Author Archives: Naveena Sadasivam

Texas-Bred Anti-Environmentalists Find New Power in Trump Administration

At a climate conference in Washington, D.C., about a month after the presidential election, Brooke Rollins was in a celebratory mood. “We are winning, and a couple of years ago, it didn’t seem possible,” she said. “Most people thought it was going to be a really sad and dark and unfortunate time for the country, especially on [climate change]. There is great hope.”

Rollins must be sick of winning. The atmosphere has more carbon than any time in the last 3 million years, and many of her colleagues at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank in Austin, are headed to Washington, D.C. The longtime president of TPPF, Rollins has transformed the foundation from a fledgling group with a staff of three and $9,000 in the bank to a sprawling policy shop that employs more than 80 people, wields considerable clout at the Legislature and boasts a $10 million budget primed with money from the Koch brothers and fossil fuel interests. Buoyed by the election of President Trump and the mainstreaming of what were once fringe positions, the group now seems poised to wield greater influence nationally.

Brooke Rollins  Facebook

Since that December conference, Rollins has served as an economic advisor to Trump, and several TPPF staff members have been tapped for positions in the Trump administration, primarily to oversee environmental policy. Perhaps TPPF’s most high-profile export is Kathleen Hartnett White, a climate denier who led the organization’s environmental work and once argued that coal helped end slavery. She could soon be in charge of spearheading environmental policy in the White House.

Other TPPF alums embraced by the Trump administration include Doug Domenech, who has argued the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels,” and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who once compared endangered species listings to “incoming Scud missiles.” Domenech is an assistant secretary in the Department of Interior and Combs is waiting to be confirmed to a similar position at the agency. The foundation’s communications director, Caroline Espinosa, was hired by the State Department’s public affairs office.

“There’s great pride on behalf of my colleagues,” said Kevin Roberts, TPPF’s executive vice president. “Given that many of our colleagues are now servicing all Americans, that puts an extra spring in our step.” Roberts said many of the foundation’s most prominent hires by the Trump administration were in the energy and environmental policy arena because of his group’s “reputation as a top-notch academic institution” that has worked on “a lot of policy issues in energy and environment.”

But for environmental and public health advocates, TPPF’s rise to the national stage is worrisome. For one, White, Domenech and others have falsely argued that the science on climate change isn’t settled. Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said TPPF has had “total disregard” for the science on climate change. Unlike other opponents he’s faced who may agree on the science but disagree on policy to address climate change, TPPF has “messaging out of a different century,” he said.

“To now make it to the highest levels in the U.S. government means they can unleash their anti-environmental agenda on all Americans, not just Texans,” Metzger said. “It’s a new breed of anti-environmentalists taking power. It’s pretty scary.”

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Texas Toxicologist Who Rejects Basic Science Appointed to EPA Science Board

For years Texas’ chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, has accused the EPA of scaring the public about the health risks of toxic chemicals. The EPA, he has said, “ignores good science which demonstrates that a chemical is not as toxic as they think it is,” uses “‘chicken little’ toxicity values” and doesn’t “do common-sense groundtruthing.” Honeycutt has repeatedly put himself outside the scientific mainstream by arguing that pollutants are not nearly as harmful as the evidence suggests.

Mercury? EPA is “overstating” the risks of exposure and ignoring the fact that the Japanese eat 10 times as much fish as Americans.

Arsenic? It couldn’t be unsafe because we’re not seeing increases in cancer rates that would be true if EPA’s assessment is “realistic.”

Ozone? EPA’s ozone rules are unnecessary because “Americans likely spend at least 90 percent of their time indoors.”

Now, the Trump administration is tapping Honeycutt to lead EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a body of experts that provides objective scientific advice to the agency. The board was created in 1978 by Congress and charged with the mission of providing impartial science free of political interference. His appointment — like that of Rick Perry, Susan Combs and Kathleen Hartnett White — continues the trend of the Trump administration headhunting Texas officials who’ve repeatedly attacked the very policies that they’re now charged with implementing.

In announcing his appointment on Tuesday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt called Honeycutt a “wonderful scientist” and said he had been chosen out of 130 applicants. Honeycutt’s appointment, along with two others to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors, will bring more geographic diversity to the boards, which historically have been dominated by appointments from the East and West coasts, he said.

