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Posts Tagged ‘Public Citizen’

Hundreds of residents living near the Port of Houston attended a Town Hall meeting Thursday evening at Holland Middle School to learn about the changes coming to their communities with the expansion of the Port.

Residents filled the Holland Middle School auditorium to hear the preliminary results of neighborhood surveys and to share their concerns with local officials.

Residents filled the Holland Middle School auditorium to hear the preliminary results of neighborhood surveys and to share their concerns with local officials.

“For far too long, the voices of community members living with the health and safety impacts of the Port of Houston have been ignored in the decision making about the Port’s economic growth, routing of hazardous and heavy truck traffic, strategic positioning of pollution control devices, and disposal of hazardous wastes. The Healthy Port Communities Coalition was created in response to this void.” said Hillary Corgey, originally from the Houston area and representing Public Citizen at the meeting, “We seek to provide information and to give a voice to portside communities that have historically been left out of this decision making process as they organize to make their communities safer and healthier for all who live there.”

Preliminary results of Port Side Community Survey Released
The Coalition is currently conducting surveys in port-side communities to determine the full extent of port impacts on residents of these communities and to raise awareness about their causes. The preliminary results of this ongoing survey were discussed at the town hall.  Some notable early results include:

  • Port side community residents concerned about pollution from industries and port operations along the ship channel.
  • 61% concerned about ships and cargo equipment pollution.
  • 67% concerned about train and rail yard pollution.
  • 86% concerned about refinery and chemical plant pollution.
  • 82% concerned about 18 wheeler/truck pollution.
    • 89% concerned about local pollutions’ effects on their health and 54% of respondents do not have health insurance.
    • Cancer rates in these communities are more than 8 times the Texas average.
    • Children have twice the rate of asthma in these communities than other Texans.

The only good news, if you can call it that, while 54% of the respondents do not have health insurance, nearly 80% reported they have had a routine exam in the last two years.  What we don’t know is if this is high because of higher rates of disease.  Residents may have characterized more frequent trips to the doctor, the emergency room, or another clinic as “a routine” exam.

  • The survey also identified the need for job opportunities and job training.
  • 42% of households have an unemployed resident.
  • 81% said there is a need for job training.
  • 69% said there is not sufficient work in their area.

During the town hall, Patricia Gonzales, a mother of three from Pasadena and member of the Texas Organizing Project, spoke up saying, “All of my children have asthma, and after moving to Pasadena, I too have asthma.  We need to know what impact these changes will have on our health.”

“The Coalition is here to help port-side community residents speak with a unified voice on issues that affect their health and well-being,” said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Coalition member Air Alliance Houston. “These communities have borne the burden of Houston’s intense industrial development.”

Also attending the Town Hall meeting to listen to and address residents’ concerns were Bob Allen, the Director of Harris County Pollution Control Services Department, Marcus Woodring, Managing Director of Health Safety Security and Environment at the Port of Houston, Jerry Peruchini, chief of staff of Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzales, Edna Campos with Councilmember Melissa Noriega’s office, Rhonda Sauter of the Mayor’s Citizens Assistance Office, State Representative Mary Ann Perez, Linda Jamail with State Representative Ana Hernandez-Luna’s office, Marisol Rodriguez from Senator Sylvia Garcia’s office, and Myriam Saldivar from State Representative Armando Walle’s office.

“We recognize our constituents living near the port of Houston/ship channel area have to contend with issues not common to the rest of Houston and want to thank these residents for taking the time to make them known to us.  The survey will be helpful as we try to address the impacts of the port and its expansion on these communities; that’s why I’ve urged the Port Authority’s Chair to create a Community Advisory Board: said State Senator Sylvia R Garcia. “Such an advisory board would provide continuing communication and dialogue between the community and the Port’s leadership on this and other issues that impact all the Ship Channel area communities.”

The attendees were divided into groups to begin outlining the concerns of port community residents.

“We want to know what’s going on around us and how it will affect our everyday lives,” concluded Gonzales. “This town hall meeting is an opportunity for us to begin that conversation.”

“One of the recommendations posed to the residents living near the ports was to ask for community representation on the Port of Houston Authority Commission,” said Debbie Allen, a resident of Pleasantville and member of the Pleasantville Environmental Coalition. “While my neighbors in the community are concerned about local hiring for port jobs, job training for port jobs, environmental protection and access to healthcare, I believe representation on the Port Commission would give our communities a seat at the table so that we can begin addressing these issues.  One way this could be done is by putting this change into Representative Dennis Bonnen’s Port of Houston Authority Sunset Bill – HB 1642.”

###

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is an open-ended collaboration that names among its members: Air Alliance Houston, Pleasantville Environmental Coalition, Public Citizen, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and the Texas Organizing Project.

Ryan Korsgard reports on Houston’s Channel 2

Concerns over Port of Houston cancer risks

Houston Univision45 coverage

Amenazada la salud de los residentes del puerto de Houston   

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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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I was part of and witnessed an inspiring evening at Austin City Hall yesterday.  Engaged citizens came together to speak passionately about the importance of maintaining democratic leadership for Austin Energy, our city’s electric utility.

Many people talked about wanting the right to vote on a change in governance, about the importance of accountable leaders and about the need for multiple public hearings to discuss this important issue.  Others spoke about our utility continuing to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency and maintaining our commitment to assisting low income families with their electric bills.  The voices were many and varied and the process took hours.

And we made a difference.

