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Posts Tagged ‘public citizen texas’

In the midst of the 2013 Texas drought, many towns and communities have suffered disastrous blows, either completely running out of water or coming close enough to warrent desperate measures. Some of have made significant headlines, including Spicewood Beach, Barnhart and Brownwood.

According to TCEQ, 665 water systems have implemented mandatory restrictions. 10 have been placed in a state of emergency in the last year, which means they could run out of water within 45 days or less.

Spicewood Beach drought

Spicewood Beach, TX

Spicewood Beach was the first Texas town to run out of water in early 2012, when low lake levels resulted in the well failure, and the community is still waiting for a solution. Since last year, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has been trucking in about 32,500 gallons of water per day and an additional 6,500 gallons on weekends to serve the town’s more than 7,500 residents. The community is under stage 4 water restrictions, meaning residents cannot perform any outdoor watering; water is only for essential uses. The LCRA Board unanimously approved construction of a $1.2 million water treatment plant, which will be built by the Vancouver based private company Corix Utilities. The LCRA had hoped they could end stage 4 restrictions by completing the plant by the end of the summer, but Corix does not expect to finish construction until November. The company’s Texas-based operations manager Darrin Barker stated that obtaining permits from the necessary agencies like TCEQ, LCRA, and US Army Corp of Engineers will add up to three months to the process.

The West Texas community of Barnhart, about 50 miles west of San Angelo, suffered a disastrous fate on June 4 when they officially ran out of water. The town’s sole public well source stayed dry for nearly 3 days. Residents point to the local economy’s reliance on oil and gas drilling as a contributing factor to the problem. “This is Texas industry. This [oil and gas] is what makes Texas money, and yes, we have to have it, but not at this expense,” said Barnhart resident Glenda Kuykendall. On June 6, TCEQ released a statement, saying that “the water system issued a boil water notice as a precautionary measure due to the low water pressure.” However, as of June 18, the agency has only listed Barnhart in stage 3 and as an area of “concern,” meaning they could run out of water in 180 days or less. Barnhart has only 112 residents, which could mean that the potential well capacity exceeds the consumer demand, giving them a higher window of time before a potential outage threat after mitigating the problem.

Brownwood’s primary water source, Lake Brownwood, dropped 17 feet during the 2011 drought and came close to running out of water. The drought still lingers here, a major concern for Brown County Water Improvement District General Manager Dennis Spinks. The District hopes to drill and tap two aquifers 3,000 feet down, but if they fail, the backup plan is to turn treated sewage into drinking water, sending it directly back into the city pipes and eliminating the lake as the middle man. The city obtained a permit from TCEQ and funding from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) that would allow such a strategy. Brownwood has approximately 20,000 residents and is currently under stage 3 watering restrictions. However, the Water District board members have debated entering stage 4 and are closely monitoring lake levels to determine whether or not it will be necessary.

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Texas is a state that is abundant with clean and renewable sources of energy. From the booming wind industry, to the emerging solar sector, Texas is primed to be a clean energy leader. And now thanks to the SMU Geothermal Laboratory, Texans have one more reason to go green.

Research from SMU has shown that there are substantial geothermal resources all along the East I35 Corridor. Geothermal power stations work by harnessing the heat trapped deep within the Earth, and would utilize the ample number of active and plugged wells from the oil and gas industry. “There are currently over 200,000 active wells in Texas. That is 200,000 potential sources of cost-competitive, renewable, baseload, clean energy to Texans.”

Given that geothermal in Texas would most likely be small distributed generation systems of 250 kw to 1 MW per well, a realistic Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) potential for Texas is 318,652 exajoules (EJs). To put that in perspective, that is enough to power the entire industrial sector for over 500 years at the 2008 Texas electrical consumption rate of 32,525 thousand megawatt-hour (MWh).

Tapping into these resources would provide a clean source of energy, while invigorating rural economies with jobs growth and investments. And since geothermal uses existing wells, it could be rapidly deployed to create a clean energy boom for East Texas.

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President Obama’s Statement that Keystone XL Will Create 2,000 Jobs is Consistent with Cornell Study and State Department Analysis

In an interview with the New York Times July 27, 2013, President Obama asserted that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would create approximately 2,000 jobs. The President’s claim is consistent with both the findings of the Cornell Global Labor Institute’s 2011 study on the job impacts of the project and the State Department’s latest assessment (SDEIS, March 2013).