“It’s a big mistake to appoint Michael Honeycutt to lead the Science Advisory Board,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said in a written statement. “Dr. Honeycutt has made repeated public statements undermining the integrity of the science on ozone as well as other pollutants, including mercury, despite consensus from the medical community on the harms of exposure to such pollutants.”

Environmental and public health advocates say Honeycutt cherrypicks facts to fit his arguments, which often are contrary to scientific consensus and are often deployed to attack environmental regulation in the courts and in EPA rulemaking. Perhaps the best example of Honeycutt’s role concerns his work on smog.

Smog in Houston  Jonathan Lewis

For more than a decade, Texas has been in a tussle with the EPA over limiting emissions of smog-causing pollutants from power plants. EPA’s limits on ozone, a component of smog, have grown more stringent with time, and as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s chief toxicologist, Honeycutt has attacked the basic underpinnings of limits on smog. Reducing ozone levels, he has said, will not lead to any significant health benefits and if asthma “were actually tied to ozone, you would expect to see the instances of asthma decreasing, not increasing.” Those arguments are contrary to the overwhelming scientific evidence that higher ozone levels exacerbate respiratory illnesses, particularly in children and the elderly.

Last year, Honeycutt sent more than 100 emails to industry representatives, state air pollution regulators, university professors and scientists asking them to support his nomination to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. At the time, he wrote that it would be a “minor miracle” if he were selected. He was also considered for a position on the committee in 2015, which environmental groups petitioned. He “consistently takes positions favoring industry and a lax regulatory climate over public health protections” and his appointment to the committee would lead to “an appearance of a loss of impartiality,” seven environmental groups wrote.  

Honeycutt, who joined TCEQ in 1996, will continue in his role at the agency, TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said. She said it would be “premature” to answer questions about any changes he might propose to EPA’s chemical assessment process.

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After Failing to Prop Up Coal in Texas, Rick Perry is Trying Again Nationwide

Rick Perry
Governor Rick Perry speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.  Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In late 2005, then-Governor Rick Perry was in the middle of a protracted battle with a coalition of environmentalists, renewable energy advocates, mayors and local leaders. TXU, the state’s largest utility, had announced that it wanted to build 11 new coal plants. At the time, natural gas and coal made up about 46 and 39 percent, respectively, of the energy mix of Texas’ main grid. The fracking boom had not yet hit Texas, and wind power provided a tiny percentage of the state’s energy needs.

TXU was betting big on coal having a bright future. John Wilder, the utility’s controversial CEO, claimed the new investments would shield Texans from spikes in natural gas prices, in particular because the volatile commodity’s price had quadrupled and experts projected the low prices of the 1990s would not return. The U.S. also had an abundant coal supply, he noted.

Perry loved the plan. It probably didn’t hurt that he was running for re-election at the time and had received about $200,000 from TXU since 2000. On the campaign trail, Perry claimed the coal plants would be cleaner than the national average and ordered the state environmental agency to expedite their review.

Now, 12 years later, Perry and TXU’s plan to invest in coal seems shortsighted. While TXU is moving away from coal investments, as energy secretary Perry is continuing to prop up old and dirty coal plants at a time when scientists are warning that countries need to reduce carbon pollution to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Texas’ energy mix  Data courtesy ERCOT/Graphic by Naveena Sadasivam

Natural gas prices, of course, dropped considerably and coal has become more expensive to mine. Today, coal only makes up about 29 percent of the energy mix in Texas and the cost of building wind farms has decreased dramatically. Last week, Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy formerly known as TXU, citing “an oversupplied renewable generation market and low natural gas prices,” announced that it will retire three coal plants — Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow — by early 2018. Once those plants shut down, for the first time, wind will generate more power in the state than coal.

Ultimately, in 2006, facing pressure from environmental groups and business interests, TXU dropped its plan to build eight of the 11 coal plants. Perry’s order to fast-track the environmental reviews was also blocked by a court. And now one of the coal plants Perry wanted to see built — Sandow 5 in Milam County — is among those facing closure. Another, Oak Grove Plant Project in Robertson County, has low cash flows. The plants began operations in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

But Perry doesn’t appear to have learned from his experience in Texas. As energy secretary, Perry has proposed guaranteeing profits to plants in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest that stockpile coal. Perry claims the plan is necessary for grid reliability and cites the 2014 polar vortex as an example of why the government should subsidize coal plants. If the plan is implemented, it will cost taxpayers between $800 million and $3.8 billion every year through 2030 regardless of whether the plants are making money, according to one estimate.

