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Posts Tagged ‘Public Citizen’

Armstrong Energy is facing challenges from the market that may threaten the viability and profitability of its proposed coal export terminal in Louisiana, a new Public Citizen report (Armstrong Coal final report) finds. A failed company and abandoned export terminal would create significant costs for Plaquemines Parish.

In the report, “RAMming It Down Our Throats: Armstrong Energy Could Leave Louisiana Taxpayers Holding the Bag on Its Proposed RAM Terminal,” Public Citizen looked at Armstrong Energy’s financial condition and the effect of market conditions on the coal export company.

“Armstrong Energy is in hot water,” said Hillary Corgey, researcher for Public Citizen and the report’s author. “Between rising debt, market conditions unfavorable to coal, and climate change, the RAM Terminal may have a good chance of sinking, both in terms of its hurricane-prone location and the viability of the company.”

The RAM Terminal is to be built near the 150-year old community of Ironton in Plaquemines Parish, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans. The terminal is to be fully operational within two years of construction and ship 10 million tons of coal. Two hearings on August 14 and 15 attracted more than 100 residents who oppose the terminal’s latest push for permits.
(more…)

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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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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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Smith’s Bill – HB1714 – Makes Perry’s Texas Even More of a Paradise for Polluters and is expected to be heard in the Texas House sometime on Thursday

Contact your representative (don’t know who that is . . . click here) and tell them to vote NO on HB 1714

On April 17th, an explosion at the West Fertilizer plant killed 15 people – mostly first responders, and injured hundreds more; that plant had been cited 5 times in 6 years by three enforcement agencies for failing to follow the law. Leaders of Texas’ environmental organizations called on state legislators to protect against the next environmental disaster by rejecting Rep Wayne Smith’s 1714 which would eliminate provision in Texas environmental law requiring more inspections and tougher enforcement for polluters who have poor record with the state or federal environmental agencies.

“Leadership needs to improve regulations, not weaken them further,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.  The Texas Legislature will consider HB 1714 by Representative Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) in the Texas House that would further weaken the permitting and enforcement processes.”

“HB 1714, would eliminate enhanced inspections of companies that have a history of environmental violations at a time when it is clear that the state and its citizens would benefit from having more scrutiny of companies that violate their permits. This bill would also reduce public disclosure of the state’s evaluation of company compliance histories, making it even more difficult to distinguish the bad actors from the good actors.”

“While the facility at West, TX may have been too small to have qualified for the enhanced inspections as the law is currently written,” continued Smith, “it begs the question, should we be weakening this oversight rather than enhancing it in order to prevent these types of tragedies?”

Years of state budget cuts and lax regulations have left communities at risk.

“The West Fertilizer incident shows how badly the TCEQ has failed to protect Texans under Governor Perry’s ‘paradise for polluters’ administration,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition.  The TCEQ failed to inspect the plant even after three state and federal agencies found five violations at that plant over the last six years. The plant was operating without the proper permits and failed to properly train their workers, label dangerous products or to develop a worst case accident plan.

“Texas has a program that is supposed to target companies that have poor compliance records with extra inspections. The West Fertilizer plant was “unclassified” – meaning the TCEQ didn’t take the time to look at the plant’s record. Had TCEQ inspected the West Fertilizer facility, we can only hope that they might have found the 270 tons of explosives at the site and 15 people might not have died.”

Budget cuts have real consequences. Over the last 4 years, funding for TCEQ has been cut back 34% and 295 employees have been laid off.

“TCEQ doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors for the number of facilities it is responsible for. Facilities are not routinely inspected and the agency’s response to complaints is far from adequate. In 2006, a nearby resident reported a gas leak at the West Fertilizer facility and it took the TCEQ 11 days to travel the 17 miles from Waco to West to follow up,” pointed out David Weinberg, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, and further illustrates TCEQ’s ineffectiveness.” (See westfertilizerinfo.com for TCEQ files)

As the events of the past two months have shown, the push to hasten the permitting process, weaken the regulatory oversight processes, and abandon due diligence and planning for both large and small industrial facilities has real life consequences.

Hadden said, “These disasters serve as a reminder of the necessity for strong and effective land use regulations, as well as proper enforcement systems to ensure public safety and prevent toxic releases into the environment.  Regulations that reduce the likelihood and size of industrial accidents protect workers, nearby neighborhoods and residents, and minimize the potential loss of life when accidents do happen, as they always will.”

“The Texas Legislature must act now to ensure existing and new regulations protect workers, communities and our state’s natural resources on which we all depend,” concluded Smith.

Contact your representative (don’t know who that is . . . click here) and tell them to vote NO on HB 1714.

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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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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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