Several important amendments were added to the ordinance that, if they remain, limit the powers granted to the unelected board and increase oversight by our elected City Council.  Councilwoman Laura Morrison continued to be our champion on the Council, but Councilmen Chris Riley and Mike Martinez also emerged as allies on numerous amendments to lessen the negative impact of establishing an unelected board.  I commend them on their willingness to listen to the public and make changes to address some of our concerns.  (It should be noted that Councilwoman Tovo was in China for City business, but has also stood by the people throughout this debate.)

There is still a lot of work to be done to eliminate the threat of an unelected board, but it’s clear that public participation does make a difference.  And that’s our fundamental point.  We, the people, wish to retain our direct access to and influence on those who govern Austin Energy.  An unelected board wouldn’t be accountable to the ratepayers.

Please visit CleanEnergyForAustin.org to stay informed over the next week.  Email me at kwhite(at)citizen.org to receive email updates.  This isn’t over yet.

I remember the feeling of community brewing

Of democracy happening

~Ani Difranco

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Earthday is coming up and we’d like to share two ways to support Public Citizen’s Texas office through EarthShare programs!

H-E-B Tear Pad Campaign

Earthshare HEB CampaignFor those who are able to give to EarthShare through your work place charitable giving campaign, we thank you.  For those who do not have that option, Public Citizen is pleased to announce that H-E-B has selected EarthShare of Texas to be the April beneficiary for its in-store coupon promotion for the fifth year in a row. As an EarthShare partner, Public Citizen will benefit from this promotion as well!

Whenever you shop at H-E-B from now until May 4, grab one of the tear-off coupons at the register to add $1, $3, or $5 to your total bill. Those extra dollars go to EarthShare, and at the end of the campaign, BikeTexas will get a portion of EarthShare’s total proceeds for the month. You can join in at any H-E-B in Texas. Support bicycle advocacy while you pick up your lettuce!

Reliant EcoShare Program

Reliant Energy customers also contribute to the EarthShare campaign making a donation every time a Texas customer purchases a carbon offset. All the Earthshare programs receives a portion of those donations.  If you live in a competitive electric service area that Reliant serves and are a customer, consider making Earthday year round by participating in their carbon offset program.

Public Ctizen is happy to be partnered with many organizations across this state who support making Texas a leader in clean, sustainable energy.  Thank you for supporting Public Citizen!

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Arkansas Spill Points to Problems With Diluted Bitumen Crude Transport Through Aging, Repurposed Pipelines; Tar Sands Crude Poses a Threat to Texas Drinking Water, Home, and Public Health

The recent Good Friday tar sands crude spill in an Arkansas neighborhood and an earlier catastrophic spill in Michigan highlight the dangers of transporting large volumes of tar sands crude into the United States through aging pipelines, warn Public Citizen and others.

ExxonMobil Corp. is still cleaning up thousands of barrels of Canadian tar sands crude spilled from the aging Pegasus pipeline near Little Rock, Ark. Michigan residents are still dealing with the fallout from a devastating pipeline rupture in 2010.

“Texas not only has the same 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline coursing through the state but also has the 34-year-old Seaway line, both slated to carry Canadian tar sands or diluted bitumen (Dilbit) crude,” said Rita Beving, Public Citizen consultant.

The Pegasus and Seaway pipelines travel within a few miles of medical facilities, schools, churches and community subdivisions. Both pipelines cross tributaries and are within a few miles or underneath existing water supplies for many Texas cities (See Map of Pegasus Pipeline route through Texas and affected communities and List of affected communities along the Seaway Pipeline route through Texas). The Seaway passes near Dallas, and is slated to carry more tar sands crude than the combined pipeline segments of Keystone XL, up to 850,000 barrels per day.

Not unlike other tar sands spills, the Pegasus pipeline spill near Little Rock forced the evacuation of people from dozens of homes. In 2010, the largest onshore spill in U.S. history occurred in Michigan, where a pipeline break on a 43-year-old pipeline spewed tar sands into the Kalamazoo River. This Enbridge Lakehead B spill resulted in residents being evacuated up to six miles away, as high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide became airborne and sickened local residents. More than 1.1 million gallons of tar sands or dilbit spilled into the river and traveled more than 35 miles along the waterway. Almost three years and $850 million later, the problematic spill is still not cleaned up, and Enbridge has now been ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dredge the river.

Children living near the Michigan spill reported cases of vomiting, upset stomach, shortness of breath, lethargy, headaches, rash, eye irritation, sore throat and cough within the first week. Adults experienced similar symptoms, and pets suffered from continuous vomiting and diarrhea. The EPA established that benzene levels in the area near the spill were exponentially higher than the standard established as safe for human exposure.

Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist with experience in crude oil spills including the Exxon Valdez and the Michigan spill noted, “In Michigan, we had 16-year-olds having seizures, and adults with dizziness and symptoms of a tightening chest after the Kalamazoo spill. Now you are seeing the same thing happen in Little Rock. It could happen next in your backyard, and you may not even know a pipeline was carrying tar sands until after a spill happens, as many communities haven’t even been told that this is what’s going through the line. This can repeat itself wherever Canadian tar sands is being transported.”  (see Human health risks of exposure to tar sands)

“As we see the Michigan spill still being cleaned up today with the the long-term health effects still unknown, we can only anticipate that cities in Arkansas may face similar issues,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “Seeing what has now transpired in these other states, and now with both the Pegasus and Seaway pipelines in Texas carrying tar sands crude, a tar sands rupture on aging pipelines is not a matter of if, but when. These incidents beg the question to our lawmakers, ‘What are you going to do to help protect Texas from such spills?”

The Seaway line passes within one to two miles of 8 medical facilities and nursing homes, 45 schools, 56 churches and dozens of Texas communities include Rockwall, Terrell, Corsicana and Royse City, Kaufman, and Baytown. Seaway crosses near tributaries of Lake Lavon, Cedar Creek Reservoir and beneath Richland Chambers Lake – all major water supplies for Dallas and Ft. Worth.

