Forrest for the Trees

David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels

Poop-gate is the scandal that just won’t die. Here’s the latest from the shit-hits-the-fan department: The Observer was one of six media outlets that requested information from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) after the agency claimed that protestors had tried to bring “suspected” jars of feces and urine into the Capitol during the abortion debate on July 12. DPS and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—who claimed that he “saw” bags of feces and jars of urine and then later backtracked to say he’d only been told about them—haven’t produced any evidence that protestors had urine and feces.

Last week, DPS informed the Observer and other media organizations that it wouldn’t be releasing any information and was seeking a ruling from the Texas Attorney General. It’s not unusual for government agencies to withhold information they claim isn’t public or to ask the AG for an open records ruling. However, DPS’ letter to AG Greg Abbott was unusually broad, citing every exception contained in the Texas Public Information Act, including ones that apply specifically to library records, appraisal districts and no-call lists.

But today, responding to an Observer request for additional information from DPS about its filings with the Texas Attorney General, the agency reversed course. In a letter to the AG, DPS said it was “withdrawing its request for a ruling” and “will release records” requested by the Observer and other media—a highly unusual move for a major agency. In a letter, DPS said it would contact me “about releasing the information” by August 23.

Houston attorney Brian Trachtenberg wrote to DPS last week that it had violated the Public Information Act by waiting more than 10 business days to respond to the Poopgate requests and must immediately cough up the records.

“DPS’s attempt to hide behind the AG to avoid producing the requested information, however is fatally flawed,” he writes in a July 30 letter to DPS.

Side-note: Republicans have complained that Poopgate is silly. Here’s the thing: This is a ridiculous scandal. And it’s one that exists (and continues on and on) because of DPS and Dewhurst. In the heat of an unprecedented moment at the Texas Capitol, the state law enforcement agency issued a press release accusing citizens of bringing jars of “suspected” feces and urine into the Capitol but has been unable to point to any evidence to back up its claims. None of the DPS troopers interviewed by The Texas Tribune claim to have seen the “suspected” jars. David Dewhurst claimed to have personally seen “bags” of feces but then later changed his story. Now, DPS has been uncharacteristically sloppy in handling a legally-binding request for more information. Something stinks.

Kate Galbraith
Texas Tribune

This is Part Eleven in an occasional series of Q&As with Texans involved in issues of the environment and energy. (Read Part One with Bee Moorhead here, Part Two with Andy Sansom here, Part Three with Katherine Hayhoe here, Part Four with Patrick Kennedy here, Part Five with Michael Banks here, Part Six with Gabriel Eckstein here, Part Seven with John Nielsen-Gammon here, Part Eight with Tad Patzek here, Part Nine with Charles Porter here and Part 10 with Carlos Perez de Alejo here.)

In Part Eleven, I talk with Kate Galbraith, who covered energy and environment for the Texas Tribune from 2010 to till just a few weeks ago when she left for the (literally) greener pastures of California.

Previously she reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times‘ Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine’s Southwest correspondent.

Evan Smith of the Tribune described Kate this way in a farewell post: “So smart, so fair, so thorough, so dryly witty, so mature and measured in her outlook on the world and her approach to journalism, Kate has been highly respected member of the Capitol press corps, a valued colleague and a great friend.”

She is co-author of brand-new The Great Texas Wind Rush, a book about how the oil and gas state won the race to wind power.

**

Texas Observer: What do you rate as the most pressing environmental issues in Texas?

Kate Galbraith: The most obvious one is water. I don’t think people really appreciate how severe this drought is. The vast majority of the state just hasn’t gotten the rain it needs, for three years running. In Austin, for example, that means that the two big reservoirs, Lakes Travis and Buchanan, are closing in on record lows. They’ve got about 700,000 acre-feet of water in them now. And they’ve been ticking down 1,000 to 2,000 acre-feet per day over the summer, when evaporation is intense. So people can do the math on how long that supply can last if it doesn’t rain.

