decide this is something they have to respond to,” Smith says. “If they get 100 letters, they know they have take leadership on the issue,” he adds. “And if they get 1,000 letters, they know they’d better listen, or they won’t be reelected.”

Today, Smith has new worries. The pollution of old was blatant: fish killed by pollution, rivers burning (read: the Cuyahoga), snow blackened by soot from steel mills. Many of those problems have been cleaned up thanks to public pressure, he says.

“The threats today are far more dangerous because they’re more invisible,” he says. Global warming is a subtle actor, quietly extinguishing plants and animals, erasing water supplies and habitats, and melting glaciers.

“We have very little time to make the changes we need to protect the planet,” Smith says. But we can save the future. We’ve already begun.

“Two years ago, virtually nobody would have thought it was possible to have elected a black president,” he points out. “If we can make that profound a cultural change in two years, I’m confident we can make the necessary environmental changes as well.”

Read about more American Changemakers here.