The Pegasus line crosses into Texas northeast of Dekalb and travels within a couple miles of more than 29 Texas communities including Mt. Pleasant, Mt. Vernon, Winnsboro, Canton, Navarro, Polk and Livingston. Upon initial analysis, at least 16 schools and 12 medical facilities are within one to two miles of Pegasus. More than 14 lakes including Lake Cypress Springs, Bob Sandlin, Lake Fork, Cedar Creek Reservoir, Lake Halbert, and five tributaries of Lake Livingston are also crossed by the pipeline.  Some of these water supplies serve as drinking water sources and are favorite recreational areas for sportsmen.

Documentary filmmakers, Elliott Gilbert,II and Joe Capps, run into a cleanup crew in Mayflower, AR.

Documentary filmmakers, Elliott Gilbert,II and Joe Capps, run into a cleanup crew in Mayflower, AR.

Elliott Gilbert, a Dallas documentary filmmaker, and his assistant Joe Capps, rushed to the Arkansas spill site after it was discovered. Both commented to Public Citizen about visiting an Arkansas elementary school where they interviewed the principal, who had sent children home due to dizziness, nausea and vomiting. The school was within a half mile of the Pegasus spill.

“After filming and hearing from the school principal and the residents in Arkansas, it definitely gives me pause as to what could happen with communities near Dallas should our area encounter such a spill,” Gilbert said. “I have a young daughter. I shudder to think that could happen near her school.”

As the proposed Keystone XL northern segment awaits approval from the U.S. State Department and the southern segment is now being constructed in East Texas, many worry that repurposed pipelines carrying tar sands are the wave of the future.

“Why should pipeline companies apply for permits and go through tedious environmental impact statements when you can repurpose an old pipeline, with little, if any, environmental scrutiny from a state agency and with little resistance from landowners who already have an existing line in the ground,” asked Beving. “These pipeline companies that are carrying Canadian tar sands are in a race to get lucrative shipping contracts with Texas refineries. Why not get your product to market the easy way with an old repurposed pipeline instead of undergoing permits and review by applying for a new construction permit?”

Beving notes that some companies, such as Enbridge, are twinning or adding additional lines to existing ones as they are doing with the existing Seaway pipeline. “Using existing pipelines and then twinning them is like building your own tar sands superhighway, an interstate for crude oil that you can expand at will with built-in condemnation rights. But this product is more toxic and problematic to clean up,” she said.

Tar sands are mined and then diluted with natural gas condensate and a host of toxic chemicals, according to Chris Wilson, a chemical engineer who has consulted for Public Citizen. Tar sands or dilbit is up to 70 times more viscous, 20 times more sulfuric and 10 times more acidic than conventional crude.

A shot of tar sands from the Arkansas spill pumped into a containment pond

A shot of tar sands from the Arkansas spill pumped into a containment pond.

“Canadian tar sands are not your granddaddy’s West Texas crude,” Wilson said. “It is transported from Canada in a more ‘raw’ form than other forms of oil, and that is what makes it more deadly and more problematic to clean up.”

Added Ed Parten, executive director and political liaison of Texas Black Bass Unlimited, “Lake Fork is the ultimate sportsmen’s fishing destination, known throughout Texas and the world for its premier bass fishing. It is my understanding that Lake Fork was built over this pipeline. Based on what we know with the Michigan tar sands spill, if this pipeline ruptures, it not only will destroy a valuable water supply, but also will devastate this great recreational resource known to fishermen across the country.”

“Texas lawmakers are debating pipeline safety standards for other types of pipelines during this session,” Smith said. “Are they asking the right questions to protect Texans from tar sands? Do they understand the urgency to act now to protect Texas before we have a tar sands spill here? And finally, do they have the political will to enact legislation to protect our state? We need proper notice, disclosure, filing of emergency response plans before operations begin, and a Texas liability fund to protect our state, since these companies are exempt from paying into the U.S. Spill Liability Fund.”

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You may have never heard of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), but it has the potential to make a huge difference in adoption of distributed renewable energy systems, such as rooftop solar installations. PACE allows businesses to borrow money from local governments to work on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in the buildings they occupy.

Since PACE is funding is loans, there is no real expense to the taxpayer.  On the other side of the coin, it allows businesses to spread out the costs of becoming more environmentally friendly over time, all while lowering their monthly utility costs.  This strategy is a win-win-win for Texans.  Business save money, the environment benefits, and it cost Texans nothing.

The Texas Legislature is currently considering legislation that would move PACE forward for our state.  Senate bill 385 has already cleared the hurdle of the Texas Senate, and now is pending in our House of Representatives. House bill 1094 is still waiting be voted out of the House Committee on Energy Resources.  The House should move forward to adopt this common sense measure.

As of 2013, 27 states and the District of Columbia have PACE legislation on the books to help combat harmful emissions from electric generation.  States from California to Wyoming have enacted PACE programs.  Generally, in these states, the financing terms are 15-20 years.  It works very much like taking out a home loan, or perhaps a better example would be a home improvement loan, but for commercial properties. Disbursing the payments over a longer period of time makes these efficiency upgrades affordable for a wider variety of business.  It also makes upgrades attainable for smaller businesses.

I urge fellow Texans to get in touch with their State Representative and tell him or her to support the PACE bills (HB 1094 and SB 385).  This is common sense legislation that benefits everyone.

Click here to find out who represents you. 

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It wouldn’t be a Texas legislative session without some truly backwards bills.  Today we have House Bill 2026 by freshman Representative Sanford of Collin county that would eliminate our state renewable energy goals.

