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Union members protest the worker lockout

Earlier this, week, I spent time with some very fine folks from the United Steel Workers Local 13-1. Since April 22nd, about 235 workers have been locked out of the Dow Chemical facility in Deer Park, with the company citing failed labor negotiations. The workers have not been receiving pay or benefits since that time.

Stephanie Thomas met with USW 13-1 President Lee Medley

One of the union leaders told me that even though the workers were willing to continue working until negotiations had been reached, the company still locked them out.

The union members are an important part of the workforce and they help ensure safe operations. With all the incidents that have happened over recent months along the ship channel, such as the ITC Disaster, safety needs to be a top concern.

The workers are asking for your support. They are receiving donations to help the impacted families.

HOW YOU CAN HELP…

Specific items needed are posted on the USW website.

Make donations in person to either union hall:
USW 13-1 North Union Hall (Located Near the DOW Facility)
311 Pasadena Blvd.
Pasadena, TX 77506
Monday-Friday 8 AM – 4 PM
* Please call if making a donation outside of these times: 713-473-3381

USW 13-1 South Union Hall
2327 Texas Avenue
Texas City, TX 77590
Monday-Friday 1 PM-5 PM
* Please call if making a donation outside of these times: 409-945-2355

Because these workers are not receiving pay or benefits, anything that you can offer will go a long way toward supporting them and their families.

Note: Today the Texas House of Representative’s Committee on Elections held a public hearing on Senate Bill 9, which would suppress votes in Texas by creating new criminal penalties and requirements for voters and election administrators. In an unusual move, registration for public testimony on the bill was closed by 8:30 a.m. CT. Even though hundreds of people had registered in advance of the hastily imposed deadline, hundreds more did not arrive in time. Certain members of the committee and the public are now calling on Committee Chairman Stephanie Klick to reopen testimony. The Elections Committee hearing will resume when the House finishes its business for the day.

Statement by Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office

Make no mistake: This bill is an attempt to suppress voters, and this attempt to gag witness testimony only proves that. Hundreds of people traveled to Austin from across Texas to voice their opposition to this bill. Now, due to an arbitrary decision by Chairman Klick, the people’s voices will not be heard. If our lawmakers are confident that this bill is about “election integrity” and not voter suppression, then they have nothing to fear from the testimony of hundreds of civic-minded Texans. Klick and the members of the Elections Committee still have an opportunity to reopen testimony and let Texas voters be heard. We must do that now.


Electric utilities offer a variety rate structures to their customers. I focus my writing here on municipal utilities using tiered rates and explore some of the opportunities and complications.

  • Basic: Customers are charged the same rate for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) they use.
  • Tiered Rates: The cost per kWh changes as the customer uses more electricity. The structure is the same as for federal income taxes. The customer pays one rate for the first block of energy (say up to 500 kWh) and a different rate for the next block of energy (say between 501 and 1,000 kWh). The number of tiers can vary.

Electric utilities have many options when it comes to billing residential energy usage. Tiered rates offer an opportunity for electric utilities to encourage decreased energy usage. This may help decrease our reliance on nonrenewable resources and reduce costs. Following my research on the largest 100 municipal electrical utilities, I have come across some hopeful examples of tiered rate structures which promote energy conservation. Others, however, may have the opposite effect.

Tiered rates can be used as a useful tool to conserve energy usage but only when the rate goes up in price as energy use increases. Not all electric services offer tiered rates. Even when they do, you typically only see 2 or 3 tiers that go up minimally in price.

Austin Energy provides an excellent example of how a municipal electric utility can promote reduced energy usage through a multilayered tiered rate structure. With 5 tiers that go up by roughly 2 cents for every 500 kWh increase in energy, customers have an incentive to cut down on their energy consumption. Bristol Tennessee Essential Services has a tiered structure with 6 tiers, the most tiers I found throughout my research.

The downfalls to tiered rate structures occur when utilities instead discount higher energy consumption. This structure is counterproductive to achieving a less energy dependent future in our society, and reflect and the challenge of getting electric utilities to encourage conservation when their business models are dependent upon selling more electricity. Many utilities implement this backwards billing structure to customers only in the winter. Georgia Power visualizes this tendency on its website.

