Tag Archives: Sunset Advisory Commission

Stories From the Frontlines: The Crossroads Between Fracking, Tar Sands, Campaign Finance, and Renewable Energy

How Two Texas Regulatory Agencies Have Embraced Industry Interests Over Citizen Concerns and Public Health

By Dave Cortez and Dewayne Quertermous

This feature was written following two hours of public testimony at an Arlington, Texas town hall regarding the Sunset Review of the Public Utilities Commission and Railroad Commission of Texas – two agencies tasked with regulating electricity, telecommunications, oil, and gas industries, among others. Organized by the Greater Fort Worth & Dallas Sierra Clubs and Public Citizen, the event served as a citizen’s communication forum for North Texans to speak directly to State Representatives Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) and Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). We thank both of them for their participation.
 
To submit comments directly to the Sunset Advisory Commission, please email sunset@sunset.state.tx.us
 

Last week, more than 80 concerned citizens gathered in Arlington to present passionate testimonials about their experiences with two major state regulatory agencies: the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Railroad Commission (RRC). From concerns about the PUC’s failure to implement state renewable energy mandates and the need to develop net-metering rules for solar, to the financing of campaigns for Railroad Commissioner and the RRC’s track record of neglecting citizen concerns over fracking and tar sands pipeline construction, one unmistakable theme repeated throughout the night was that they are tired of these agencies operating largely by and for polluting industry interests, and not for the public good.

On December 19th, many of these same North Texans will be joining with other concerned citizens from around the state to relay their personal stories of struggle and frustration with the PUC and RRC directly to members of the Sunset Advisory Commission – a 12 member legislative body tasked with the 12 year review to determine the need for an agency, looks for potential duplication of other public services or programs, and considers new and innovative changes to improve each agency’s operations and activities.

(Click here for location, meeting time, and Sierra Club’s comments on the PUC & RRC Sunset Review.)

Keystone 8-24

RULE 37 , EMINENT DOMAIN, AND
Avoiding RENEWABLE ENERGY

Of the more than forty speakers, many criticized the RRC’s lax regulation of the oil and gas industry, especially regarding fracking for natural gas and oil. While there was praise for the Fracking Fluid Disclosure Bill passed in the 82nd legislative session, and the RRC’s quick implementation of the law, as well as a few other fracking related regulations the Commission has strengthened, any positive recognition was always followed by a litany of air, water, public health, and safety concerns.

The Commission’s willingness to let industry have virtually free reign to frequently use the Rule 37 exemption, allowing them to take a mineral owner’s minerals without a lease and with little if any remuneration, came up often throughout the night. A common sore point was that Rule 37 hearings are not held locally but in Austin, forcing landowners to travel to Austin for a hearing that may be rescheduled at the last moment in order to protest what is usually a rubber-stamp approval for the industry.

fracking

Numerous speakers were frustrated by pipeline companies’ abuse of their eminent domain powers, which they get by simply checking a box on a form saying they are a ‘common carrier’. A sustained stream of outraged speakers cited concerns that the RRC does nothing to confirm the veracity of this statement, much less set any criteria for what constitutes a ‘common carrier’, whether associated with gas and oil drilling or with tar sands pipelines. The fact that once they receive ‘common carrier’ status, virtually no limits are placed on the use of eminent domain by a private company, left many incredulous.

“There’s no box to mark or delineate tar sands on the T4 form at the RRC. Tar sands is unlike conventional crude, Syncrude, or Venezuelan crude,” said event organizer Rita Beving. “These tar sands companies get a federal IRS exemption as they have determined with the IRS that dilbit or tar sands is not crude, and therefore are exempt from paying into the U.S. spill liability fund.  Still this company marks their T-4 at the RRC that they are “crude”. What is Texas to do should there be a spill? Who is going to bear the liability? The counties? The state?”

The PUC was not spared by the wave of criticism from speakers. In reference to a petition filed by the Sierra Club and Public Citizen in September, citizens wanted to know why the PUC has maintained a 7-year position that the implementation of a 500 megawatt renewable energy mandate would harm Texas electricity consumers, when many saw it as an efficient means to achieve energy independence and create jobs.