“It’s basically putting your thumb on the scale in favor of coal and nuclear plants,” said David Schlissel, director of resource planning at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “It’s a gift from the Trump administration to their friends in the coal industry.”

For Perry, the costs are secondary. “I think you take costs into account, but what’s the cost of freedom?” he testified before the House energy subcommittee recently. “What’s the cost to keep America free? I’m not sure I want to leave that up to the free market.”

Even if Perry’s plan to guarantee profits to the coal and nuclear industry is implemented, he won’t be helping Texas coal plants. That’s because the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas’ primary grid, is the only major wholesale electricity market that doesn’t fall under the supervision of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will be responsible for implementing Perry’s plan.

In 2016, Schlissel authored a report that seems prescient now. He analyzed the economics of running seven Texas coal plants and predicted that the Monticello and Big Brown plants were bleeding money. Continued operation of the two “will be extremely unprofitable for Luminant,” he wrote.

Graph from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis

Schlissel based his analysis on two main drivers: the increasing cost of producing coal-fired power and the decreasing price of power on the energy market. As natural gas plants and renewables produce energy at a cheaper rate, there’s less demand for coal-fired power. Since the cost of operating and maintaining coal plants doesn’t change dramatically when they produce less power, utilities then make less money per megawatt of coal energy. The double whammy has made coal uneconomic in Texas, Schlissel said.

“What’s killing these coal plants is not the Obama war on coal,” said Schlissel. “It’s the natural gas’ war on coal and all the wind available on [the grid].”

Schlissel wasn’t alone in predicting Luminant’s decision to shut down the three coal plants. In a 2016 report, ERCOT projected that between 8,000 and 18,000 megawatts of coal-fired plants will be shut down between 2017 and 2031. The group modeled eight scenarios and found that in all cases the Monticello and Big Brown plants would be shuttered.

Robbie Searcy, a spokesperson for ERCOT, said her group will study whether the three Luminant plants are needed for reliability and will make determinations about them by December. Luminant has said it hopes to close the plants by early 2018, but when they’re shut down will depend on ERCOT’s recommendation.

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Experts: Much of Harvey-Related Air Pollution was Preventable

Hillcrest, a neighborhood in Corpus Christi
One of the few standing houses in Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest neighborhood that remains in the refineries’ two-block buffer zone.  Jen Reel

Huge releases of hazardous air pollutants during Hurricane Harvey could’ve been prevented if companies had simply shut down their plants ahead of time or used more advanced emission controls, experts say. According to an Observer analysis, about 40 petrochemical companies along the Texas coast released 5.5 million pounds of pollution as a result of Harvey. Among the pollutants were carcinogens such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene as well as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and smog-forming nitrogen oxides.

The excess emissions were mainly a result of facilities shutting down and restarting their operations in preparation for the hurricane and accidents such as the fire at the Arkema plant and a floating roof covering a tank caving in due to heavy rains at an ExxonMobil refinery. In many cases, the pollution releases were preventable, according to environmental experts who reviewed the Observer’s analysis.

For one, companies could have shut down in advance of the hurricane. At least seven facilities that emitted about 1.8 million pounds of chemicals chose to shut down on or after August 27, the day after Harvey made landfall near Rockport.

“Shutting down earlier with a slower shut down leads to less air pollution releases,” said Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. “Shutting down during a storm is more dangerous for worker safety and flaring when there’s high winds is more difficult because you have to keep the flare lit.”

In other cases, the emissions could’ve been avoided if the facilities had installed new gas flaring technology, according to Wolf and Neil Carman, the clean air director at the Sierra Club and a former TCEQ inspector. Motivated in part by a 2015 EPA rule, many petrochemical plants have installed equipment to dramatically reduce toxic emissions from flaring. The rule’s implementation has been delayed till 2018.

Carman pointed out that of the 800 or so chemical facilities in Beaumont, Houston and Corpus Christi, only about 40 had reported excess emissions to TCEQ.  “What that means is that there are ways to shut down without any extra air emissions,” said Carman.

The Observer’s analysis is based on about 80 initial emission reports filed by Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi companies with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) between August 24 and September 5.

The air pollutants from petrochemical facilities are “an additional toxic burden when people are already facing immense devastation,” said Wolf. Most of the pollutants that were released are respiratory irritants and can cause difficulty breathing and burning of the eyes and nose, Wolf said. Others such as benzene and toluene can cause developmental harms.