BeachWindIn 1999, the state of Texas made a commitment to renewable energy in the form of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS).  That decision played a major role in spurring the development of the wind industry in Texas.

We have now exceeded the renewable energy goals established in the 2005 update to the RPS and Texas has more wind energy capacity than any other state.[1]  On the surface that may seem to indicate that the RPS has been 100% successful and is no longer needed, but that isn’t the case.

One of the major reasons for establishing the RPS was to encourage diversification of our energy sources, which ultimately makes us more resilient to physical and economic forces that can impact the availability and price of energy sources.  While wind energy has increased from zero percent when the RPS was first established to around ten percent today, other renewable energy sources are still largely absent from our energy portfolio.

With more solar energy potential than any other state, Texas should be the center point of the solar industry as well.[2]  Instead we are lagging behind states with far less solar resources, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania,[3] and are paying the price in missed opportunities for job growth and new generation capacity that can produce during peak demand.

Solar companies invest in California and other states, because smart policies created attractive markets in those places.  California has 1,505 solar companies compared to Texas’ 260. Even New Jersey has more, with 382.[4] Texas should be doing more, not less to attract solar businesses to our state.

SolarInstallProjections showing that we won’t have enough electricity to meet demand by 2020.[5]  The maximum wholesale price of electricity has been set to triple by 2015, without even determining what the cost to consumers will be.  There have been workshops and meetings to consider the prospect of implementing a capacity market in Texas, which would raise costs even more.  But little time has been spent considering simpler, cheaper solutions such as expanding efficiency and demand response (where customers get paid to reduce there energy usage for short periods of time when demand is high) and getting more solar capacity built in Texas.  Solar is most productive when we need it the most – on hot, sunny afternoons.

The RPS should be retooled to focus on solar and other renewable energy resources that are most capable of producing during peak demand.  Millions of dollars could be saved in the wholesale electric market if we had more solar panels installed.[6]

Solar, like wind, also has the benefit of needing very little water to operate.  Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations need an occasional cleaning to keep performance high, but the amount of water need is minimal in comparison to fossil fuel options.  Coal-fired generators need billions of gallons of water to operate each year[7] and while natural gas-fired generations consume less water than coal-fired generators, they still use more than solar, even without accounting for the millions of gallons of water used to extract the gas with hydraulic fracturing.[8]  Including more renewable energy in our portfolio will make our electric grid less vulnerable to drought[9] and will free up water supplies that are desperately needed for human consumption and agriculture.

Abandoning the RPS now would send a terrible signal to renewable energy companies that are deciding where to establish their businesses.  Our state made a commitment that isn’t set to expire until 2025 at the earliest.  There is no good reason to abandon the policy now.  We should be moving in the opposite direction of what is proposed in HB 2026.  Instead of giving up on a policy that has been successful, we should be looking at ways to build on that success and benefit our state.


[1] AWEA. “Wind Energy Facts: Texas.” Oct 2012. http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/factsheets/upload/3Q-12-Texas.pdf.

[2] NREL. “U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS Based Analysis.” July, 2012. Pg. 10-13. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/51946.pdf.

[3] SEIA. Solar Industry Data. http://www.seia.org/research-resources/solar-industry-data#state_rankings.

[4] SEIA. State Solar Policy. http://www.seia.org/policy/state-solar-policy.

[5] “Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves in the ERCOT Region.” Dec 2012. Pg 8. http://www.ercot.com/content/news/presentations/2012/CapacityDemandandReservesReport_Winter_2012_Final.pdf.

[6] Weiss, Jurgen, Judy Chang and Onur Aydin. “The Potential Impact of Solar PV on Electricity Markets in Texas.” The Brattle Group.  June 19, 2012. http://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/brattlegrouptexasstudy6-19-12-120619081828-phpapp01.pdf.

[7] “Environmental impacts of coal power: water use” Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02b.html

[8] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/energy-and-water-use/water-energy-electricity-natural-gas.html

[9] Wu, M. and M. J. Peng.  “Developing a Tool to Estimate Water Use in Electric Power Generation in the United States.” Argonne National Laboratory – U.S. Department of Energy. http://greet.es.anl.gov/publication-watertool.

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Public Citizen’s positions on the pre-filed amendments to the PUC Sunset bill can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/Guide_to_Amend_PUC_Sunset_bill_HB1600 or in the table below.

Support These Amendments to Improve the PUC Sunset Bill

Bar code # Sponsor Description Comment
830096 Cook clean up cleans up language in bill – no substantial changes
830097 Cook clean up cleans up language in bill – no substantial changes
830077 Davis bans sharing of customer info from advanced meters eliminates the value of smart meter – demand response providers may not be able to operate (NOTE: amendment to the amendment will fix this problem)
830076 Davis requires annual  review of certificate holders
830087 Davis requires written disclosure prior to releasing info from advanced meters protects customer privacy while allowing demand response providers to operate with permission of customer
830088 Davis makes utility liable for damages to advanced meter during installation or removal protects customer from unreasonable charges
830089 Davis bans billing for average use of electricity restricts customer choice (NOTE: amendment to the amendment will fix this problem by allowing customers to choose levelized billing)
830090 Davis reregulates the electric market assures adequate resources to meet the load
830101 King caps transmission congestion costs protects consumers
830104 Phillips prevents Texas generators from exporting electricity from ERCOT during an electricity emergency protects reliability in ERCOT
830084 Phillips bans cost recovery for interstate transmission lines out of state electric generators must finance their own transmission
830086 Rodriguez sets 35%  renewable portfolio standard by 2020 increases generation, local jobs and investment
830082 Strama establishes a peak energy portfolio standard improves reliability and increases local investment and jobs
830106 C Turner requires study by gas utilities on replacing their gas distribution lines improves safety
830072 S Turner requires legislative approval to increase the Universal Service Fund limits costs to consumers
830073 S Turner restricts cease and desist orders for customers to those causing a danger provides reasonable restrictions of PUC power and protects customers
830078 S Turner increases state penalties for market abuses and eliminates double jeopardy restores recommendation of Sunset Advisory Commission staff to increase fines for market abuse
830103 S Turner requires cost-benefit analysis when PUC makes significant market changes helps protect consumers
830102 Vo requires 30 day notice of discretionary changes in electric rates provides some customer protection against unexpected electric rate increases
830098 Walle limits water companies to one rate increase each 3 years and limits the amount of any increase protects consumers