 “The recent denial to hold public meetings for a petition to act on the non-wind RPS, and in documentation on a commission website that compares the capital cost of a natural gas plant to the total cost of a solar PV plant and then declares solar too expensive indicates a bias that needs to be removed or an analysis that needs to be improved,” said Larry Howe of Plano.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AND CAMPAIGN COFFERS

Although audience members expressed their frustrations with the PUC’s deference to industry lobbyists and utility stakeholders, the fact of the matter is members of the PUC are unelected and therefore lack sufficient means for public accountability. The 3 commissioners are appointed by Governor Perry – who ironically enough signed Senate Bill 20 into law in 2005, which established a mandate for 500 mws of “non-wind” renewable energy such as solar and geothermal power.

But commissioners at the RRC are publicly elected. Members of Clean Elections Texas were on hand to present testimony highlighting the need to reform the system of financing campaigns for seats at the RRC.

It isn’t just that 1) there’s been an explosion of campaign spending in RRC races in the last ten years, 2) that most of the money comes from people in industries with business before the commission, 3) that commission candidates raise significantly more than candidates for comparable agencies, 4) that there is no limit to how much any single interested party can give to a commissioner, or 5) that most of the high dollar contributions come from individuals in regulated industries…it’s that some of the campaign contributions simply cannot be explained as an effort to affect the outcome of an election,” said Joel Page of Clean Elections Texas.

Further analysis and review of testimony shows that the volume and source of money flowing into campaigns for the RRC – as documented by a 2010 study by Public Citizen – suggests an effort to buy influence over the Commission. Between 2000 and 2010, money raised and spent by incumbent commissioners increased nearly seven fold; in the 2008 cycle, incumbents spent more than 3.5 million dollars. The amount spent by industry sources – energy companies, their employees, as well as consultants, attorneys and lobbyists – has steadily increased as well.

Problem is: campaign finance reports show that much of the money raised by candidates for RRC goes unspent. This begs the question, “why would donors give candidates more money than they need to run a campaign that receives relatively little public attention?”

IMPLEMENTING REFORM AND
MOVING TOWARD A CLEAN ECONOMY

Wind Solar Worker

There’s no doubt that Texas is an oil & gas state. While our economy is rooted in the days of Spindletop and wildcatting for Texas crude, there’s no reason assume that clean air and water are mutually exclusive to economic and energy development. Texans are proud of our rights to personal property, our independence, and the idea that we can lead in more than low-wage jobs and carbon pollution.

But when our appointed and elected leadership at the PUC and RRC fails to listen to legitimate grievances from of its own citizens,  to respect state law, to protect private property rights, to prioritize transparency & accountability, and to tap into the most abundant renewable energy resource in the nation (the Texas sun), prudence dictactes a greater and more vocal response from the people whom these agencies are tasked to represent and protect.

Send in your comments to the Sunset Advisory Commission, and your State Senator and Representative.  Want to build a local clean economy team in your area? Get started by taking 5 minutes to complete this short survey.

There’s no more compelling case for action and reform than your personal story. However, if you’d like to review talking points and more details of the Sierra Club’s and Public Citizen’s comments on the PUC Sunset Review click here. For talking points and more detail on the Sierra Club’s comments on the RRC Sunset Review click here.

Below is a photo essay featuring all of the speakers at the Arlington town hall. Click on photos to see quotes from the testimony given that night.

Water Council Safe- For Now.

I’m pleased to report that at the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting this morning the Chairman of the Commission, Senator Glenn Hegar, who had initially floated the idea of abolishing the state’s Water Conservation Advisory Council, announced after a brief discussion that he was withdrawing his suggestion “for now.” This announcement came after the Chairman and other members of the Commission had received numerous communications in opposition to the proposed elimination and after two members of the Sunset Commission, Rep. Larry Taylor and Sen. Robert Nichols, made supportive arguments at this morning’s meeting in favor of continuing the Water Conservation Advisory Council.