“President Obama’s statement that the Keystone XL pipeline has relatively limited job creation potential is entirely correct,” said Sean Sweeney of the Cornell Global Labor Institute and co-author of the study. “TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute have argued that the project will create tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs, and our data revealed that these assertions were false and the job numbers highly inflated and based on flawed methodology. Cornell’s more careful and comprehensive study, as well as the State Department’s analysis, revealed that the construction of the pipeline will produce far fewer jobs than TransCanada has claimed – only about 2,000 direct construction jobs a year for the two-year life of the project.”

The Cornell report showed that the pipeline would create approximately 2,500 direct construction jobs per year over the two-year life of the project. This number was affirmed in March 2013 when the State Department used TransCanada’s own numbers to analyze the job impacts of the pipeline, based on the current project definition for Keystone XL (Canada to Steele City, NE plus two new pumping stations in KS). The State Department found that the project would employ 3,900 full-time workers for one year, or less than 2,000 workers per year, spread out over the expected two-year construction period. Nearly all of the jobs related to the project would last less than one year – 4 months, 6 months, or 8 months. Therefore, average annual employment is based on the number of construction workers multiplied by the construction period in weeks divided by 52 weeks in a year.  The President’s numbers were therefore correct.

Both Cornell’s and the State Department’s job assessments also found that only 10 – 15% of the construction workers would be hired locally – in the states where the pipeline is being constructed, and that the number of permanent jobs related to the project would be minimal – 35 permanent employees would be required for Keystone XL’s operation.

In addition to the direct construction jobs that would be created by the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Cornell Global Labor Institute also found that TransCanada significantly inflated the number of indirect and induced jobs that the project would create by inflating the overall project budget.  TransCanada has claimed it is a $7 billion project. It arrived at this number by including money that will be spent in Canada and funds that had already been spent in the U.S. at the time when its own commissioned study was released.

“A much smaller project budget means a lot less jobs,” says Lara Skinner, co-author of the Cornell study. “The U.S. is facing a serious unemployment problem and this problem should not be trivialized by TransCanada Corporation vastly overestimating the number of jobs that will be created by Keystone XL. I’m pleased that the President is aware of the actual job creation potential of the project, and recognizes that the minimal employment potential of the project should not be a determining factor in the decision to approve or disapprove Keystone XL.”

The Cornell Global Labor Institute study, Pipe Dreams? Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost by the Construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, is available here:
http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/upload/GLI_KeystoneXL_012312_FIN.pdf

Ian Goodman and Brigid Rowan of the Goodman Group, Ltd., partnered with Sweeney and Skinner in the production of the Cornell report.

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Solar Excellent Resource for Meeting High Demand for Energy

You’ve probably heard how solar and wind are intermittent energy sources that aren’t always available, but that’s not the whole story, or necessarily the most important part.

DoD Energy

DoD Energy

When an energy source is available is a critical piece of the puzzle.  We don’t need nearly as much electricity in the middle of the night as we do at 5 pm on a week day when people get home from work and turn down their air conditioning and start cooking dinner, watching TV and doing laundry – often all at the same time.

And now the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – the entity responsible for keeping the lights on in most of Texas -  is officially recognizing that solar energy is available right when we need it the most – on sunny afternoons – and that wind resources are able to contribute far more than was once believed to meeting our energy needs at those times as well.

ERCOT has no special love for renewable energy – protecting public health and the environment isn’t a factor in its decisions – but it has studied the issue and decided to give solar and wind generators the credit they actually deserve.  Solar facilities up to 200 MW (that’s like a gas plant) will be given a 100% capacity value, although larger solar facilities will have a somewhat lower rating.  Coastal wind will have a 32.9% capacity value.  Coastal wind blows more during the day than West Texas wind, which blows mostly at night, but even non-coastal wind will now get a 14.2% capacity value.  Capacity value corresponds to how likely it is for an energy source to be available during peak energy demand – typically a hot, summer afternoon.

Wind has become a real contributor to the Texas energy portfolio and we can look for solar to make an even larger contribution in the years to come.  This policy change at ERCOT will help us move in that direction.

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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.