And it’s not just the reservoirs and city water-use. It’s the rivers, and the plants and animals and ecosystems that are hurt by the low flows. That’s why we launched a series on rivers in the Texas Tribune — to bring more attention to the ecological issues associated with the ongoing drought. Add in climate change and continued population growth, and the problems are likely to intensify.

As for other environmental concerns, you’ve got a variety associated with the industrial activity in Texas. Refineries, chemical plants, power plants, oil and gas drilling, mining operations — we’ve got it all. Plus nonstop land development. All of this creates serious issues ranging from air and pollution to waste disposal to continuing fragmentation of the land. There are stories on environmental concerns in probably every town, and I don’t think they get nearly as much attention as they deserve.

 

TO: To follow-up on the problem of the drought and water scarcity. I think it’s widely recognized among the business, political and media cognoscenti that dwindling water supplies could severely impact the Texas economy if something isn’t done. And, therefore, we’ve seen the Legislature, despite a preponderance of fiscal hawks, pony up $2 billion to fund the state water plan (pending voter approval in November, of course). But I don’t get the sense that ordinary Texans rate water supply problems as very high on a list of priorities. Polling by the Tribune and UT indicate the same thing. Why do you think that is? And do you think that citizens may eventually focus more on water issues?

KG: You’re right. Plenty of people don’t seem to care that much about water. People living in the cities, that is. Farmers anxiously watch the skies, of course, as they’ve always done.

And the reason, colloquial as it sounds, is that when people turn on the tap, water comes out. So it doesn’t seem like a problem. And to the extent it is a problem, people expect their government to fix it quickly and without fuss. People take water for granted. Available and cheap, please. I got a wonderful comment once from the chief financial officer of the San Antonio Water System. He said, “We have people come in and say: ‘I’m really struggling to pay my water bill. Just a minute, let me answer my cellphone.’ ” His point was that water bills may run about the same as cable bills or cellphone bills, but people feel entitled to cheap water.

Getting Texans more engaged is going to be hard, realistically. It seems to me that people are a bit silo-ed into their own concerns these days, and it’s tough to break out of that. Obviously if a place runs out of water, that’s a jolt. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Andy Sansom of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment has the best answer on the “what to do” question. His line is: Take a kid fishing. Help them appreciate their natural environment. One day, those kids will be making the decisions.

 

TO: I wholeheartedly endorse the ‘take a kid fishing’ advice. I’m glad my dad did!

Let’s talk about climate change. I honestly don’t even know where to begin with such a sweeping topic, so let start with this: Why do you think the business and political leaders in Texas either ignore anthropogenic climate change or write it off as a scientific hoax?

KG: Whew, talk about a mega-question! But I’ll give it a shot.

Texans, in my experience, do believe climate change is happening. Any farmer will tell you that his growing season starts earlier than his grandfather’s. But as you alluded, it’s the human-caused part that trips people up.

It’s worth remembering that years ago, the write-off of anthropogenic warming wasn’t quite so aggressive. The first President Bush, a Texan of sorts, actually went to the global-warming conference in Rio in 1992. And if you look at Gov. Perry’s news releases from 10 years ago, when he visited wind farms, he would talk about how much carbon-dioxide they saved. Don’t think he does that now.

So what changed? Well, I’m sure an academic could give you a more profound answer, but my off-the-cuff take is that the small-government movement really took root. Things were trending that way for awhile, and then the Tea Party solidified it. And if you think about it, climate change—and the actions we’d need to take to combat it—has become, in some people’s minds, sort of the ultimate proxy for big government. It’s a huge issue that can directly impact how we live. So that became a whipping-boy.

And because climate change is so broad and abstract, it’s easy to dispute elements within it. Like — warming has hit a plateau of sorts, and scientists don’t know what the deal is with clouds. So then it becomes easy to launch off these sub-elements to question the whole theory.

Also, Texas thinks of itself as a can-do state. If there’s a problem, we want to fix it. And climate change by definition is a problem that Texas can’t, by itself, solve. Plus, of course, addressing climate change would hit Texas and its fossil fuel industry right in the pocketbook.