Oppose These Bad Amendments to the PUC Sunset Bill

Bar code # Sponsor Description Comment
830095 Cook changes qualifications for PUC commissioners allows utilities to have too much control over commission
830100 Gonzalez gives PUC citing authority over a new plant in the El Paso area shouldn’t apply to just one company
830085 Krause eliminates the PUC’s ability to issue a cease and desist order jeopardizes reliability
830105 Laubenberg eliminates the PUC’s ability to issue a cease and desist order jeopardizes reliability
830091 Phillips interferes with reliability must run plans could jeopardize reliability and create inefficiencies
830092 Phillips requires CREZ lines to be buried in a specific municipality significantly increases electric consumers’ costs
830093 Stanford eliminates cease and desist orders for retail customers prevents the PUC from stopping abusive behavior and protecting reliability of the electric grid
830094 Sheets creates a 5 member Public Utility Commission two commissioners could meet without following open meeting requirements
830079 Simpson eliminates the PUC’s ability to issue a cease and desist order jeopardizes reliability
830080 Simpson eliminates cease and desist orders for retail customers prevents the PUC from preventing abusive behavior and protecting reliability of the electric grid
830081 Simpson shifts cost of opting out of advanced metering to other customers puts unfair cost burden on customers
830074 S Turner changes to single elected commissioner opens door to even more industry influence over regulators through campaign contributions

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algae-open-pondChlorella sp. is a species of algae that has a significant proportion of fatty acids to its body mass. For humans, this can be a problem. But, in a world needing more clean energy, fatty biomass is considered a promising option by many scientists and engineers.

Why algae? Algae can grow in a body of water almost anywhere. We don’t need to use any of our precious farmland to grow it. Water conservationists may initially be concerned, but a group of scientists found that Chlorella sp. thrives in our waste water. Not only that, it cleans up the water, removing ammonia and a host of toxic metals. According to their report, the algae could be used to help clean up waste water at municipal water treatment plants then harvested for biofuels.

graph_algaeI had a chance to speak with Dr. Martin Poenie, Associate Professor in Molecular Cell & Developmental Biology, at The University of Texas at Austin. The Poenie Lab is helping to develop a technique for harvesting the oils from algae that could greatly reduce cost. Dr. Poenie also told me algae can be a significant source of phosphates, which we use in fertilizers. One of the most significant things about algae biofuels, is their small carbon footprint and high energy content. CO2 is sequestered during the growth phase of the algae and it is not released until the fuel is burned. On the whole, biofuels from algae look promising, and the variety of products that can be derived from it will make algae farming even more profitable.

Texas could do more to capture the energy and job benefits from this home grown energy source. Texas Legislature should act to strengthen renewable energy goals. HB 303, SB 1239, and HB  723 would all be good steps in the right direction.

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Would you decide who manages your retirement account by closing your eyes and pointing?  Probably not.

Press Conference RE: Austin Energy Governance 2-13-13Yet, Austin City Council is moving forward with a rash plan to hand over the bulk of its power to govern and oversee Austin Energy to an appointed board.  A well thought-out Austin American-Statesman editorial reveals the fool-hardness of making such a substantial governance change without even studying if it is needed or if the proposed change would yield better results than the current system of governance by the City Council.

This is one of those times when we need to remember that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  City Council (and a couple of our state legislators) have been reacting out of fear that Austin Energy, or parts of it, could be deregulated.  But, in light of the recent settlement reached with the out-of-town ratepayers, that is unlikely to happen.  We need City Council to stare their fear in the face and make a rational, fact-based decision.  Panicking now could cost our utility and our city for years to come.

Our city’s most valuable asset should be accountable to us, the citizens of Austin and the customers it serves.  Elections don’t always turn out the way I wish and some appointees do their jobs well, but I’m a populist, so at the end of the day, I want the power in the hands of the people.  With elections, we give power to individuals to do jobs an with elections we can take that power away.  An appointed board wouldn’t have to be responsive to citizen concerns and could make the vast majority of decisions about how Austin Energy is run and what to prioritize.

If, after studying the pros and cons of governance by City Council vs. governance by a board, City Council still believes that they are not the best people to oversee Austin Energy, an elected board would be a better option than an appointed board.

Let’s keep the power in our hands.

Tell Austin City Council not to approve an appointed board.

 

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beforenafter1[1]The Keystone XL pipeline is embroiled in controversy from coast to coast. Environmentalists are rallied by its giant carbon footprint, the damage caused by spills, and the destruction of Canada’s boreal forests. Meanwhile, landowners are being forced to give up their property rights and cope with unacceptable safety issues.

More than thirty Texas waterways will be threatened by Keystone XL pipeline spills.  Tar sand is very difficult to clean up, especially in water.  And, Keystone XL is not required to pay the standard eight cents per barrel tax into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which means the cost to clean up any spills along the pipeline could become the tax burden of U.S. Citizens.  When tar sand comes into contact with water it begins to separate, leaving the heaviest, thickest product on the bottom.  Meanwhile, benzene and other airborne toxins are lifted to the surface of the water and evaporate into the atmosphere, directly threatening human life.