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At the intersection of Loop 410 and Military Drive on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas lies the Texas Cryptology Center. It’s a huge and intimidatingly bland building, covered in massive A/C units and shrouded in secrecy. Operated by the NSA, the general function of this spy center was unknown until fairly recently. In fact, one of the only public statements released from the center was in response to signals emanating from the building which were interfering with garage door openers.

Photo: Maryland NSA Headquarters

NSA Headquarters

Then in early 2013, the purpose of the Texas Cryptology Center and several other of the NSA’s behemoth computing centers started to become clear. The now infamous NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency had created, through use of the Patriot Act, a vast and sophisticated network of surveillance under the code name PRISM. This program allows the collection of personal data from some of the internet’s most frequented sites. Companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and Skype are all participants. It later broke that the NSA was also monitoring vast quantities of phone calls. All this was done under the guise of national security, and preventing terrorism.

NSA officials initially attempted to calm the frenzied media reaction by saying that only data from international communications was being collected. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked at a hearing whether the National Security Agency collects any data on millions of Americans. “No sir … not wittingly,” Clapper responded, acknowledging there are cases “where inadvertently, perhaps the data could be collected.” It turns out that this statement was dangerously close to a blatant lie. In reality, “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.” To the NSA’s defense, supposedly only “metadata” is being collected. That is the NSA only records the location, duration, and identities of two callers, but not the content. However, it seems plausible that if the NSA officials lied about not collecting Americans data, then they maybe lying about the kind of data being collected. This is currently just speculation, but it wasn’t long ago that people who were paranoid about Big Brother spying on them were labeled as crazies.

In fact, it’s not just American citizens or international terrorist that should be worried about NSA snooping. While Snowden fled to Hong Kong, and then to Russia seeking political asylum, it was leaked that the NSA had bugged the offices of European Union officials. “The leaked documents suggest the aim of the bugging exercise against the EU embassy in central Washington is to gather inside knowledge of policy disagreements on global issues and other rifts between member states.” While governments spying on each other is nothing new, it’s seems quite brazen for the U.S to treat some of its closest allies with the same lack of respect as suspected terrorist.

Despite the fact that all of this already resembles the plot of a spy movie, the type of revelations coming out now may be just the tip of the iceberg. It’s unclear how much insider information Snowden was able to retrieve about the NSA’s operations, or if he will leak anymore statements about the extent of the snooping. As of right now, business is booming for the NSA. Based on a study of property records, the San Antonio NSA campus “has grown by nearly 135,000 square feet, to almost 633,000 square feet. In 2008, the facility was worth $33.5 million; now it is valued at more than $72 million.” Clearly the NSA anticipates no slowdown in their operations. But if the leaks continue, the citizens of San Antonio might just gain some insight into the Texas Cryptology Center, and how their city plays a key role in the emergence of local and global surveillance.

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NPR’s State Impact reported this morning that Energy Future Holdings (formerly TXU) has “self-bonded” approximately $1 billion for future mining restoration in Texas in lieu of real cash bonds. Click here to hear the entire story.

In the transcript of the story it discusses the main concerns of Public Citizen and Sierra Club who have been investigating this issue for the past six months.

At the heart of the two groups’ (Public Citizen and Sierra Club) concern is what’s called “self-bonding.” Under federal law, mining companies must post bonds as a form of insurance to cover the cost of reclamation in case the companies run into financial trouble. Instead of using an outside company to provide the bonds, mining operators in Texas are allowed to self-bond. Some coal states don’t accept self-bonding.

Texas has approved Luminant Mining’s self-bonding. The self-bond’s “third party guarantor” is a sister company, Luminant Generation. It’s the power plant company that burns the coal from Luminant Mining.

The environmentalists say they’re worried that those power plant assets might also be claimed by other creditors, jeopardizing the funds Texas might recover to pay for reclamation.

Luminant’s parent company, Energy Future Holdings, has explained in annual reports to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission that the company faces creditworthiness requirements for different regulators in Texas, among them the Railroad Commission. For years,  the reports said that “we believe we will have adequate liquidity to satisfy such requirements” or “we believe we would have adequate liquidity capacity and/or financing capacity to satisfy such requirements.”

But then, in a 2012 report, that line disappeared.

“It was the smoking gun,” said Public Citizen’s Smitty Smith.