As a result of this morning’s actions the Sunset Advisory Commission report and decisions on the Texas Water Development Board (the primary state agency which the Council advises) will NOT recommend abolition of the Advisory Council. Indeed, ironically the Commission report includes a couple of recommendations which specifically call upon the Water Development Board and/or TCEQ to work with the Advisory Council on specific water conservation activities.

Thus, the Advisory Council is “safe” for the time being. But remember that no person’s “life, liberty or property” or valued Advisory Council is safe while the Legislature is in session. The regular session of the Texas Legislature begins January 11. We will need to carefully monitor the Legislature to be on guard for any attempts during the legislative session to eliminate the Council either through a specific bill introduced for that purpose or – more likely – a last minute amendment to a more general bill. Sen. Hegar indicated in withdrawing his proposal at the Sunset Commission meeting that he is still not convinced of the need for the Council, so he might make an effort to abolish the Council during the legislative session. Stay tuned.

In the meantime though, thanks to everyone who contacted members of the Sunset Advisory Commission on behalf of continuing the Water Conservation Advisory Council. Your support and your quick response is appreciated, especially at this busy time of the year, and it paid off!!

Ken Kramer

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Wow. Wow. Wow. At the Sunset Hearing.

Alliance for a Clean Texas

Texans from Dallas to Corpus Christi, from El Paso to Beaumont converged at the Texas Capitol today for the Sunset Advisory Commission Public Hearing.  Dedicated people from all walks of life came and some are staying past dinner time.  Their main focus — Sunset Review of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began about an hour ago  and these environmental champions are digging in.

Dr. Wesley Stafford, Texas Medical Association, Jennifer Real, CROW-Conroe Residents Opposed to Wells, Lize Burr, Alliance for a Clean Texas, David Cortez, El Paso ASARCO opponent, Charlie Faupel, Goliad-Victoria Clean Environment Coalition

Lize Burr–  In this busy season, people have put their personal lives on hold and traveled to Austin.  They’re fighting for clean air and clean water, unfortunately, that often means they’re also fighting TCEQ. There’s only one Texas.  It’s time for our lawmakers to help us protect and preserve it – for generations to come.

Dr. Wesley Stafford, Clean Economy Coalition, RN's Marion Morris and Trish O'Day, Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility

Dr. Wesley Stafford serves on the Science and Public Health Council of the Texas Medical Association. He explained — Our Council unanimously agreed to recommend that the Sunset Commission establish a permanent position for a physician as a Commissioner on the TCEQ. Texas physicians feel that TCEQ is the agency that makes more important public health decisions than any other agency in the State.  There has been significant concern that public health hasn’t been a big enough consideration to the TCEQ in recent years and we feel it’s important to have a physician’s input.

Corpus Christi Clean Economy Coalition

Dr. Stafford and has been active in opposing the proposed Las Brisas coke-fired power plant in downtown Corpus Christi a community that experiences higher than average rates for asthma and birth defects.

CROW-Conroe Residents Opposed to Wells

It isn’t just the traditional environmental groups who are here today.  We’re enjoying the growth of our movements and new groups from all over the state have stepped up concerned about the following issues —

  • Texas Campaign for the Environment

  • Existing and proposed coal plants in Sweetwater near Abilene, Corpus Christi, Bay City, Goliad, the Waco area, LaGrange, and Franklin;
  • Injection wells near Conroe and the Woodlands;
  • Cement kilns near Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio;
  • Metal smelters in El Paso, Rockdale, and Austin;

    Fairfield Clean Environment Coalition

  • Refineries and chemical plants in the Houston area, Port Arthur, and Corpus Christi;
  • Uranium mining in the groundwater of South Texas and the Coastal Bend;
  • Water quality standards in streams and rivers across the State;
  • Landfills and the WCS Radioactive Waste dump in Andrews.