Burst pipelineLandowners in Texas have been confronted with having a tar sand pipeline cross their farms and ranches.  Ranchers and farmers have no choice where the pipeline lays down on their property.  The easement around the pipe is fifty feet wide, and there will be a kill zone around and under the pipe due to its temperature, which may exceed 158 degrees F. A running pressure of 1,600 pounds per square inch introduces the possibility of a stream with enough force to cut a person in two should a small rupture in the pipe occur.  But, problems with the pipeline do not stop at inherent danger.  The land owners are given a choice of payment for the easement, which requires them to pay taxes on the land under the pipe or, they can have the easement condemned, which leaves them without the right to use that property.  In truth, the land owners have no option when companies such as Keystone XL decide that a pipeline should cross their property, except to deal with the risks, or leave.

To make matters worse, the tar sands that would flow through the Keystone XL pipeline won’t even be used in the U.S. – they are destined for export to foreign countries.  So, we will incur the risks to our land and water and will suffer the consequences of climate change, but we won’t have any more energy security than we do now.  That’s a bad deal.  The risks associated with the Keystone XL pipeline are unacceptable. Most importantly, these risks are avoidable.  Let President Obama know that you want him reject the Keystone XL pipeline because the risks don’t outweigh the benefits.  The recently released draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from the U.S. Department of State acknowledged that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would create “numerous” and “substantial” impacts on the environment, but it claims the project is better than the alternatives.  If you disagree, as I do,  send comments on the draft SEIS via email to: [email protected]

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We Texans and Public Citizen  Support Crawford Family as Legal Action Continues Against Keystone XL Southern Segment – #NoKXL

Yesterday, Landowner Julia Trigg Crawford and her attorney Wendi Hammond announced that they have filed their appeal against TransCanada with the 6th Judicial Court in Texarkana.  The brief disputes TransCanada’s attempt at taking Crawford’s property on the basis that TransCanada has yet to prove the company is a common carrier, but is instead a private foreign company utilizing its pipeline for private gain.

“Our appellate brief is now in front the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and we are confident this panel of experienced judges will give all the issues the thoughtful consideration and thorough review they deserve,” noted landowner Julia Trigg Crawford.  “Since the lower court’s ruling against us in August we’ve worked diligently to elevate the dialogue around property rights and eminent domain abuse.”

“Since before 1920, the Texas legislature wisely limited the enormous power of eminent domain authority to a common carrier subject to the Texas Railroad Commission’s (RRC) jurisdiction and other legal requirements. In the Crawford family’s case, the RRC admitted it does not have jurisdiction over TransCanada’s pipeline, but the trial court allowed TransCanada to take the Crawford’s private land anyway,” commented Hammond, Crawford family farm attorney. “This decision highlights a serious problem, not just for the Crawfords, but for many families across Texas.  Now this important matter will be decided by a higher court.”

Groups including We Texans and Public Citizen are supporting Crawford and her family in their continuing resolve to pursue this landowner’s case to a higher court.  The groups view this precedent setting case as a private company attempting to take land for private use and foreign profit.

Debra Medina, executive director of We Texans, applauded the Crawford family’s courage in continuing their opposition to the taking of their property.  “We agree with the Crawford family in believing that there has been an erroneous ruling against them and hope that the appellate court will right that wrong.  In doing so, the court can protect not only the Crawford Family farm, but also set a precedent that will ensure the law is followed and all private property in Texas is duly protected.”

“What’s at stake here is whether the state should allow a public agency to allow condemnation for private gain. The Crawford case is emblematic of the failure of the Texas Railroad Commission to effectively ensure that companies doing business in Texas are indeed a common carrier,” commented Tom Smitty Smith of Public Citizen.  “The State has laid this burden of proving up common carrier upon landowners such as the Crawfords, while the proof should be incumbent upon those who want to business here in Texas. The entire process needs to be overhauled.”

“The Railroad Commission allowed TransCanada to have the status of a common carrier, yet the agency has stated that it doesn’t not have the authority to give eminent domain powers to TransCanada,” added Smith.  “TransCanada has yet to prove to the court that they are transporting the product for the public good or for the public for hire as required by law.”

“Currently, there is a loophole in Texas law that allows a company to simply check a box on a one page form at the Railroad Commission that allows companies to declare themselves a common carrier without any checks and balances,” noted Rita Beving, North Texas Public Citizen organizer.  “Last summer we started a dialogue with the Texas Land & Resource Management Committee regarding this problem.  We are hoping the matter of common carrier and eminent domain gets rectified during this year’s legislative session.”

“I’ve testified to legislative subcommittees at our state Capitol, shared my story with the Sunset Commission in their review of the embattled Texas Railroad Commission, and traveled to Washington, D.C. twice to speak to governmental agency representatives and support groups,” Crawford added.  “At the heart of this issue is the fact the Texas Railroad Commission has seemingly abandoned Texas landowners.  By their own admission, they are aware that companies use the T-4 form to demonstrate to the public that the company is operating as a common carrier pipeline with eminent domain authority when, in fact, the RRC operating permit provides no evidence of that fact at all.”

“What was once just the voice of Texas landowners is now a national issue, with all eyes upon Texas and how our Legislature will step up to repair this grossly flawed land condemnation process,” Crawford concluded. “I stand at the ready to continue shining a light on what’s really happening on the ground to Texas landowners as we protect our land, and we look forward to a positive outcome in our appeal.”