TCEQ did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unlikely that the facilities that reported emissions exceeding the amounts allowed by TCEQ will face any penalties. In the past, even in situations where a facility did not face a natural disaster, companies were able to claim exemptions on planned facility startups and shutdowns. Companies will also be able to fight any enforcement action from TCEQ if they can prove that a violation “was caused solely by an act of God, war, strike, riot, or other catastrophe.”

Still, Wolf and Carman said that TCEQ could incentivize petrochemical companies to reduce emissions through better enforcement. Penalties for not shutting down facilities ahead of the hurricane or failing to install flare technology could push petrochemical companies to be better prepared for future natural disasters, they said.

“The Gulf Coast region is going to keep getting hit and storms are becoming stronger because of climate change,” said Wolf. “The problem isn’t going away and regulatory agencies need to make sure that they’re implementing stricter rules.”

Elena Mejia Lutz contributed to this report.

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Despite Knowledge of Climate Change in 1970s, Texas Utility Companies Funded Climate Denial

July 2016 feature coal plant L
Vistra Energy’s subsidiary Luminant Corps owns the Monticello coal plant, pictured above, in Titus County. The company is suing to block the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants.  Gary Borders

The predecessor companies of Texas’ largest power provider, Vistra Energy, helped fund climate change research in the 1970s and 1980s that warned of the risks of burning fossil fuels, according to a new report by the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy think tank. Nonetheless, the electric utilities and their successors spent much of the next 30 years publicly denying the effects of climate change and funding efforts to undermine the science.

The report traces the American utility industry’s shifting stance on climate change. As early as 1977, a senior official from the Electric Power Research Institute — one of the industry groups scrutinized in the report — warned Congress that fossil fuels would one day have to be reduced to curb warming. In the ’70s and ’80s, the institute published reports warning about global warming and sea-level rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions. But once climate change became a matter of broad public interest in the late ’80s, the industry joined forces with conservative think tanks to fund campaigns to confuse the public about the science.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Texas Power & Light Company and Texas Electric Service Company, which later became part of TXU and then Vistra Energy, joined an industry consortium that poured money into cutting-edge climate change research. In 1971, the research group issued a 176-page report that laid out the industry’s research and development goals through the year 2000. Among the projects they wanted to undertake: developing “meteorological models to determine effects of CO2” and “research into carbon dioxide sources and sinks.”

The Electric Power Research Institute went on to fund research into accurately measuring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and helped prove that the carbon level in the atmosphere was increasing dramatically. But the utilities later abandoned the findings of the research they helped fund and began supporting efforts to sow doubt in climate science.

“When the issue landed on the public radar [in the late 1980s], the industry freaked out and they started funding the disinformation campaign,” said Dave Anderson, one of the report’s authors. Though some utilities later distanced themselves from those campaigns, Vistra hasn’t been one of them, Anderson said. “Vistra is among the bad actors in the industry who are continuing to fund climate skepticism and put up legal challenges to carbon regulations.”

Allan Koenig, a spokesperson for Vistra Energy, declined to comment.

Vistra maintains ties to groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative policy group that supports climate deniers and opposes clean energy policies. Sano Blocker, a Vistra executive and lobbyist, serves on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council and, in 2015, Vistra’s subsidiaries funded an ALEC conference. The company is also involved in lawsuits against the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature climate change policy to cut carbon pollution and meet the targets set in the Paris climate accord.

In 2004, TXU, a predecessor company of Vistra, opposed a shareholder proposal to disclose the risks of climate change to the company. Then, in 2006, the company proposed building 11 new coal plants, spawning a lively protest movement across much of Texas.

“That put them squarely at the bottom of the pack in my book,” said Dan Bakal, director of electric power programs at Ceres, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in the corporate sector. “It was such an irresponsible move. They became the lightning rod on climate.”

Most of the proposed coal plants were never built, partly as a result of opposition from environmental groups. Vistra has changed its tune slightly in the last few years: The company has stopped overtly denying climate change and doubling down on coal and is now investing in wind and solar, Bakal said.

Still, the company has a long way to go, according to Tom “Smitty” Smith, former executive director of the Texas office of the environmental and consumer group Public Citizen.   