David Cortez a victorious ASARCO opponent from El Paso —Despite the TCEQ’s repeated refusal to stand up to big polluters, I am hopeful that the Sunset Commission will hear what people coming from all over Texas are saying today. The ASARCO case in El Paso where I’m from makes my point.  We kept that dangerous smelter closed because so many people got involved and because we had the law on our side.   Now, we’re demanding that the elected representatives on the Sunset Commission hold the TCEQ accountable for their actions and lack thereof.

Texas Impact

Charlotte Wells, Galveston Baykeeper, Mary Beth Maher, Sierra Club, Whitney Root, Multi-County Coalition & Texans Against Tenaska

Evelyn Merz, Sierra Club and Zac Trahan, Texas Campaign for the Environment

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High noon at the Sunset Review

Austin, TX – The Sunset Review process is in full swing at the state capitol. A great number of concerned individuals have provided personal testimonies about the environmental issues confronting the state. In the recent discussions, citizens highlighted the issues facing, in particular, San Antonio and New Braunfels in the form of proposed toll roads threatening the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which provides water to two million Texans. In addition, countless people supported changing the commissioner structure of the TCEQ. The most popular proposal has been a single, state-wide elected commissioner. This would allow the citizens of Texas to choose their representative, instead of a using a board of appointed, puppet comissioners who serve as rubber stamp for industry. Others proposed a three-five member board of elected commissioners to ensure that the environmental agency is held accountable. Regardless of structure, TCEQ officials should be democratically elected in order to reflect the opinions of the people.

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Its Happening at the Capitol on Wednesday

Ready to protect this?

“We like clean air and water!”

And this?…

“Pecan Trees don’t like sulfur dioxide!”

This fall, 1,000 Texans met in Town Halls to speak your concerns about the Texas Rail Road Commission and the TCEQ.  The process reaches a high point this  Wednesday, December 15 as people travel from all areas of the state to tell your stories and make recommendations  at the Sunset Commission public hearing at the Capitol.

Come make your voice heard this Wednesday!

Here are the Recommendations from the Alliance for a Clean Texas.

Most of all, tell your own story.

The day starts at 9:00 am in Room E1.036 with TxDOT.  Then Rail Road Commission.  Then, TCEQ will probably begin after lunch.

Click here for maps of the Capitol complex.

When you arrive at the Capitol —
9am – Sign in to Speak – Room E1.036
9am- Breakfast in the Member’s Lounge – Room E2.1002
10am- Alliance for a Clean Texas (ACT) Group Photo in the Rotunda
10:30am- ACT Press conference, location is 2W6, the Speaker’s Committee Room just outside the House Chamber.
Noon- Work on your testimony or write Letters to the Editors – Room E2.1002

We anticipate the TCEQ will be up for review and your comments after lunch.

Thanks for making your plans to come to the Sunset Public Hearing and tell about your experience with the Rail Road Commission or TCEQ .

Here’s for a pollution-free Texas!

Donna Hoffman

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Thousands say, It’s the law. TCEQ, follow it.

Some things haven’t changed since the elections.
Texans still want clean air and water. We still want polluters to be held accountable for their actions. And…
We want the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to protect us and our communities by enforcing environmental laws in our state.

Together with local residents’ groups and our partners in the Alliance for a Clean Texas, Sierra Club is co-hosting a series of almost a dozen TCEQ Sunset Town Hall meetings across the state. So far, almost a thousand Texans have organized or shown up to speak at five Sunset Town Hall meetings in Houston, Victoria, Corpus Christi, El Paso, and Beaumont. There are six more Town Hall meetings – starting tonight with Arlington and San Antonio (Nov. 8). Next week there will be Town Halls in Austin (Nov. 17), Abilene (Nov. 18), and Lubbock (Nov. 19), and a final Town Hall in Nacogdoches (Nov. 30).

State Senators and Representatives, including Senator Hegar, the Chair of the Sunset Review Commission (report) and Representative Allan Ritter, the Chair of the House Naural Resources Committee (video) attended the meetings in their districts. They’ve heard hundreds of Texans describe the problems that lax or no regulation by TCEQ and the Rail Road Commission (also under Sunset review) have meant in their communities — heavy air pollution from coal plants, new coal plants being permitted despite the wisdom of state judges, ground and surface water contamination and air pollution from oil, gas, and chemical industry activity.

