TCEQ and Social Media

Do you follow the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Twitter? How about Facebook? Did you know they have an Instagram page? LinkedIn? YouTube?

The TCEQ has about 18,000 followers across those platforms, with 10,000 of those on LinkedIn and 6,000 on Twitter. They also maintain the website and social media for “Take Care of Texas,” the less-successful younger brother of TxDOT’s “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

Last week, at the first meeting of the House Environmental Regulations Committee during the 86th legislature, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker told committee members that he hoped the TCEQ could use social media more effectively in the future. We agreed at the time, and now we’d like to take this opportunity to identify three things the TCEQ does well on social media and three things it could do better.

1. Air Quality Forecasts

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality uses its Twitter page to post daily air quality forecasts. The air quality forecasts might look familiar to you if you know of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index and AirNow.gov website. Many people use these tools to get information about air quality and air pollution near them, including people who suffer from asthma and people who work outdoors. When elevated ozone levels are the difference between a safe run or an asthma attack, you can imagine why some people rely on these resources. The TCEQ provides an email option for air quality forecasts, but posting them on social media is a great way to build the audience.

TCEQ began posting air quality forecasts back to 2015, when they were still using the @TCEQNews twitter handle. This happened in response to criticism from Air Alliance Houston (where I worked at the time), which had been calling attention to TCEQ’s total lack of an online presence. TCEQ never directly acknowledged our criticism, but to their credit, they did start posting daily air quality forecasts. In my research for this post, I found an archived Air Alliance Houston blog post from 2015 in which I (immodestly) took credit for prompting TCEQ to action.

2. Drought Maps

Some time after the TCEQ started posting daily air quality forecasts on Twitter, they added regularly updated drought maps. This is another example of actionable content about environmental quality. People across Texas can use the drought maps to adjust their water use or decide which of Texas’ many lakes, rivers, and streams to visit. Seeing periodic drought maps is also a good reminder that Texas often faces water shortages. We hope that this fact will prompt people to speak up about the need to use water more wisely in Texas by, for example, limiting the use of water in hydraulic fracturing or investing in urban water infrastructure to minimize transmission losses.

3. Notice of Public Hearings

This is another example where public criticism caused TCEQ to respond and change its practices for the better. Perhaps three years ago, the old @TCEQNews Twitter account posted to announce the close of a public comment period with no comments received. I responded (again from the Air Alliance Houston Twitter account) that receiving zero public comments was nothing to celebrate, and that perhaps TCEQ should post notice of public opportunities when they begin, not when they end without participation. Again I didn’t get a direct acknowledgement of my criticism, but again TCEQ responded, this time by beginning to post notice of public hearings. The public hearing is an essential opportunity for members of the public to weigh on permits and other decisions that affect our environment, so TCEQ should do everything it can to encourage public involvement.

A recent public meeting in Houston.

Pointing out these past exchanges with TCEQ isn’t about any desire for credit, but rather to show that the TCEQ does sometimes respond to publicly raised concerns. These may be a few modest changes by the agency, but they are typical of what we see from TCEQ. There are many, many hardworking, conscientious staffers at the Commission. Much of the good work that TCEQ does happens among these staffers, quietly and by degrees. These are the people who are listening when we make recommendations to the TCEQ. They may not announce changes with fanfare, but they can often nudge the Commission in the right direction. With that in mind, here are three things the TCEQ could do better on social media.

1. Focus on the Public

Do you know who TCEQ’s customers are? You might think it’s the 28 million Texans who breathe air, drink water, and enjoy unspoiled natural land. In fact, in TCEQ parlance, a “customer” is a company that has a permit with the Commission. What we might call a “polluter.”

This focus of attention on polluters is evident in TCEQ’s messaging on their website, social media, and elsewhere. So, for example, you will find social media announcements for the Environmental Trade Fair and Conference, but you aren’t likely to see any announcements for a workshop about, say, filing an environmental complaint. (As an aside, if you want to know how un-user friendly TCEQ’s complaint process is, consider that the actual email address they use is [email protected].)

2. Post permit notices and information Online

The TCEQ could promote public engagement by making more information available online. There is actually a bill filed in this legislative session by Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, HB 245, that would require TCEQ to post certain environmental and water use permit applications online.

The TCEQ could do this by choice if it wanted to. If online posting required more resources, the TCEQ could request those resources in its budget proposal to the legislature. Furthermore, posting permits online would free TCEQ resources in the filing rooms across the state, where records are required to be kept for public viewing. Online posting wouldn’t eliminate the need for public maintenance of records, but it would drastically reduce the number of members of the public who came to view records, thus relieving an administrative burden on TCEQ. Details aside, there is little question that moving toward storing information online will save resources in the long run. TCEQ has, to its credit, done a lot of work in recent years to combine and update its online databases. Posting permits online is a next logical step.

3. Engage!

To recap, much of the story I have told here is one of advocates such as myself calling out TCEQ, and TCEQ quietly responding. At times the Commission seems singleminded about not engaging with the people. Perhaps they are concerned about creating liability or upsetting their customers. Whatever the reason, probably the biggest flaw in TCEQ’s social media strategy is the unwillingness to engage people where they are. To enter into frank exchanges about the hazards Texans face and what they can do about them. Nowhere is this more evident than during a natural disaster or an accident such as a fire or chemical release. These incidents often lead to robust discussions on social media, including people looking for information about risks and how to avoid them. In these up-to-the-minute conversations, the TCEQ is nowhere to be found. I suspect we could get an answer from some lawyers about why TCEQ cannot weigh in on a disaster as it is unfolding, but from our perspective that answer will simply be a justification to continue to not engage a willing public.

If the Commission is serious about improving its social media presence, our last suggestion is to loosen up, engage with people, and pull back the veil a bit. If people see the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality willing to engage with them, then perhaps they will be more willing to make that complaint, attend that workshop, or file those public comments. We have to believe that this is what TCEQ actually wants from average Texans, and social media is one way to encourage it.

Honorable Mention: TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker

In conclusion, we have to applaud TCEQ’s Executive Director Toby Baker for having his own twitter account, @ctobybaker, since 2012. Mr. Baker has shared some fun tweets over the years, though at some point there was an addition to his twitter profile that is quite revelatory about the TCEQ’s current approach to social media. It reads, “Due to TX laws, I can’t receive certain communications– all ‘mentions’ are screened”