TransCanada has initiated construction of the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline along its 485-mile trek from Cushing to the Texas coast. TransCanada will pump Canadian tar sands crude or Dilbit to refineries on the Gulf coast.  The northern segment of the Keystone XL awaits approval by the State Department for its presidential permit.

In the meantime Enbridge, TransCanada’s Canadian competitor, has begun surveying for an additional twin line to the existing Seaway pipeline near the DFW area.  Both Enbridge’s 36-year old repurposed Seaway pipeline and the new twin line will carry tar sands from Cushing to the coast.  The dual Enbridge lines are expected to exceed Keystone’s capacity with 850,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude.

Enbridge is currently responsible for the largest and most expensive onshore spill in history.  The Michigan spill occurred in July 2010 carrying tar sands crude through a 43-year old repurposed line.  Two years and more than $850 million later, the spill is still being cleaned up on the Kalamazoo River.

“Landowner fights such as that of the Crawford family with TransCanada have sparked a new battle on a whole new front with another Canadian company,” Beving concluded.  “Many of us are now getting calls from landowners now worried about Enbridge, which also plans to carry dangerous Dilbit crude through its pipelines from Cushing to the coast.”

Click here to read a copy of the brief.

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2013-02-17 Forward on Climate Rally on the National MallI have been a Public Citizen intern since January of this year.  As a Political Science graduate student, in both Undergraduate and Graduate studies I have been immersed in the political process and the theories behind the ideas that have formed our nation.  When I was a bit younger, I dabbled in political activism, with issues like civil rights and equal rights, which are still very near and dear to my heart.  But, I never took the plunge into becoming a full on activist.

Thursday, February 14th, I had the opportunity, through Public Citizen and The Sierra Club, to get on a bus with 48 other Texans and make the long trek to Washington D.C. for the Forward on Climate Rally.  I had been to D.C. several times before, but never for a cause.  Our bus departed from Austin, Texas and made stops in Dallas and Tyler.  At each stop, new people joined us.  Each person on the bus had their own reasons for engaging in this somewhat grueling 30 plus hour bus ride.  Each person was motivated enough to take time out of their schedule and commit to a less than comfortable ride on a bus to our nation’s capital.

In the early part of our journey, many people did not know each other.  Many of us were coming from different places geographically and in life.  As the hours wound on, conversation and ideas began to flow on the bus.  People began to relax and conversations began to percolate throughout the bus.  After the formalities, discussions began on why we were on this trip.  There were people directly affected by the Keystone Pipeline.  Others were concerned with climate.  Some were just champions of the Earth.  For quite a few of my fellow bus riders, activism was old hat.  Others, such as one older, retired gentleman, still were hesitant to call themselves activists.  Some were believers in the cause, but just there for the exchange of ideas and to observe.  But, within the varying reasons for attending the trip, a common thread was clear.  Something needs to be done about climate change.  That was something everyone could agree upon, regardless of what school of thought they were coming from.

As for me, when I got on the bus, I did not really know which one of these types I was.  Climate change has always been a concern to me.  I try to live a “green” life.  I knew the Keystone Pipeline was bad news from things I had read and heard, but I suppose that I was never mad enough to do anything about it.  For me, civil rights and related social issues had always been the most important…

As the trip wore on, we all began to become friends.  We shared experiences and ideas.  By the time we arrived in D.C., we were no longer a bus full of strangers.  There was a feeling that we were a team, and some of us had become quick friends.  Our group spanned many different generations and encompassed many different levels of involvement in the cause. 

Friday night and Saturday, through some downtime and tourism, the group continued to solidify.  Our bonding was increased through a night on the town and sightseeing, but the main event was yet to come.

Sunday, February 17th began by loading on the bus and heading to the Public Citizen D.C. office for breakfast and some interviews with a reporter.  Outside, the cold was biting, with a wind chill of 6 degrees.   As we prepared to depart for the National Mall, the excitement level was high despite a lack of sleep and the cold weather. 

2013-02-17 Forward on Climte Rally March on the White HouseWe arrived near the Washington monument to a sea of busses.  Hundreds of busses.  We arrived about an hour early, and there were people as far as the eye could see ready to participate in democracy.  The estimates of number of people at the Forward on Climate rally ranged from 35,000 to 50,000.  As the rally began, speakers began to deliver messages from many different points of view.  Some were directly affected by the pipeline, other were speaking of climate change and activism.  The excitement level of the crowd increased with every speaker.  The climax of the rally was the 10’s of thousands of us marching to the White House.  The street was packed from curb to curb all the way around the White House.  We now know that President Obama was playing golf with Tiger Woods and oil executives, so he did not see the awe –inspiring site of that many people united for our climate.  Everywhere you looked there were signs.  When you stopped to listen, you could hear chants that would begin with one person and end with a united crowd chanting in solidarity.  While marching around the White House, you almost forgot how cold it was. (It was really cold)  When we returned to the National Mall, I had a sense of accomplishment.  You could not help but feel that we had done something important, united together as a group as varied as any ever assembled.  People of different ages, races, economic backgrounds, and geographic locations; all united in for the planet.  It was then that something I should have realized all along dawned on me.  Climate change and human/civil rights are intertwined.  They are so deeply related, that it is almost hard to see the preverbal forest for the trees.  Without one, there cannot be the other.  It also dawned on me that this is the fight of our generation.  This is the legacy that we should pass on to our children and their children. Our Earth and our climate is intrinsically a human right.  If we do not take action, there may not be an inhabitable planet for future generations, which would be the greatest violation of human rights in our history.  Through the interactions on the bus, the speakers, the sights and the sounds, something that should have been painfully obvious to me was finally made clear.