The majority of utilities (11 out of 18) that discount increased energy consumption in the winter are located in the South. Because winters are mild in the South and many customers use natural gas for heating, customers in this region don’t use as much energy in the winter. This leads me to believe that these discounts are intended to encourage increased energy usage in the winter, as a way to boost electric utility revenue. Some of the more northern utilities that have declining tiered rates – including Rochester Public Utilities – may have less sinister motives, namely to help customers avoid high bills during cold snaps, but this would bear additional research. In this time where it is imperative to promote decreases in energy usage, municipal utility utilities cannot be hesitant to adopt increasing tiered structures regardless of the time of year.

The City of North Little Rock Electric Company has done exactly this. Their tiered rate structure once discounted prices as consumption increased. These outdated rate structures, like many others like this, were in place since 2006. They recognize that this discounted structure is inconsistent with encouraging conservation and promise to eliminate these declining price blocks over a three year period.

Many other utilities can, and should, do the same. One more common theme I have encountered are extremely outdated rate structures. Jonesboro City Water & Light utility in Arkansas, has maintained the same rates since 1984.

Times have changed, particularly in values of consumption, in the past 35 years. I urge municipal utilities to update their rate structures in order to stay up to stay consistent with conservation values. Tiered rate structures have the capacity to encourage customers to become more conscious of their energy usage and to decrease their total usage. I encourage utilities to follow in the same path as Little Rock by hiring a company such as Utility Financial Solutions to review and improve current and outdated utility rate structures. In this way, electric utilities may begin to implement rate structures that encourage energy consumption while also not imposing too dramatic of an increase in bills for customers.

Once again, Public Citizen will be at EarthX Expo at Fair Park in Dallas, TX from April 26 thru the 28th celebrating Earth Day. Stop by our booth in the Centennial Building #4742 . The Expo is open from 10 AM to 6 PM each day.

Need Directions getting there? Click here. And you can register for free admission by clicking here.

There will be tons to do and see. Check out the event guide by clicking here. And don’t forget to come by and visit with us!

As more Texans look to solar energy to power their homes and businesses as a way to save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Texas Sen. Jose Menendez is working to win passage of a bill that would provide standards for the industry in the state.

CSSB 2066, sponsored by the San Antonio Democrat, aims to give residential and small commercial customers in many parts of Texas standards they can rely on when considering the use of distributed generation. A steady uptick in the number of small businesses and homeowners switching to solar is improving affordability for residents, reducing operating costs for businesses, and creating local jobs. There are now over 50,000 Texas residents and businesses using distributed solar energy. And over 9,600 people are employed in the solar industry in Texas.

All of this is good news and the average solar customer has a positive experience and is happy to be paying less for electricity while doing something reduce air pollution, improve public health and address climate change. But, the lack of statewide standards has led to frustration and bad practices in some cases. This bill would start the process of standardizing what should be included in a solar lease, and where and how customers have a right to utilize distributed solar energy.

To learn more about this important legislation that Public Citizen supports, read the full testimony from Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, below.

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Texas needs to ensure that the people in charge of companies that affect our environment have a good track record.

That’s why Public Citizen is backing CSSB 1931, a bill in the Texas Senate sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat. The bill would provide the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) with another tool to review environmental permit applications: a criminal background check of officers or governing persons.


Pasadena Refining was at the center of a 10-year bribery scandal that eventually led to the impeachment of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff.[3] Petrobras was the subject of 25 securities fraud cases.

This good legislation by Zaffirini would give TCEQ authority to deny a permit application, or revoke or suspend a permit, if the applicant has been convicted of a crime directly related to the duties and responsibilities of a permit holder, or a crime involving moral turpitude within the last five years.

Why is this necessary? Well, there are several examples in Texas of criminal conduct at companies with environmental permits. Some of these companies eventually had large pollution events or accidents.

Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, lays out several examples in his letter to lawmakers below. We urge the Texas Legislature to approve this important bill.

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According to the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas has 466,623 miles of pipeline, representing about one-sixth of the total pipeline mileage of the entire United States.

Oil and gas pipelines are also inherently dangerous, and that’s why Public Citizen’s Texas office is always keeping a close eye on bills in the state legislature that would improve protections against human injury and/or environmental damage from pipelines, or bills that would erode safeguards.

Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, testified before the legislature this week on three commonsense bills to help make Texas pipelines safer. The bills, sponsored by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would:

  • Require prompt disclosure of pipeline incidents to the Railroad Commission, which will facilitate response and preparation for future incidents.
  • Require the use of safer plastic pipelines by gas pipeline operators
  • Create a system for identifying the severity of pipeline leaks and the proscription of an appropriate immediate response to the worst leaks.

We applaud Rep. Anchia for introducing these important bills (CSHB 864, CSHB 866 and CSHB 868). Read more about each of the bills in Shelley’s testimony below.

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Public Citizen urged state lawmakers today to support HB 784, an important ethics bill that would create a criminal offense if members of state agency governing boards and governing officers fail to disclose conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from decisions when such conflicts arise.

This bill continues a multi-session trend by Rep. Sarah Davis, a Houston Republican, to try to improve Texas’ notoriously weak public ethics laws. In fact, in a 2015 state integrity investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, Texas was given a D- for its poor ethics laws.

HB 784 defines a “financial interest” as a five percent ownership or control interest that could result in a financial benefit.

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In the past few weeks, the Houston area has experienced three major chemical fires, releasing toxic pollution into the air and water and killing one person. The Texas House Committees on Environmental Regulation and Homeland Security & Public Safety are hosting a “public hearing” this Friday (April 5) about the “ITC incident,” but only allowing invited testimony. That means the people from the Houston area who have been suffering from these disasters don’t get to speak!

So we’re having a rally & press conference to give effected residents space to share their stories. Whether you’re from Deer Park or another part of Houston or just want to stand in solidarity with frontline communities who are being polluted and silenced, we invite you to join us.

The rally and press conference will be at 9:30 in the Open-Air Rotunda in the Capitol extension (E2).

ITC in Deer Park ablaze and shrouded in black smoke –
photo by the Houston Chronicle on the first day of the fire.

The joint hearing will take place at 10:30 AM or upon adjournment of the Texas House of Representatives, at the Texas Capitol in Hearing Room E1.030. Or you can stream the hearing live at https://house.texas.gov/video-audio/.

Invited Testimony will be allowed from the following (15 minutes each)

  • Mr. Toby Baker, Executive Director, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
  • Mr. Francisco Sanchez, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management
  • Mr. David Gray, Deputy Regional Administrator for Region 6, US Environmental Protection Agency
  • The Honorable Jerry Mouton, Mayor, City of Deer Park, Texas

We have heard there will be a hearing in or near Deer Park after the session. The last day of the regular Texas Legislative session is May 27th.

It’s time to demand that U.S. Attorney General Robert Mueller release the full, unredacted Mueller Report to the American public.

That’s why Public Citizen and others are participating in peaceful street/sidewalk protests in major Texas cities and around the nation on Thursday to insist that Trump’s hand-picked attorney general release the full report. Barr missed a congressional deadline to release the report on Tuesday night.

We deserve the full report and congressional leaders and the American people expect it now.

Here are the Texas events. We hope to see you out there!

AUSTIN

WHEN: Thursday, April 4 at noon to 7 p.m.

WHERE: 6th St and Lamar Blvd or your neighborhood!

We will be there ALL day, 12 noon to 7p so people can come when their schedule permits. We are taking our message to the streets. Fill the sidewalks with our DEMAND that the Mueller Report be released in full and unredacted form. Bring your signs. We will be in a very busy area and able to impact THOUSANDS. Numbers Matter. Let our Legislators see that this matters to us!!!!!

DALLAS

WHEN: Thursday, April 4 at 5 p.m.

WHERE: Dallas City Hall Plaza, 1500 Marilla Street

FORT WORTH

WHEN: Thursday, April 4 at 5 p.m.

WHERE:Mahon U.S. Courthouse (Burnett Park), 501 W. 10th Street

HOUSTON

Thursday, April 4 at 5 p.m.

WHERE: Houston City Hall, 901 Bagby Street

GALVESTON

WHEN: Thursday, April 4 at 5 p.m.

WHERE: Federal Building, 601 25th Street (sidewalk in front)

Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was one of the mostly costly natural disasters in history, with damage in Texas estimated at more than $100 billion.