 

TO: On that basis, do you think Texas journalists should cover climate change differently than, say, California or other states where it’s out of the mainstream to deny the science? What was your approach during your time in Texas?

KG: I’ve always been interested in the approach of John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist out of A&M. He believes that humans contribute to climate change, but he focuses on the fact that climate change is happening and what it means, rather than the cause. And I think that’s where the Texas conversation is at right now, for better or worse.

I’d love to hear from other journalists on this. But I don’t think we need to cover climate change any differently than in, say, California. We have to be careful to provide balanced reporting, but that’s true anywhere and on any subject

If anything, the questions about climate change in Texas just add up to one more angle to cover — and sort of a fun one, I might add. How do Texas government agencies, and businesses, think about climate change? Do they put it in their reports? How do Texas politicians handle climate change in their campaigns? What’s Greg Abbott’s record against the EPA? Texas as an industrial state could feel a big impact from federal regulations aimed at combating climate change — so how will those industries react, and be affected? That’s going to be an interesting story, assuming these regulations go through.

People sometimes asked me, how come you didn’t mention climate change in this or that drought story? And the answer is, I do mention it in the broad stories, and I’ve written pieces squarely on climate change and the future of Texas. But if it’s a more micro-story, focused on a specific aspect of the drought, then a lot of times I try to keep the story tight.

 

TO: But what’s different about Texas versus much of the rest of the nation (California included) is that elected officials here routinely deny that climate change is a) happening or b) that it’s caused largely by human activity. Gov. Perry went so far as to suggest in his book Fed Up! that the planet is undergoing a global cooling trend. Texas Railroad Commission Chairman, and attorney general candidate, Barry Smitherman just today was tweeting about “the myth of carbon pollution.”

So, I guess to reframe the question: Do journalists in Texas (or anywhere else with a high degree of climate denial) have any obligation to directly confront such views by, for example, counterposing the views of politicians with climate science?

KG: This is a broad debate in the news media, and it goes well beyond climate change. The question is, when politicians say things that aren’t accurate, how far do you go toward correcting them?

I’m going to defer to the editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, since we’re getting a bit beyond my pay-grade. Asked about this in 2012 by the then-Times Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, she wrote:

“[P]roviding facts to challenge false or misleading assertions isn’t just part of political coverage. We do it routinely in policy stories from Washington and business stories from Wall Street. We do it in science coverage, too — for example, we constantly point out the scientific consensus on climate change. Of course, some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness.”

So, yes, a corrective is useful when the facts on climate change or whatever else aren’t right. You saw StateImpact Texas do that with Barry Smitherman, the Railroad Commission chairman running for attorney general, just recently.

I’ll also say that opinion writers, as well as objective reporters, have an opportunity to keep politicians on the straight and narrow. And frankly I wish the opinion writing in Texas newspapers were stronger. The Observer is already there, to be sure, but the Houston Chronicle just lost Loren Steffy, their energy columnist. Texas environmental issues deserve more attention.

 

TO: You and co-author Asher Price just published The Great Texas Wind Rush, a book on the unlikely emergence of Texas as the leader in wind energy. (I highly encourage everyone to purchase and read the book!) I think a lot of non-Texans are surprised to learn that Texas has more installed wind capacity than any other state. But this is not an accident, as your book shows. What were the essential ingredients that made us the national leader in wind? And what is wind’s future (and solar’s) in a state that is also undergoing an enormous boom in oil and gas production?

KG: Weirdly, I think Texas’ history of oil and gas production had a lot to do with preparing it for wind. Oil meant that landowners were receptive to the concept of energy royalties, and power lines that weren’t filled with natural-gas-generated electricity could be filled with wind. The fact that it’s a big, rural state meant that there are a lot of self-sufficient tinkerers in the hinterlands. A few of them turned to wind turbines, and that was enough.

