Sunset Report Takes Half Step Forward, More Change Needed at State Environmental Agencies

After hundreds of public comments and meetings, the Sunset Advisory Committee staff released two reports yesterday, on the Railroad Commission of Texas, which largely regulates mining and oil and gas, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates every other industry. The Sierra Club and other environmental and consumer organizations were generally pleased with the reports, but urged further changes to make those agencies actually work for the public and environment, and not be so beholden to industry. Both agencies will be under further review at a public meeting on December 15th at the Texas capitol. Below are the two press releases released yesterday. More information about the Sunset Hearing and our own recommendations can be found at the Alliance for Clean Texas and the Sunset Advisory Committee.

Sunset Report Takes Half Step Forward,
More Change Needed at State Environmental Agency

For Immediate Release – November 18, 2010

Contacts:
Matthew Tejada, Air Alliance of Houston – 512-934-8661
Bee Moorhead, Texas Impact – 512-636-3135
Cyrus Reed, Lone Star Chapter-Sierra Club – 512-740-4046
Karen Hadden, Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition – 512-797-8481
Eric Allmon, Texas Center for Policy Studies – 512-469-6000
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Public Citizen-Texas Office – 512-797-8468

Is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – the state’s environmental agency – doing a good enough job protecting the health of Texans?  The Sunset Advisory Commission Staff Report on TCEQ, issued today, is a first step in answering that question.  The report contains a number of positive recommendations that, if adopted by the Sunset Advisory Commission and ultimately enacted by the Texas Legislature, will help strengthen the TCEQ in carrying out its responsibilities to protect the environment and public health for all Texans. However, the report failed to make recommendations to resolve a number of chronic problems plaguing the agency.

“We are pleased that the Sunset staff found merit in the issues and recommendations we presented relating to enforcement effectiveness and transparency, compliance history, public participation and other important areas within the agency,” commented former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward, who has been working with Air Alliance Houston on their Sunset recommendations.  “We commend the Sunset Staff for their thorough research and very insightful findings and recommendations on these issues and look forward to working with the Sunset Commission members as the process progresses.”

“The Sunset staff has made some excellent recommendations about increasing penalties for pollution and raising the rates that polluters pay,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen.  “The big ticket item that the staff report avoids is Texas’ flawed permitting program.  We hope that the TCEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continue to work together to fix our state’s permitting flaws and that this vital issue will not be further complicated by needless politics and grandstanding.”

“This is a great start to make the TCEQ a better agency, but we regret that the Sunset Staff did not recommend other changes that would have helped address the issues and problems that citizens face regularly when dealing with the TCEQ, such as the agency’s regulation of toxic hot spots around the state,” commented Air Alliance Houston’s Matthew Tejada.  “We will continue to work to get these other very significant issues addressed either by the Sunset Advisory Commission or by the Legislature.”

Bee Moorhead, executive director of the interfaith group Texas Impact, said TCEQ reform legislation should start with the basics. “Lawmakers need to adopt a statutory mission statement that says TCEQ’s job is to protect human health and the environment. Period. Texans deserve an agency that is there to protect their health, not the bottom lines of polluters,” she said.

Eric Allmon with the Texas Center for Policy Studies commented that, “We appreciate the recognition by the Sunset Commission Staff that an open and inclusive process for decision making at the TCEQ is important.” He continued to say, “many of the Staff’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, but further steps to give the public an independent voice in TCEQ’s decisions, along with a close examination of TCEQ’s decision making procedures, would help ensure that the agency is acting with the full benefit of the public’s input.”

“We are pleased that the sunset staff report agreed that water and gas rate cases should be moved to the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), and said the Office of Public Interest Counsel should be strengthened,” said Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Sierra Club. “However, we are disappointed in their recommendation regarding water quality regulation between the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) and the TCEQ. We also believe TCEQ is better suited to handle uranium mining and coal combustion wastes and are sorry that the staff report did not address this.”