“Their environmental history has been of drag and delay and to take advantage of regulatory uncertainty,” he said. “They make billions off of it and they’ve imperiled our climate and the health of people since the 1970s.”

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Dancing with Denial

Donald Trump and Rick Perry
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry visiting with Donald Trump in New York on June 20, 2013. As energy secretary, Perry has stated he wants a “red team/blue team” approach to debate climate change.  Rick Perry via Flickr

Rick Perry has danced his way back into the climate denial camp. At his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, the secretary of energy admitted that the climate is changing and that “some of it is caused by man-made activity.”

Many wondered if Perry had a change of heart on climate change. For more than a decade as Texas governor, Perry had been an ardent climate denier. He argued that calling carbon dioxide a pollutant was “a disservice to the country” and claimed that climate scientists “have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” In his 2010 anti-federal screed Fed Up!, he claimed the Earth was experiencing “a cooling trend” and called climate science “all one contrived phony mess.”

Perry was so vociferous in his criticism of climate science that he once noted — perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from his past involvement with Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign — that Gore’s “mouth is the leading source of all that supposedly deadly carbon dioxide” and called him “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult.”

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when in his opening statement, Perry acknowledged that the climate is changing and touted the rapid growth of wind energy in Texas during his time as governor. At the hearing, Perry danced around questions from Democratic Senators Al Franken and Bernie Sanders about how human activity contributes to warming and whether he was committed to solving the crisis. But for the most part he emphasized that his views had changed. Perry sailed through the hearing and was confirmed 62-37.

But in the months since his confirmation, Perry appears to have reversed his position yet again, casting doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that warming is primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity. In a CNBC Squawk Box interview in June, Perry said the oceans and the environment — not carbon dioxide — were the “primary control knob” for climate change. A few days later at a Senate appropriations hearing, he went further, arguing that climate change “is not settled science.” It was time, he said, to take a “red team/blue team” approach so climate deniers and scientists could duke it out and ?figure out the truth about climate change. “What’s wrong with being a skeptic about something that we’re talking about that’s going to have a massive impact on the American economy?” he asked. The energy secretary’s latest missive has induced groans among scientists.

“Perry’s statements acknowledge climate is changing, but flail between misunderstandings and half-truths about the cause,” said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University. “A red team/blue team review is like reviewing if the HIV virus causes AIDS — the more time we waste questioning settled science, the slower we’ll be to act on it.”

Perry has also applauded Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord as well as the president’s claim that he wants to achieve “energy dominance.” Under his leadership, the Energy Department is considering closing its climate office, a move that Cohan says could further degrade the United States’ efforts to address climate change on the global stage. “That research is crucial to helping the U.S. lead the way on clean energy technologies and profiting from the jobs that come with it,” Cohan said.

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Susan Combs, Fierce Critic of Endangered Species Act, Tapped for Agency in Charge of its Implementation

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst at a Feb. 7 legislative press conference on government transparency and empowering taxpayers.  Courtesy the Texas Comptroller’s Website.

In May, we published a deep-dive into the Texas comptroller’s office and their funding of endangered species research. We found that the comptroller’s office, in 2011, wrested away control of the endangered species program from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and since then has been dogged by a series of controversial decisions that appear to favor special interests over rare Texas species.

Then-comptroller Susan Combs was the chief architect of the program in 2011. She’s now being tapped by the Trump administration as the assistant secretary for policy, management and budget in the Department of Interior. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is an agency within the Department of Interior that makes decisions about which species need additional protection and should be classified as threatened or endangered.

As we pointed out in “Endangered Science,” Combs has been an outspoken critic of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Endangered Species Act. She publicly vowed to protect Texas business interests from what she saw as federal overreach:

Combs was brazen. She likened (endangered species) listings to “incoming Scud missiles” that threatened to blow up the Texas Miracle economy. She put the oil and gas industry in charge of a habitat conservation plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard, which makes its home in the Permian Basin. In 2015, she convinced a military official at Fort Hood to reverse his position that the protections for the golden-cheeked warbler hadn’t interfered with military readiness.

Texas politicians applauded her nomination in a press release on Tuesday. U.S. Energy secretary Rick Perry called it an “outstanding choice.” Senator John Cornyn said that as “agriculture commissioner and then comptroller of one of the nation’s largest economies, she has a clear record of promoting pro-growth policies and efficiently managing large organizations.  Always a fierce advocate for rural Texans, Susan will be a tremendous asset to the Department.”