Since the storm, Public Citizen has repeatedly asked the question: Who Pays for Harvey? The answer remains elusive.

HB 274 sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione provides one solution to this problem, creating the disaster reinvestment and infrastructure planning revolving fund and making a one-time appropriation of $1 billion from the economic stabilization fund.

Public Citizen supports the creation of this fund and the appropriation as one means to pay for Harvey recovery and for that of future storms.

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KMCO fire again blackens the skies in Crosby, TX – Photo by KHOU
Note: Today, an explosion and fire erupted at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, near Houston. One person is dead, one person is missing and multiple people have suffered injuries. The incident follows recent chemical fires in Texas that have led to public health and safety concerns.  

Statement of Stephanie Thomas, Public Citizen’s Houston Researcher and Organizer.

Enough is enough. 

Today’s incident in Crosby is the third chemical fire in recent weeks, highlighting the insidious nature of corporate pollution in the Houston area and many other areas in the country. We no longer can accept a culture that places profits before people.  

The Texas state government has a record of lax enforcement, and the Trump administration is rolling back necessary protections for workers and people living and working in the shadow of chemical plants.

These sequential disasters highlight the dire need for more and better protections for these fence line communities. Polluters should not get a free pass to pollute our communities and harm our neighbors. 

How many disasters must our communities endure before our elected officials wake up to the need for better protections? How many people need to fear for their health and safety? How many workers must be injured or killed for government to act? 

The time to act is now.

The House Environmental Regulation, and Homeland Security & Public Safety Committees are holding a joint hearing on Friday at the Capitol on the #ITCDisaster (they call it the ITC incident). This hearing will be for invited testimony only but you can stream it live – https://house.texas.gov/video-audio/

Don’t think an “invited testimony only” hearing is good enough? Contact your Texas Representative and Senator and tell them they should hold a public hearing in Houston to allow those impacted by these disastrous accidents to testify. #TxLege

A pair of bills under consideration in the Texas Legislature would diminish some free speech protections for Texans, and today Public Citizen joined other First Amendment champions to speak out on the legislation.

In essence, Public Citizen’s fears that HB 2730, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano, would seriously undermine critical free speech safeguards for Texans who participate in public discussions about businesses and political issues.

Such speech is currently protected by the Texas Citizens Participation Act – commonly known as TCPA, and also known as the Texas anti-SLAPP law. Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen’s Texas office director, and Public Citizen attorney Paul Levy submitted written testimony to the committee today that elaborates on our position. Shelley also testified in person during today’s hearing.

Michelle L., a Florida woman who raised health alarms about a medical study she had participated in before becoming wary of the program also spoke out on the bill today. Michelle was sued in Houston (where her LLC was located) for raising public concerns about the medical study. Public Citizen’s lawyers took on her case pro bono and prevailed in part by using the TCPA law that Leach and others want to modify.

“The TCPA (law) is ultimately what helped,” Lanham told the House Judiciary Committee. “People are scared to talk and this is very important.”

You can read the official Public Citizen testimony in opposition to HB 2730 below.

On Monday, the committee substitute for House Bill 2860, was up for a public hearing in the Texas House Committee on State Affairs. We delivered testimony in support of the bill, while also asking for a significant change.

You can send and email to support these recommendations.

What the Bill Does

This bill would set standards that residential and small commercial customers in many parts of Texas can rely on when considering the use of distributed generation. A growing number of Texas residents and businesses are utilizing distributed solar energy systems to reduce their electric bills. This is improving affordability for residents, reducing operating costs for businesses, and creating local jobs.

There are now over 14,000 Texas residents and businesses using distributed solar energy. And over 9,600 people are employed in the solar industry in Texas. All of this is good news and the average solar customer has a positive experience and is happy to be paying less for electricity while doing something reduce air pollution, improve public health and address climate change.

But, the lack of statewide standards has led to frustration and bad practices in some cases. This bill would start the process of standardizing what should be included in a solar lease, where and how customers have a right to utilize distributed solar energy, and how electric utilities should treat customers who use or wish to use solar.