On page 100 of EFH’s 2008 10K filing, page 100 of EFH’s 2009 10K filing, page 98 of EFH’s 2010 10K filing, and page 93 of EFH’s 2011 10K filing, the following appears

The RRC has rules in place to assure that parties can meet their mining reclamation obligations, including through self-bonding when appropriate. If Luminant Generation Company LLC (a subsidiary of TCEH) does not continue to meet the self-bonding requirements as applied by the RRC, TCEH may be required to post cash, letter of credit or other tangible assets as collateral support in an amount currently estimated to be approximately $xxx (from a low of $600 million in 2008 to a high of 990 million in 2011) million. The actual amount (if required) could vary depending upon numerous factors, including the amount of Luminant Generation Company LLC’s self-bond accepted by the RRC and the level of mining reclamation obligations. . . .

In the event that any or all of the additional collateral requirements discussed above are triggered, we believe we would have adequate liquidity and/or financing capacity to satisfy such requirements.

On page 85 of EFH’s 2012 10K filing, only

The RRC has rules in place to assure that parties can meet their mining reclamation obligations, including through self-bonding when appropriate. If Luminant Generation Company LLC (a subsidiary of TCEH) does not continue to meet the self-bonding requirements as applied by the RRC, TCEH may be required to post cash, letter of credit or other tangible assets as collateral support in an amount currently estimated to be approximately $850 million to $1.1 billion. The actual amount (if required) could vary depending upon numerous factors, including the amount of Luminant Generation Company LLC’s self-bond accepted by the RRC and the level of mining reclamation obligations. . . .

appears, the followup statement, found in the previous 4 years 10K filings is conspicuously missing.

In the event that any or all of the additional collateral requirements discussed above are triggered, we believe we would have adequate liquidity and/or financing capacity to satisfy such requirements.

NPR’s story goes on to say “a media liaison for Energy Future Holdings, Allan Koenig, would not comment specifically about the line that disappeared.”  But that was followed up by an email from the company saying, “We fully satisfy the bonding requirements of the Railroad Commission of Texas for our coal mines, which means that our reclamation obligations are guaranteed.”

Well, yes they do satisfy the bonding requirements allowed by the RRC and their obligations are guaranteed by Luminant Generation, but it is all the same company and still at risk if the assets of the company, should a reorganization occur, be found insufficient to meet the bond amount currently estimated at $850 million to $1.1 billion.  EFH is telling the Railroad Commission ‘Trust us, we’re good for it’ even though the company debt is rated as junk status by the financial ratings agencies like Standard and Poor’s. What EFH is doing is like a family getting a second mortgage on a house and losing their jobs.  How can Texas regulators have any confidence that the assets of Luminant Generation will be protected from the bankruptcy process and available to cover future mining reclamation costs?

In a memo from the Railroad Commission (RRC) to Luminant Mining Company regarding Docket No C12-0006-SC-46-E, on the Oak Hill Mine application for replacement bond, it appears Luminant reassured the RRC that in their 2012 3rd quarter filing EFH’s liquidity amount (at that time) was $3.8B and that amount would be sufficient to cover all obligations including Luminant Minings reclamation needs.  However, we don’t know that this will still be the case 3 to 12 months from now should EFH file for bankruptcy.

We believe the RRC and Texas would be best served by requiring a more secure form of bonding for reclamation needs.

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wind_turbine_aalborgProbably not overall, but the City of Houston has made a historic commitment – to buy half its power from renewable sources.

Houston was built around the oil and gas industries and has long suffered the consequences of being home to many of the nation’s most polluting refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.  Purchasing clean energy for the City’s facilities won’t change all that, but it does represent a significant change in mindset.

In the absence of federal legislation to address the increasingly pressing problem of climate change, local action has become essential.  At the very least, the energy used in public buildings – that taxpayers pay for – should be clean energy.  Houston is taking a huge step in that direction.

Wind energy is already one of the cheaper energy sources in Texas and solar energy is becoming competitive, especially as prices increase with higher energy demand.  These trends will be helped by large-scale investments like the one Houston is making.

Moving away from energy from coal-fired power plants will also help keep jobs growing in Texas.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue of jobs vs. the environment.  It’s an easy choice of supporting both.  Kudos to Houston to for recognizing an opportunity to take a leadership role.