There’s been a message echoed in these Town Hall meetings — TCEQ is allowing environmental degradation and threats to public health, and our state environmental agency can do better. At the Corpus Christi Town Hall meeting Melissa Jarrell an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Texas A & M University said that in Texas we allow the offender to self-report data, inspections are rare, fines are minimal…there’s no deterrent effect.’ And in Beaumont, the Town Hall moderator Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens Jr. quipped after hearing some of the stories “No wonder they wanted a criminal judge to do this!”

At the Beaumont meeting, Representative Ritter brought up another underlying concern — global warming.

Ken Kramer, Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club —

Texas families and individuals deserve clean air and water. It’s the law. And we want TCEQ to enforce the law vigorously. These Town Hall meetings demonstrate that Texans want the Sunset Commission to prepare a blueprint for making significant reforms at TCEQ.

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LIVE Corpus Christi Community Forum

Reporting from the community forum in Corpus Christi, we’re going to get some answers on the TCEQ tonight!  In attendance: Donna Phillips, area TCEQ director, Brian Burke, with the Clean Economy Coalition, Cyrus Reed, Sierra Club Conservation Director, and Ryan Rittenhouse, from Public Citizen.

6:47 Folks are spilling in, and it looks like the line to get in is out the door. W’ll be starting as soon as folks get inside.

7:10 Over 100 people have showed up to the Corpus Christi Community Forum.  Hal Suter, Lone Star Chapter, making jokes about the Palins on Dancing with the Stars.

7:11 Hal’s explaining insider politics… and how we need to educate ourselves on the Sunset review process.

7:13 Recognizing the community co-sponsors… LULAC 1, NAACP, South Texas Colonias Initiative, Clean Economy Coalition, Sierra Club Coastal Bend Chapter, Texas ACT.

7:19 Representative Solomon Ortiz talking about how to make your voice heard: vote, participate, tell your legislator what you think! “It’s going to be a huge fight.” Ortiz has a 100% voting record with the Sierra Club.

7:22 Ortiz giving out his office’s information… if you want to call up his office and tell him what you think about the Sunset Review Process, the TCEQ, and Las Brisas, ring him up.

7:26 Donna Phillips explaining TCEQ; “We’re like the EPA for Texas… our mission statement is simple, we aim for clean air, clean water, clean waste… a word really important to us is consistency. A consistent application of the laws and regulations.”

7:31 “We’ve already been implementing the suggestions made in Houston and in Victoria.  We want to give as much input to to the Sunset Review Committee as possible.” Donna Phillips, Area Director, TCEQ

7:35 It’s early in the night, and there have already been some kickers.  Hal just told the room that Cyrus is so policy oriented, he makes Brian Burke look like a normal human being.  Cyrus mentions that the vuvuzela he got in South Africa will be very useful in the Sunset Committee hearing.

7:36 FUN FACT: TCEQ is the second largest environmental agency in the world.  First is he EPA… second in the TCEQ.

7:38 “If we don’t believe the TCEQ is doing their job, this is our chance to change that.”

7:42 Cyrus Reed: “Key issues: permitting needs to follow the Clean Air Act.  Enforcement: punishment needs to be a deterrent, not a slap on the wrist.  Mission: apparently, economic development is part of the mission. Not okay.  Conflicts of interest: TCEQ upper management should not take a job with lobbies so soon after working for the agency.” (THIS garnered big applause).

7:48 Breaking down the Texas coal fight- Ryan Rittenhouse from Public Citizen.

7:51 “The problem is not the hundreds of people who work at the TCEQ, it’s the way in which decisions are made.  It’s the Texas Commission on ENVIRONMENTAL Quality, not economic Quality.  They’re supposed to be protecting us and the environment. And time after time, the commissioners show that they’re not interested in that.”

7:55 We’ve already got questions… a Corpus Christian asking about mercury content in the seafood.  There’s an advisory for two types of fish- it’s not a blanket ban… but be careful!