You can read our May feature on the Texas comptroller’s endangered species program here.

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Report: Loopholes Allow Polluters to Get Away With Worsening Air Quality

Oil and gas wells often emit more than 25 tons of pollutants a year, but companies can use legal loopholes to claim exemptions from more stringent regulations.  SMelindo/Flickr Creative Commons

Every year petrochemical refineries, chemical plants, oil and gas wells and other facilities emit thousands of tons of pollutants illegally into the air. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is responsible for policing these polluters, but a new report finds that the agency’s enforcement activity is woefully inadequate.

According to a report by Environment Texas and Environmental Integrity Project, the agency issued penalties for less than 3 percent of illegal releases of pollutants from 2011 to 2016. During that span, facilities released pollutants about 25,000 times, emitting more than 500 million pounds of pollutants in total. Some years, TCEQ enforcement is almost non-existent. In 2016, for instance, the agency issued fines in just 20 of the 3,720 cases of pollution events — approximately 0.5 percent of the time, according to the report.

There are a couple reasons some polluters can get away with so much. For one, companies with relatively low emissions face lighter regulations than their big counterparts. Violators can claim to be “minor” or “insignificant” polluters if they emit under 25 tons of pollutants each year, allowing them to skirt more stringent regulations that larger polluters face. Second, these companies enjoy a huge, long-standing loophole. Pollution emitted during “malfunctions” or “maintenance” simply doesn’t count against that 25 ton threshold, as long as the facility reports the releases to TCEQ.  Air pollution tends to bring to mind an Exxon refinery or a coal-fired power plant. While big industrial facilities have an outsized environmental footprint, the emissions of smaller facilities add up.

The Midland area had about 2,000 malfunction and maintenance events in 2016, resulting in emissions of 34 millions pounds of pollutants — the highest of any region in the state. In comparison, there were only about 450 emission events in Houston, where the majority of facilities emit more than 25 tons of pollutants and face tighter regulations. Those figures underscore the report’s authors’ contention that TCEQ is overlooking a number of smaller polluters.

In a press release, Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said that with only a “3 percent chance of getting busted, it’s no wonder Texas polluters are repeatedly and flagrantly breaking the law.”

“It’s the Wild West when it comes to environmental enforcement in Texas, except the sheriff seems to be asleep at his desk,” he said.

You can read the full report, “Breakdowns in Enforcement,” here.

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Getting Wise to Bad Air: North Texans Take Smog Monitoring Into Own Hands

Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group, has purchased monitors to measure air quality in Wise County.  courtesy Downwinders at Risk

How bad is the smog problem in Wise County? Situated just west of the Dallas-Fort Worth sprawl, Wise County is in the heart of the Barnett Shale gas patch and since 2012 has been designated by the EPA as out of compliance with federal ozone standards. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) can only guess at how bad the pollution is; the agency is unwilling to install an air monitor there that would track ozone levels.

“The state is not interested in putting a monitor out there and neither is the county,” said Jim Schermbeck, the director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group.

With the government unwilling to act, members of Downwinders decided to take matters into their own hands. In April, the group purchased two handheld air monitors — a stationary one to be installed at a yet-to-be-determined location and the ?other to be fitted in a vehicle or a drone — at a cost of nearly $10,000. The monitors, which are EPA-certified and can fit in the palm of your hand, will help residents quantify smog levels, Schermbeck said.

In 2012, the EPA found that emissions of smog-forming pollutants in Wise County were among the highest in the 14-county DFW nonattainment area, a federal designation for places that are required to clean up the air. As a result, the EPA determined that Wise County was out of compliance. TCEQ fought the decision, but the courts ultimately sided with the EPA. Still, the state never installed ozone monitors in the county — and the EPA hasn’t required it.

Schermbeck says Texas has an incentive to avoid knowing more about air quality in Wise County. Whether a region meets federal ozone standards — currently at 75 parts per billion (ppb) — is determined by the air monitor with the highest reading in the area. Currently, the state has 20 smog monitors in the DFW area and the monitor showing the highest reading — 80 ppb — is located at the Denton airport, about 25 miles east of Decatur, the Wise County seat. If the state installs a monitor in Wise and finds that smog levels there are higher than in Denton, the DFW area might have to implement tougher pollution controls. (Stricter EPA regulations kick in when an area exceeds 80 ppb.)

