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


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.


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.


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?”


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

Enhanced by Zemanta

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

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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

Enhanced by Zemanta