Talk to your local elected officials about using clean energy to power your public buildings.

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Texas Capitol - north viewWith the regular session behind us and energy and environmental issues not likely to find a place in the special session, it’s a good time to look at what we accomplished.

Our wins came in two forms – bills that passed that will actually improve policy in Texas and bills that didn’t pass that would have taken policy in the wrong direction.

We made progress by helping to get bills passed that:

  • Expand funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) by about 40%;
  • Create a program within TERP to replace old diesel tractor trailer trucks used in and around ports and rail yards (these are some of the most polluting vehicles on the road);
  • Establish new incentives within TERP for purchasing plug-in electric cars; and
  • Assign authority to the Railroad Commission (RRC) to regulate small oil and gas lines (these lines, known as gathering lines, are prone to leaks); and
  • Allows commercial and industrial building owners to obtain low-cost, long-term private sector financing for water conservation and energy-efficiency improvements, including on-site renewable energy, such as solar.

We successfully helped to stop or improve bad legislation that would have:

  • Eliminated hearings on permits for new pollution sources (the contested case hearing process is crucial to limiting pollution increases);
  • Eliminated additional inspections for facilities with repeated pollution violations;
  • Weakened protections against utilities that violate market rules and safety guidelines;
  • Eliminated property tax breaks for wind farms, while continuing the policy for other industries;
  • Granted home owners associations (HOAs) authority to unreasonably restrict homeowners ability to install solar panels on their roofs; and
  • Permitted Austin City Council to turn control of Austin Energy over to an unelected board without a vote by the citizens of Austin.

We did lose ground on the issue of radioactive waste disposal.  Despite our considerable efforts, a bill passed that will allow more highly radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in west Texas.  Campaign contributions certainly played an important roll in getting the bill passed.

We were also disappointed by Governor Perry’s veto of the Ethics Commission sunset bill, which included several improvements, including a requirement that railroad commissioners resign before running for another office, as they are prone to do.  Read Carol’s post about this bill and the issue.

With the legislation over and Perry’s veto pen out of ink, we now shift our attention to organizing and advocating for a transition from polluting energy sources that send money out of our state to clean energy sources that can grow our economy.

We’re working to:

  • Promote solar energy at electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities;
  • Speed up the retirement of old, inefficient, polluting coal-fired power plants in east Texas;
  • Protect our climate and our port communities throughout the Gulf states from health hazards from new and expanded coal export facilities;
  • Fight permitting of the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines in Texas;
  • Ensure full implementation of improvements made to TERP; and
  • Develop an environmental platform for the 2014 election cycle.

Our power comes from people like you getting involved – even in small ways, like writing an email or making a call.  If you want to help us work for a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future, email me at [email protected]  And one of the best things you can do is to get your friends involved too.

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Press Conference RE: Austin Energy Governance 2-13-13

UPDATE

This morning, Mayor Lee Leffingwell pulled Item 29 from the consent agenda indefinately.  Item 71 has been set for 7PM

May 22, 2013

Our basic premise that governance by an elected body is more accountable is proving true.  Over the past couple months, many Austinites have expressed their concerns to City Council about a proposed ordinance that would establish an un-elected board to govern Austin Energy.

Before citizens got involved in the process, this ordinance seemed destined to pass and we all would have found ourselves with less power over an important piece of our local government.

As citizen’s began to voice their concerns the majority of city council members heard their constituents and the ordinance was substantially changed. Councilmembers deserve a lot of credit for the work that they have done to improve this ordinance.  However, it would still establish an un-elected board, which is a dangerous road to go down because such a board could be granted more powers in subsequent ordinances.

Discussion of the ordinance that would establish an un-elected board to govern Austin Energy has been set for 7 pm this Thursday (5/23).  It is item #29 on the agenda. (click here and select item 29 to watch the portion of today’s work session concerning this ordinance)

If you wish to sign up to speak on it or just to register your opinion, you can do so at the kiosks inside City Hall.

Because of the changes made to the ordinance in response to citizen participation in the process, the primary supporters of the ordinance, including Mayor Leffingwell, now no longer support it.  Thus, the ordinance may be withdrawn on Thursday morning, so look at the agenda before heading to City Hall Thursday evening.