Andrea Morrow, a spokesperson for TCEQ, said the agency has other air quality monitors in Wise County. The agency is not required to install smog monitors in every county, and it isn’t “fiscally possible or prudent” to locate monitors based on where a model predicts high ozone levels, she said.

Schermbeck said one of the reasons his group purchased the monitors was to “take power away from Austin” while shaming TCEQ.

“If our group with our budget can put two of these monitors in Wise County, there’s no reason why the state of Texas can’t put at least two or more of their own monitors up there,” he said. “So, shut us up. Put your own monitors up there yourself.”

This article appears in the June 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.

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Mean to Green: How the Texas Legislature Took its Toll on the Environment This Session

Protesters rally outside TCEQ headquarters in Austin. The agency has had its budget slashed by over $150 million.  Naveena Sadasivam

In Texas, environmental wins are few and far between and the Legislature is particularly rough on green causes. In 2013, for instance, lawmakers reduced citizens’ ability to contest a class of underground injection wells that can contaminate groundwater sources. Two years later, in 2015, propelled by Denton’s decision to ban fracking, lawmakers passed with blazing speed a ban on fracking bans.

This session, between debates about where kids can pee and whether helping women get an abortion should be a crime, lawmakers at the pink dome continued their tradition of gutting environmental and public health protections. They reduced funding to the state’s environmental agencies, altered public notice requirements about air quality permits for industrial facilities and confirmed Kelcy Warren, head of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. When an already underfunded budget for the state environmental agency reached the governor’s desk, he slashed more than $90 million in funding for two air quality programs.

But before we get to the ways the Lege chipped away at environmental protections, let’s take a look at the meager wins this session.

Brought Back Electric Car Rebates: The Legislature reauthorized the state’s biggest clean-air initiative, the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), and in a win for the environmental community, allowed its use for plug-in electric and hybrid car rebates. Combined with a $7,500 federal rebate, the $2,500 rebate will help make plug-ins and hybrid cars competitive with conventional cars, environmental advocates say.

The bigger picture, however, was bleak. Lawmakers cut funding for TERP by a third, from $118 million to $78 million. And like in previous sessions, budget writers failed to appropriate most of that money to TERP, instead leaving it untouched in order to help balance the overall state budget.

Blocked Expansion of a Radioactive Waste Site: Representative Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, introduced a bill this session that would’ve allowed Waste Control Specialists to expand its capacity to accept radioactive waste at its 14,000-acre Andrews County facility. After lobbying efforts by Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition, Landgraf removed key provisions that would’ve given the company permission to expand its facility, leaving only a requirement for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to study storage capacity.

Beat Back a Ban on Plastic Bag Bans: Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, proposed a ban on local government bans and taxes on plastic bags. Hall argued that plastic bags were the “most environmentally friendly option for transporting groceries” and that cities had “overstepped their authority” with the bans. The bill never got out of committee as a result of strong opposition from environmental groups and advocates from the ranching and agriculture industry, who argued, respectively, that plastic bag bans reduce trash in landfills and prevent livestock suffocation from eating plastic.

Underfunded Environmental Agencies: The Lege cut funding for a number of state agencies that protect the environment. Funding for TCEQ was reduced by $64 million, about 7 percent of its budget. Most of the cuts were to air quality programs.

Governor Abbott also took an axe to the TCEQ budget when it reached his desk this week. He vetoed $87 million in funding for a program that helped low-income Texans get assistance to replace vehicles that didn’t pass state inspections, claiming it is “ill-conceived and dubious … and should be abolished.” He also vetoed about $6 million in funding to TCEQ that would’ve allowed the agency to plan activities to reduce smog pollution.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also had its funding slashed by $100 million, about 12 percent of its budget, with a large portion of the cuts affecting funding for upkeep and renovations at state and local parks.

Weakened Local Control and Public Participation: Continuing a trend of reducing the public’s opportunity to protest polluting facilities, the Lege sent a bill to the governor by Senator Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, to consolidate notice periods for air quality permits. The law shortens the overall time the public has to comment on an air quality permit in front of TCEQ and eliminates a second notice to the public that a company has applied for a permit.