We cannot be passive observers in this fight against climate change.  We cannot be passive observers in things like the Keystone XL, even if we think they do not directly affect us.  (It does)  The time to remain silent is gone.  It is time to call on everyone who knows these things are terrible to use their voice, their right to free speech, and the democratic process to put an end to this insanity.  The Earth cannot wait while we sit idly by and do nothing while corporations destroy her under the guise of “progress” and “economics.”  We need to stand up and let them know that we will not stand for irresponsible practices and violations of our planet.  We must activate to preserve our climate and Earth for future generations.  We must let President Obama know that we won’t stand for the Keystone XL. 

For me, it is now no longer an option to passively oppose what is going on.  Activism is now a necessity.   I would urge everyone to use their voice, stand up and be heard.    

               

 

     

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While the proposed resolution to give Austin Energy governance responsibilities to an appointed board has been taken off the “consent agenda”, it’s still alive and kicking.

City Council will take up the issue at 6 p.m. this evening (Thurs, 2/14) and I hope you can take a bit of time before dinner to stand up for your rights. 

Austin Energy is a owned by us, the citizens of Austin.  Currently, we can influence the direction the utility takes by showing up at City Council meetings (just as I’m hoping you will tonight) and voicing your opinions.  The people of Austin have spoken passionately and convincingly on a variety of issues including development of strong solar energy programs,  assistance for the poor and keeping rates affordable for everyone.  City Council has often changed it’s course as a result of public outcry.  They do so because they know that they can be held accountable at the ballot box (or the electronic voting machine, as the case may be).

An appointed board could dramatically limit the ability that each of us has to ensure that Austin Energy is governed in a way that aligns with our values.

Some have argued that a board could focus more on the important issues at Austin Energy, but an appointed board is not the only option.  With City Council soon to be enlarged – when we move to the 10-1 system with geographic representation – there could easily be a subcommittee that focuses on the governance and oversight of Austin Energy.  If some members of City Council don’t wish to be burdened with the responsibility of governing our most (monetarily) valuable asset, then they could decline to serve on such a subcommittee.

Some Austin Energy customers who live outside Austin have complained that they have no representation in the governing body of Austin Energy (which is Austin City Council).  That’s a fair point and could easily be remedied by reserving one seat (or whatever is proportional based on population) on the subcommittee for an elected representative of those customers residing outside city limits.  What doesn’t make sense it to disenfranchise everyone just because some people aren’t currently represented.

Yes, the system could be more perfect and we at Public Citizen are always working toward making it so, but with all the awards and national recognition that Austin Energy has received, we must be doing something right.

So, please, make your voice heard at City Hall tonight.  The proposed resolution is “Item #46″ and will be taken up at 6 p.m.  You can register to speak or register your opposition at the kiosks in the City Hall lobby.  You can donate your speaking time to someone else, but you must be present at the meeting to do so. If you drive, you can park in the garage underneath City Hall and get your parking validated in the lobby.

If you can’t make it to the meeting tonight, send City Council a letter letting them know you oppose the formation of an appointed board to govern Austin Energy.

For more information, please visit www.cleanenergyforaustin.org.

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Costs Would Increase; Existing Power Plants Would Get Windfall

The state’s electricity shortfall won’t be solved by paying utilities based on how much power they can generate, rather than how much they actually generate, a new Public Citizen report finds.

The report comes as debate rages among regulators and state lawmakers over how to keep the lights on in Texas. Demand for electricity is increasing while new power plant construction is slowing down.

Some want a “capacity market” – one in which power plant owners are paid for being ready to generate electricity. Others prefer to create incentives for reducing electricity consumption. A new study released today by Public Citizen found that the state’s electricity shortfall won’t be solved by a capacity market. Instead, a capacity market would just reward the owners of existing power plants with substantial windfall profits.

“Our study has found that a capacity market takes too long, costs too much and won’t be enough to keep the lights on,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “We’d be better off developing a new market structure that creates incentives for people to use less electricity.”

The debate about whether to pay electric companies for the energy they produce or the capacity to produce energy has occurred in many parts of the country over the past 10 years. The state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) has been discussing this issue for more than a year and will consider it again on Thursday. It could vote on whether or not to create a capacity market.

To answer the question of whether a capacity market would benefit Texas, energy experts hired by Public Citizen analyzed a capacity market run by PJM, a regional transmission organization that coordinates electricity movement in 13 states and the District of Columbia, which is the market model most similar to the approach the PUC is discussing. Researchers found that replicating the PJM-run capacity market would take until 2015 and would cost between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year.

In addition, such a market would divert resources from new, more efficient power sources. In the PJM market, $54 billion went to existing power plants while just $4.2 billion went to new resources such as gas, wind and solar.

“Creating a capacity market would take way too long and would cost way too much,” said Anna Sommer, president of Sommer Energy and the report’s principle author. “In addition, it would prop up dirty and inefficient energy plants. A capacity market clearly is not the solution.”

Added David Schissel, president of Schlissel Technical Consulting and a report co-author, “We looked at the other grid operators and their capacity markets and found that in those markets, existing fossil fuel and nuclear plants were the big winners.”

David Power, deputy director for Public Citizen’s Texas office said, “We have been debating this issue for several years. It’s time to act. Even consultants who are recommending a capacity market have concluded that the cheapest, fastest way to keep the lights on is to develop new ways to reduce the demand or the amount of energy we use at peak times when customer demand is highest. The commission can and should develop a one hour ahead demand reduction market.”

This is the first of two studies to be released this week by Public Citizen. The second study will focus on whether a shift to a capacity market would be enough to keep Energy Futures Holdings from slipping into bankruptcy.

The report is available here.

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