Wind farms will continue to go up in Texas for the next few years, especially in the Panhandle, the windiest but least accessible region of Texas, and along the coast. A key federal tax credit is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, so that’s something to watch. People ask me how much more wind can go on the Texas grid–right now it supplies about 9 percent of the grid’s energy. I don’t have a scientific answer, but I’ll be surprised if it climbs above 12 percent or so in the near term.

Solar is growing, but it’s going to have a tougher time. For wind, a lot of things came together, not least that the politics were right for a renewable energy mandate in 1999. The politics are pretty far from that now, and providing any special incentives for solar seems off the table. The oil and gas boom means that Texas is going to be producing plenty of energy for the foreseeable future, so renewables become a bit less exciting. There’s already been some tension between natural gas and renewables in the realm of the power grid, so we’ll see how all that plays out.

 

TO: Last question: What are you going to miss about covering Texas and what are you looking forward to in California (other than presumably not suffering through any more 100-plus days!)?

KG: There is no better place to be a journalist than Texas. The state is fascinating, important and weirdly neglected by the national press. In terms of covering energy, Texas has it all–oil and gas, coal, nuclear, wind and even occasional glimpses of energy efficiency. The water story is compelling too. Drought is one problem that the state can’t just build its way out of, and it has been mesmerizing to watch this bigger-is-better, we-love-freedom state grapple with the necessity of conservation.

But probably the best element of covering Texas is the people. I found Texans to be friendly and fairly open to the press. I’d much rather talk with a Texas rancher than a suit in a New York office flanked by three public relations professionals.

Now, right, I’ve moved to California. (Sorry, Gov. Perry—it’s not all the other way.) I won’t tell you how nice the weather is. I’m looking forward to freelancing on energy/environment topics (and maybe a few others too), and also to relaxing. I’m headed to my favorite mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada, tomorrow. Adios!

Thanks Forrest. This has been fun.

8678460016_11b97df0bd_b
Gov. Rick Perry visits with first responders in West, TX.

“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”
—H.L. Mencken

Maybe they’re still drunk from celebrating Milton Friedman’s birthday, because one of the deep thinkers at the Texas Public Policy Foundation has published a good old-fashioned, he-must-be-high howler over at Texas Monthly this week. The premise of the piece by TPPF’s John Daniel Davidson, “Helping Hands Off,” is that Texas conservatives should be thrilled that the Obama administration denied the state’s request for a major disaster declaration in West, where an April fire and explosion at a fertilizer facility killed 15 and injured an estimated 300 or more people. Just this morning, however, the feds reversed course and announced that they would approve the request and pony up the full requested amount.

If that were all, we could let it lie. However, Davidson goes much, much further. Basically, his argument is that government is bad, the federal government is really bad and disaster recovery efforts should be largely left to the locals or the magic of tax cuts (yes, really… more on that later).

The article is problematic, at best, on about nine different levels. First, Davidson doesn’t bother to explore whether the long and growing list of oversight and regulatory failures might have contributed to the disaster. You’d think a free-market think tank obsessed with bloodless cost-benefits analyses would explore whether *avoiding* the destruction of hundreds of homes, schools, apartment buildings and businesses might be cheaper than paying for the clean-up.

Notably, Davidson doesn’t cite a figure for the number of injuries—an estimated 300 or more—perhaps to avoid the niggling problem that the state of Texas, unlike that bastion of overzealous governance known as Oklahoma, doesn’t have a system to count its dead or injured. Like anyone with eyes in their head or a heart in their chest, Davidson praises the first responders who lost their lives in the West disaster and the outpouring of support from citizens. But unlike even Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, Davidson believes that government disaster aid displaces local, volunteer recovery efforts. (This formula is strikingly similar to TPPF’s notion that the problem with the American health care system is that government insurance programs “crowd out” the free market.)

