Sunset Commission Ends with A Whimper, not a Bang.. now the real work begins to reform TCEQ and Railroad Commission

There was the Sunset Reports by Sunset Staff. There were some dozen meetings hosted by the Alliance for Clean Texas in which literally thousands of Texans let their anger be known about our broken environmental and mining agencies. There was a public meeting in December at which, again, hundreds of individuals berated the Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for their general failure to follow the law and bend over backwards for industry. Then there were the 12 members of the Sunset Commission itself, who yesterday voted on their final recommendations. Get ready folks, it is a glass only half full.

Now the votes. First Railroad Commission of Texas. Good news. It will be called the Texas Oil and Gas Commission, which makes a whole lot more sense. More good news. Enforcement and gas rate hearing cases will go to the more independent SOAH – State Office of Administrative Hearings. There will not be three elected Commissioners, but only one statewide elected official, who will only be able to collect money from contributors around election time and if he wants to run for the US Senate? Under the recommendations approved yesterday, he would have to resign to run.

Bad news — the Railroad Commission will still be deciding on rate cases for gas utilities not the Public Utility Commission. Despite indicating he would, Senator Hegar never introduced an amendment to transfer uranium exploratory mining over to TCEQ where it should be.

Worst news — despite the disaster that has been the Barnett Shale, not even a real discussion of additional regulatory tools to clamp down on unfettered oil and gas development. Like what you ask? Well we don’t even have regulations on fracking fluids pipelines  or air emission guidance on the completion of wells or refracking of wells. Some basic steps that could have been taken.

Public Utility Commission did get to sit over water and wastewater rate cases, a big improvement over the TCEQ. But a very reasonable idea by Rep. Rafael Anchia to form a Texas Energy Efficiency Coordinating Council — so that all the government agencies charged with running energy efficiency programs could meet quarterly and share lessons learned — could only muster six aye votes, and six nay votes. Some members just didn’t understand that agencies talking to each other about their programs might save money, not cost additional money. But have no fear, that idea will be separate legislation down the road.

Now the big bad wolf. The TCEQ. The agency that has been repeatedly taken to task for not following the rules. Some good news. Much of the bulk of the Sunset Staff Report was adopted. That includes improvements in compliance history, increasing the caps in penalties so that companies that break the law get hid harder, adopting its enforcement guidance as actual rules so everyone knows how enforcement works, improving the Petroleum Storage Tank program, clarifying the mechanism to fund the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission so they can do their job.

All of that represents slight improvements for TCEQ but there is bad news as well. They took no action to improve OPIC — the Office of Public Interest Counsel — by either strengthening it or removing it completely to the Office of Public Utility Counsel as many of had recommended. They failed to authorize allowing the TCEQ to move the current cap on emissions fees so the agency would have adequate resources.

And several modest proposals from Rep. Anchia to improve the agency — let’s review them in six years rather than wait another 12, let’s give them specific authority to actually DENY a new permit or permit renewal, let’s put someone with medical or public health experience as one of the commissioners — didn’t even have a fighting chance. One modification that did – making sure the Rad Waste Commission couldn’t implement the rule it just passed opening up Texas to rad waste imports from around the country or even possibly the world – was pulled down by Senator Chuy Hinojosa. Hinojosa explained that he would be working with several other senators to introduce separate legislation that would require any other state that wanted to send us their waste to put up $25 million to cover liability, much as Vermont has done in joining the Texas Compact.

So folks the road for real reform at TCEQ is going to be difficult if the votes yesterday and the rather minor reforms that were approved yesterday are any indication. But honestly it is only the beginning of the road — the bills will be filed. Rumor is that in the House, Rep. Cook and Rep. Bonnen will take the lead on TCEQ and in the Senate, either Sen. Huffman or Sen Hinojosa will be the lead. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get the changes we wanted — but were unable to get in the “Sunset” process in the legislative process.. As Rocky said, “never give up. If you get knocked down, stand up and keep fighting.”



Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club


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