7:56 Abel Herrero: “This is part of the process in trying to identify practices and policies of TCEQ that work, so we can duplicate them, and also find the practices that don’t work, so we can eliminate them or improve them.  Senator Hinojosa sits on the Sunset Review Committee- he is following the procedure, but as members, all of us, we have the opportunity, when the bill comes, the TCEQ Sunset Provision, it will come in the form of a bill, we as legislators have the opportunity to make amendments to the bill before it gets passed.  So please, your recommendations are important. We will have the chance to work on it. ”

8:02 Brian Burke of the CEC: “There are 400 billion gallons of water discharged into various bodies of water around Corpus Christi.  Of the 400 billion gallons of water, there are 20 billion pounds of pollution.  And everything stays in the bay, it doesn’t drain to the Gulf.  What is the cumulative effect? We don’t know. Nobody knows.  I would say 25% of our bays are compromised.  We don’t know anything about stormwater, because there are no permits.  Valero and another entity want to lower monitoring…”

8:05 “There are folks turning in blank permits. I called the consultant and asked, “how do you do that?” and he said, “easy, just turn in a blank permit”.  That complicates by database to say the least.”

8:09 “If we don’t get involved and address these problems, things are going to get worse.  We are working to keep people engaged, working to collect data. We want to build a comprehensive database to understand the scope of the pollution.”

8:14 Councilwoman Nelda Martinez in attendance, as well as candidate for Nueces county Judge Clarissa Gonzalez.

8:16 “Come on dowwwwwwwwwwn Danny Lucio…” Hal Suter introduces the first person presenting public comment.

8:16 Daniel Lucio “I’m a South Texas native, I’m from here… Las Brisas really underscores the larger problem accross the state. I really just want to focus on the lack of availability of public participation in these systems.  What we’ve seen in the case of Las Brisas is that we have little to no say.  We were clumped together into one party, when really we are a diversity of people.  The commissioners have ultimate say over what happens with these permits.  I think, from a legal perspective, it undermines the idea of democracy in general.”

8:20 Mimosa Thomas, 14 year old high school student: “I have a problem with the health standards that the #tceq uses to measure whether or not a refinery or plant is safe. The health standards apply only to average adults. I would like to see the tceq think about health effects on small children, pregnant women, and the elderly.”

8:29 Representative from South Texas Opposes Pollution discusses uranium mining- which happens in our aquifers and affects the quality of our water, our most precious resource by far.

8:37 Two Texas A & M professors speaking on recommendations for the #tceq.  Assistant Professor of Criminology: “Texas may be tough on criminals committing street crime, but we’re not tough on environmental criminals. We talk about deterrence, but you can’t deter people if there is no appropriate fine.  We want the TCEQ to come down hard on criminals. It’s the same corporations over and over again.  They would rather pay off the fine than change their behavior.  TCEQ relies on self-reporting; we don’t ask regular criminals to self-report, why should we do the same with environmental criminals?  In this case, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, the TCEQ should take the lead from the Texas Criminal Justice system.”

8:55 Community members talking about their dissatisfaction with the TCEQ permitting process.  It’s been a long night but we’ve got to do something about it all!

8:56 “The whole process excludes poor people. Let me tell you something, we matter.  We vote.  I have no trust in the TCEQ.  They ignore the rules made by the federal government.  Many South Texans have fought and died for this country.”

9:00 Roland Gaona of LULAC 1 representing his community and is asking people to take action and get interested. “Many of our schools are built on petroleum waste dumps.  Look at where these schools are- right next to the refineries.”

9:04 Lionel lopez, of South Texas Colonias Initiative, discusses problems in the colonias:  “A small colonia called Green Acres is near a uranium mine, and is having problems with its water- there’s uranium in it, and the people there are drinking it.  There are too many people with cancer.  We called TCEQ and they said they were working on it.  We got in touch with the EPA, and they finally got involved.  It took a whole year.  Another problem we had with water is arsenic, here in Nueces county.  This is common, it’s out our back door, 15 minutes away from here…”

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