Change Needed to Avoid Safety and Environmental Hazards

Section 6 of this bill would add Section 39.1015(a) to the Utilities Code to define “distributed generation.” It expands the definition of “distributed renewable generation” found in Section 39.916(a)(1) of the Utilities Code, to all energy sources. This expanded term is referenced throughout this bill and would limit the ability of HOAs, municipalities and electric utilities from regulating the use of fossil fuel generators if they were connected behind the meter. While it is unlikely that many residential or small commercial customers would utilize such generators because of the relatively high cost, we don’t think this is a wise change.

As the Association of Electric Companies of Texas (AECT) pointed out in its letter to the House Committee on State Affairs, there are “safety and environmental risks associated with generators that use fossil fuel.” This is the one statement in that letter that we agree with. Fossil fuel generators, are noisy, polluting, often include exposed elements that get very hot and include moving parts. These are not characteristics that many would welcome into their residential or mixed-use neighborhoods.

This problem can be remedied by simply using the definition of “distributed renewable generation” everywhere that you currently find the new definition of “distributed generation” referenced. The remainder of this testimony is written assuming this change was made.

Standards for Solar Leases

Solar leases are a common tool that can allow certain customers to access distributed solar energy systems that may not otherwise be able to do so. They are especially helpful for nonprofits and other customers who don’t have tax liability, as a way to access the benefits of the federal solar investment tax credit. They are also attractive for customers who don’t want to be responsible for maintenance.

While they can be beneficial, they are also often quite complicated and customers can sometimes find themselves trapped in a bad agreement that wasn’t what they expected. Every industry has its good actors and bad actors and the solar industry is the same. Most companies that offer solar leases already comply with the provisions proposed in Section 1 of this bill. This short list of requirements will simply establish a standard that all companies offering solar leases must abide by, in order to protect the customer. In addition to information about equipment, costs, maintenance and warranties, terms regarding the transfer of the lease to a future property owner would need to be clearly stated in writing.

Homeowner Association and Municipal Regulation of Distributed Solar

In most Texas towns and cities, residents and business are able to install distributed solar energy systems on their property. As with any electrical work a permit and inspection may be required. That represents a fair and smart balance between allowing property owners to benefit from this valuable resource and protecting the city and other residents and businesses from harm.

In the past, some homeowners associations would ban or severely restrict distributed solar installations, but the Texas Legislature acted in 2011 and 2015 to set standards for how HOAs can and cannot regulate the use of solar energy systems. Section 4 of this bill would clarify the allowable inspection and interconnection process that an HOA can impose on a property owner. Section 2 would apply some of the same standards set for HOAs to municipalities.

Fair Utility Rates and Practices for Customers with Solar

Section 6 of this bill would set minimum standards for how investor owned utilities should treat customers wishing to utilize distributed generation and energy storage. Numerous studies have shown that distributed solar energy provides greater financial benefit than is accounted for even through full net metering. Texas is one of only 5 states that have no net metering requirement and this bill would not change that. It would only prohibit investor owned utilities from unfairly punishing customers who wish to use solar and or energy storage at their homes and businesses. Utilities would be required to provide timely interconnection of distributed generation and would not be allowed to charge customers punitive rates simply because they chose to utilize distributed generation or energy storage.

Recommendation

We encourage Texas House Committee on State Affairs to amend CSHB 2860 to utilize the existing definition of “distributed renewable generation” and then pass it out of committee.

You can email the committee to support this recommendation.

Representatives of Public Citizen’s Texas office will testify in a state House Committee today against legislation that would allow a major nuclear company to pay less to dump more contaminated waste.

Rep. Brooks Landgraf’s HB 2269 is scheduled for a hearing late this afternoon in the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation.

This bad bill would allow the expansion of Waste Control Specialists’ radioactive waste dump in West Texas and would eliminate the fee that the company pays to the state.

A companion bill, SB 1021, sponsored by Sen. Kel Seliger, is scheduled for a 9 a.m. hearing of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Economic Development on Wednesday.

If you oppose state policies that allow nuke waste operators to dump more while paying less for the privilege, please consider showing up at either – or both – hearings to register your opposition. Texas oil industry representatives are also expected to testify against the bills because they fear nuclear waste could contaminate the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Meanwhile, read testimony from Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, against Landgraf’s House bill here: HB 2269.