The staff report also took up the controversial issue of low-level radioactive waste. “The Sunset Commission should recommend the legislature immediately put a stop to the proposed rule to import additional radioactive waste from 36 states, and analyze the health and financial risks to the state of Texas,”  said Karen Hadden, executive director of SEED Coalition.” Adequate funding is essential to assure this commission has the ability to hire staff and experts to do its job”

The Sunset Advisory Commission will hold its public hearing on December 15th or 16th to hear public testimony on TCEQ. They will vote on reforms on January 12th. These recommendations will be then reviewed and voted on by the entire Texas Legislature this coming session.

The Alliance for Clean Texas (ACT), a statewide coalition of environmental, public interest and faith organizations, developed a reform platform with detailed plans to tighten permitting, strengthen enforcement and allow the public more input into critical regulatory processes.  Over the past two months, hundreds of Texans have voiced their recommendations for improvements to TCEQ at town hall meetings throughout the state. From El Paso to Beaumont, Texans have described how TCEQ failed to protect their health and property. Citizen after citizen shared tales of how the agency:

  • ignored clear evidence that a proposed plant would affect their health or livelihood;
  • ignored the cumulative impacts of combined emissions from dozens of proposed coal plants or thousands of oil and gas wells;
  • failed to act when a polluter emitted far more that it was;
  • permitted assessed fines that were meaningless or failed to look at the combined impact of air and water emissions;
  • ignored federal laws;
  • overruled the recommendations of their staff and administrative law judges in permitting matter

More information on these town hall meetings plus the coalition’s detailed permitting and enforcement recommendations can be found on http://www.acttexas.org.

 

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Activists Pleased with Rail Road Commission Sunset Recommendations

For Immediate Release Contact: Andy Wilson 917-238-0761

November 18, 2010                                                                                       Cyrus Reed   512-477-1729

 

Public Citizen and Sierra Club agreed with many of the recommendations made by the staff of the Sunset Commission for the Railroad Commission but more must be done to protect the health and quality of life of all Texans.

 

“Overall these recommendations, if adopted, will create a leaner, smarter agency – with a name reflecting its mission – the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Eliminating the 3 fulltime elected commissioners and other changes would save the state an estimated $23 million a year. Under staff recommendations natural gas rate-cases would be moved to the Public Utilities Commission (also under Sunset this year), and enforcement disputes would be moved from being resolved by a judge beholden to the agency to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). In addition the Commission would end the promotion of propane as a fuel, and rely more on administrative and regulatory fees to pay for their activities, rather than depend on general revenue” said Andy Wilson, a policy analyst for Public Citizen who studies good government, campaign finance, and climate change.

 

Advocates point out problems that are still likely to occur if staff recommendations are adopted, due to overlapping regulatory authority with other state agencies over issues including oil and gas drilling, coal ash waste, and uranium mining. “Sunset Staff has failed to clearly define which agency (TCEQ or RRC) will deal with what regulatory aspects of oil and gas drilling, particularly in the Barnett Shale,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added, “Texans deserve a single agency to regulate coal ash waste and uranium mining, rather than have regulatory authority at two different agencies, which confuses both industry and the general public.”

 

“Fracking or drilling in suburban areas represents one of the largest environmental issues facing Texas today.  Letting the Railroad Commission and TCEQ continue to share turf here is essentially punting,” added Wilson.

 

“Moving to an appointed board rather than an elected one is a smart choice, removing the inherent conflicts of interest and partisan politics created by our campaign finance system,” said Wilson.  “According to our analysis, over half of all campaign contributions to incumbent members of the Railroad Commission come from industries they are in charge of directly regulating.”

 

“However, there is no need to have a 5 person board when a 3 person commission will do.  Changing to this kind of board is already estimated to save $1.2 million— having a three person board will increase savings in this tight budget year,” added Wilson.

 

Also, according to Texas Open Meetings laws, two members of a five person board may confer with one another in private, while a three person board can only conduct business in public, open meetings.  “That could be a case of two steps forward, one step back,” said Wilson.

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