Lawmakers also gave TCEQ and the state attorney general’s office the right to veto cities’ civil environmental-related lawsuits. If the legislation becomes law, it will require cities to submit their intention to sue to TCEQ and the attorney general. If Attorney General Ken Paxton, who touts repeatedly suing the Obama administration over stricter environmental regulations, decides the issue is one he wants to pursue, the city’s lawsuit will not proceed. Ultimately, it might lead to Paxton settling a case with a polluter on lenient terms instead of a local government pursuing tougher terms.

Passed Up Opportunity to Reform the Railroad Commission: Eight years after the Sunset Commission first submitted recommendations for reform, the Lege finally passed a bill to renew the Railroad Commission’s authorization. But lawmakers ignored most of the reforms that environmental advocates and staff at the Sunset Commission, the entity charged with periodically reviewing state agencies, had been clamoring for. In doing so, lawmakers have allowed the agency to continue without changing its confusing name — it has nothing to do with railroads — or limiting campaign contributions to commissioners.

Outlawed Flying Drones Over Factory Farms and Telecom Facilities: HB 1643, which has been sent to the governor’s desk, makes flying drones over oil and gas facilities, large-scale animal feeding operations and telecommunications facilities a Class B misdemeanor. The bill will limit the ability of citizens and advocates to research the environmental harms of these facilities and uncover shady business practices.

Gutted Wind Energy Tax Credits: SB 277, which is also awaiting action from the governor, prohibits the state from providing tax credits to new wind turbines installed within 30 miles of a military airfield. About 40 percent of all wind farms in Texas are near a military base. If SB 277 becomes law, it could hamstring future wind energy development.

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Governor Abbott’s Beef with Tree Ordinances Has Its Roots in a Pecan Tree He Destroyed to Build a New Home

Governor Greg Abbott  Sam DeGrave

When Governor Greg Abbott called for a special session last week, his list of 20 priority issues included one item that left some observers scratching their heads. In addition to property tax reform and anti-abortion measures, Abbott said he wanted lawmakers to override cities’ regulations protecting trees.

“Some local governments, like the city of Austin, are doing everything they can to overregulate,” Abbott said at a press conference announcing the special session. “I want legislation that … prevent[s] cities from micromanaging what property owners do with trees on their private land.”

Why was the governor asking lawmakers to examine what appeared to be a non-issue?

The answer may lie in Abbott’s personal experience with Austin’s tree ordinance. In a recent radio interview, Abbott said he was upset that the city of Austin wouldn’t allow him to remove a pecan tree at the house he owned in West Austin and required him to plant new trees.

“Austin, Texas owns your trees,” Abbott said. “That’s insanity. … It’s socialistic.”

But city records tell a different story. In 2011, Abbott was looking to demolish his 4,540-square-foot home in West Austin and replace it with an even bigger two-story, four-bedroom house with a backyard pool. The construction, however, could’ve harmed two large pecan trees in his yard considered “heritage” trees by the city of Austin.

According to city records, Abbott was given a building permit but also required to protect two large pecan trees — the state tree of Texas — near his new home and swimming pool. He didn’t follow the plan and the construction crew killed one of the pecan trees. He was later allowed to remove the pecan tree and at least three other trees on his property.

Matt Hirsch, a spokesperson for Abbott, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2010, Austin City Council adopted a heritage tree ordinance, which provides protection to certain species of trees 24 inches and greater in diameter. The Austin regulations require property owners to inform the city if they’re planning development activity that could affect a heritage tree. In May 2011, when Abbott applied for a permit to construct the new home, a city arborist inspected his property and required that the two pecan trees be protected during construction. Specifically, the arborist required that he install a fence to protect the trees, add mulch and avoid harming the critical root zones.

“No sprinkler or landscaping impacts greater than 4 inches allowed,” the city arborist wrote. “There’s critical root zones on entire lot.”

But a year later, Abbott asked for permission to remove the 24-inch pecan tree because it was dying. When the city came out to inspect, they discovered that the construction crew had damaged the roots, city arborist Keith Mars told the Observer. Two-thirds of the canopy was dead.

“Unpermitted impacts had occurred within the critical root zone,” the inspector wrote, which had led to the “poor” condition of the tree. Abbott had broken the rules. “This was to be preserved per previous tree permits,” he wrote. Nonetheless, the city let Abbott cut down the tree, only asking that he plant new trees to make up for the loss.

Since then Abbott has requested and received permission to remove three other trees from his property: a 23-inch diameter red oak, a 19-inch magnolia and the 29-inch heritage pecan.

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