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pants on fireAccording to PolitiFact Texas, State Representative Wayne Smith’s pants are on fire.  PolitiFact Texas recently analyzed a statement regarding global climate change by Mr. Smith, a Republican from Baytown.

During floor discussion of his greenhouse gas permitting bill, HB 788, he said, “Science has not shown greenhouse gases to be a problem.”  Then Smith went on to say, “There’s no need to regulate greenhouse gases.”  Well, Politifact Texas disagreed.  They throughly researched Mr. Smith’s statements and found them to be totally false, or “pants on fire” as they put it.

Take a look at the PolitiFact Texas analysis and give Representative Smith’s office a call and tell them what you think about his inaccurate statements: (512)463-0733.

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Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell just postponed a major agenda item (#15), regarding an un-elected board taking over Austin Energy. Numerous citizens were planning to attend the council meeting tonight to express  concerns, and had gone out of their way to arrange their schedules to be there. The mayor completely removed the issue from discussion, not just from a council vote.

The disregard for citizens’ input and time is appalling. Perhaps the mayor’s move is simply a response to citizens having organized more effectively than special interest groups, such as CCARE, who haven’t been able to mobilize support for changing the governance of Austin Energy.

The ordinance may not have been ready for a vote tonight, but the mayor should have left the item open for discussion for the large number of citizens who have set time aside to be present tonight.

We hope that all the engaged citizens that planned on attending the city council meeting tonight will come to the meeting on May 23 and show the Mayor that the public won’t be silenced.

Please contact us with any questions on this issue:

Kaiba White, Public Citizen, [email protected], 607-339-9854 
Karen Hadden, SEED Coalition, [email protected], 512-797-8481 

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Just before Earth Day, the House of Representatives once again demonstrated its commitment to protecting the fossil fuel industries that fund many of the members campaigns instead of protecting the people of our state from the devastating impacts of climate change by passing HB 788. The bill requires the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to permit greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, but would remove the agency’s authority to limit such emissions.

You might wonder “what’s the point?”  The point is to take control of greenhouse gas permitting for Texas facilities from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and place it in the hands of our state environmental agency – which has a much cozier relationship with industry.  While EPA may ultimately prefer that states take responsibility for such permitting, we hope they wouldn’t support such a ineffective system as is proposed in HB 788.

Adding insult to injury, the author of the bill, Representative Wayne Smith, took advantage of the opportunity to spread misinformation.  Smith stated, “…the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are based on an unfounded science,” claiming this language was struck to remove the politics from the bill.  His remarks epitomizes a legislature that continues to threaten the health and safety of the people it should protect through weakened environmental regulations.

In fact, removing language which has been in Texas’ Health and Safety Code for 22 years which gives TCEQ the authority to limit greenhouse gases put the politics in the bill and took the science out of it.  Governor Rick Perry is an avid climate change denier and may have influenced the drafting of HB 788.

This type of misinformation does a disservice to Texas citizens who must endure the harmful impacts of climate change, such as drought, wildfires, sea-level rise and more volatile weather patterns. These changes have already cost our state billions of dollars and numerous lives.  Climate change is happening now and given the big jump in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year, we’re probably in for more harmful impacts than many predicted just a few years ago.

Image

This graph compares increasing CO2 levels (dark line) to increasing average global temperature over the last century (blue and red bars).

Although our efforts to stop or amend HB 788 in the Texas House were unsuccessful and it was disheartening to hear Representative Smith’s comments, Earth Day brought a refocusing on facts.

The Committee on International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs held a hearing on Global Climate Change and Trade.  Attendance was sparse in the audience, but a stellar line-up of scientists, delegates, and business representatives took the witness stand to testify on the fact of climate change.

HB788 was mentioned in anonymous fashion as a bad greenhouse gas bill on several occasions.  But, the most glaring comments were directed at Texas’ lack of policy to address climate change.  Cynthia Connor, the Resource Security Policy Adviser for the British Consulate General in Houston spoke in serious tones.  Her message was that Texas has a responsibility to adopt climate change policies to protect $20 billion in Texas investments by UK-owned business, which are responsible for  70,000 jobs.

Almost all of the witnesses addressed Texas’ policy of climate change denial.  To their credit, most of the Representatives on the committee asked questions to confirm the scientific findings, how climate change affects Texas, and how our climate change policies compare to the rest of the modernized world.  The general consensus is that Texas lags far behind the rest of the world.  Texas fails to acknowledge the potential harms of climate change and ignores its responsibility to lead the nation in ethical energy policies as the top producer of oil and natural gas.

While these weren’t messages of hope, at least they were based in scientific facts and observations.  At least for a brief time, science was recognized in our state capitol.

We must each do what we can to reduce our personal impact and we must convince our elected officials that the time for climate change denial is over.

HB 788 is now being considered in the Texas Senate.

Email your Texas state senator to oppose HB 788 and protect Texas’ climate, economy and people.

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While Austin City Council continues to move forward with an ordinance to transfer governing authority of Austin Energy from our elected City Council to an unelected board, Austin democracy is being attacked at in the state legislature as well.  Senate bill 410, sponsored by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Paul Workman, would allow the city to establish an unelected board without a charter election, as our city charter calls for.

The issue of who should govern Austin Energy is important, but it’s also local in nature.  There is no need for state to amend Austin’s charter.  That is a right reserved for the citizens of Austin.  If the changes proposed by City Council are truly in the best interest of our city, that case should be made to the voters and decided upon at the ballot box. 

To have a state representative who doesn’t even live in Austin carrying a bill to change our charter is unacceptable.

The Austin City Charter was adopted by the people of Austin and the people of Austin approved a governance structure for Austin Energy that is accountable to the people through elections.

An unelected board won’t be directly accountable to the ratepayers and wouldn’t necessarily represent our values.  As we debate this issue in Austin the unelected board at San Antonio’s CPS Energy is slashing the rate customers with solar installations will receive for their energy in half without first consulting the public or the solar industry.  Austin Energy customers could be facing similar changes if we don’t act now to protect our rights.

SB 410 has passed the Senate and will be heard by the House Committee on State Affairs tomorrow.

Please consider attending the hearing and speaking against SB 410.

What: Hearing on SB 410 to change Austin’s charter to move Austin Energy governance to an undemocratic board without a vote by the citizens of Austin, as our charter requires.

When: 1:00pm on Wednesday, May 1

Where: John H. Reagan (JHR) building, room 140 – 105 W. 15th St., Austin, TX, 78701

Why: Because Austin Energy’s governance structure will impact decisions going forward, including on renewable energy and energy efficiency programs and rates.  This is the decision that will determine how other decisions are made.

You can register against the bill at the kiosks outside of room 140.  Even if you don’t wish to speak, registering against the bill would be helpful.  We hope you’ll consider saying a few words about the value of local democracy though.  Speakers will be limited to 3 minutes each.

SB 410 is anti-democratic and is one more example of the state government trying to interfere with Austin’s internal policies and governance.

We need your help to stop this bill.

Public opposition to SB 410 at Wednesday’s hearing may be the only thing that can ensure that our Austin representatives don’t let this bad bill move forward.

Please email Kaiba White at kwhite (at) citizen.org if you can attend the hearing at 1:00pm on Wednesday.

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Statement of Keith Wrightson, Worker Safety and Health Advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

The West Fertilizer Company facility that exploded in a deadly blast Wednesday evening had not been inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in at least 10 years. While we leave it to investigators to determine what exactly happened, we already know that this facility and ones like it operate with very little oversight, and that this is a problem.

Plant Explosion Texas

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013 (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

Records show that the facility in West, Texas, owned by Adair Grain Incorporated, has not been inspected by OSHA in the past 10 years.

In the past five years, only two Texas facilities in the same classification – that produce fertilizer using ammonia – have been inspected by OSHA, records show. The agency, with a budget of roughly $568 million, lacks the resources to regularly inspect these types of facilities, including the many with high danger levels. Often facilities do not see an inspector for decades at a time.

While OSHA’s budget had increased slightly in the past several years, it was recently reduced yet again by budget , which means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company. Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy – and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect – has grown tremendously.

Though total occupational deaths are far lower today than they were decades ago, more than 4,000 workers still die every year on the job in the United States, most in incidents that could have been prevented. Last night’s tragic explosion in Texas is a reminder of the work still ahead to make our nation’s workplaces safer.

Devoting only a miniscule portion of our budget to protecting workers is a policy choice – and it’s the wrong one.

Contact: Ben Somberg (202) 588-7742 or Keith Wrightson (202) 454-5139

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