But the West explosion has also launched another sort of debate, about the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

In the wake of such a disaster, whom should we turn to for help? In the immediate aftermath, West became a town of volunteers. Neighbors and local churches provided shelter, cleared debris, and donated food, clothing, and counseling. Townspeople took a fierce pride in caring for their own. “These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco police sergeant William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

Quoting a government employee, a cop, to make your point that the “townspeople” (“townspeople,” really?—they are not extras in a Tennessee Williams play) don’t need no stinkin’ help from the government: awesome.

Shaming the president might get the conservative base fired up, but it’s the wrong way to think about our relationship to Washington—as if the people of West should rely on the feds to make things right. They shouldn’t—and they aren’t.

Does it matter at all that the West mayor was steaming mad at the Obama administration for not ponying up the full amount requested by the state? He didn’t see it as a “handout”—no one does when they’ve lost everything.

Three days after the explosion, nearly one thousand volunteers had been registered, three warehouses were processing donated goods, and the Red Cross was asking people to hold off on donations because it was inundated. First Baptist Church in West has spent the spring and summer knocking down damaged homes with borrowed construction equipment and volunteer labor, using hundreds of thousands in donated funds to pay for fuel and debris removal. (And let’s not forget that the firefighters killed in the explosion were themselves volunteers.)

Well, of course. That’s what communities do in a disaster. They rally together to a common purpose. The fact that it’s so common and yet so extraordinary is a testament to our resiliency and it is strangely in these moments of suffering that our hope for humanity is restored. Beneath those clichéd “hero” stories that Anderson Cooper is fond of lies something profound: Amazement that any one of us, given the horrible opportunity, could rise to the occasion.

So, of course we turn to each other, first, almost certainly to our families and our neighbors. But does that somehow exclude government, that larger political community?

The question is what happens when the cameras go home and a community is left with the long and tedious task of rebuilding schools, public infrastructure, homes and roads over the course of months or years? The long-term disaster recovery component is often the most difficult and costly and requires the kind of coordination and focus offered by government. A church disbursing “hundreds of thousands in donated funds” (dollars?), while noble and necessary, is not going to cut it. Remember the outpouring of donations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti? How’s that country, with its lack of government and collections of NGOs, doing three years later?

Long-term disaster recovery is a tricky business and Texas has done a poor job in equitably and efficiently flowing federal funds to the victims of natural disasters. It took six years, after Hurricane Rita in 2005, to get some people back in their homes. A similar story has played out in the five years since Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008.

But Davidson’s task here is not to think through these thorny questions but to fit his agenda to the particulars of West.

The response of this community underscores a fundamental truth about democracy: civil society contracts in proportion to the growth of government. And where there is less of the latter, there is more of the former.

Here’s where that logic leads… A solution to pay for disasters.

And maybe Perry should make good on his commitment to pass $1.8 billion in tax cuts so Texans and Texas businesses have more to spare when disasters strike and their neighbors are in need.

Where to even start with this? Tax cuts as disaster relief? Is this some sort-of sick joke? Did Arthur Laffer take up trepanning and find another napkin to scribble on? Davidson’s theory of human nature is that people have an infinite capacity for helping each other voluntarily but will refuse to open up their checkbooks if not afforded tax relief through their businesses.

And here’s the real rub: the Legislature *did* pass more than $1 billion in tax cuts, $630 million of which came in the form of cuts to the state’s business franchise tax. Perry signed that budget into law in June. So I guess TPPF’s corporate donors are writing some big checks to the West recovery fund, right?

Rita DeShannon, a special investigator with Texas Child Protective Services, was fired today after the agency was alerted to racially inflammatory remarks on her personal Twitter account. Under the account @TexasPeanut, DeShannon tweeted frequently during the past few weeks on George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, using the term “nigartards” and calling for white people to “arm themselves.”

DeShannon has worked for CPS since 2003, first as a foster care worker, then as an investigative caseworker and finally as an Ellis County-based special investigator since 2010, according to the agency. According to her LinkedIn profile, DeShannon is also a law-enforcement officer, who worked as a detective in the Monroe, Louisiana, Police Department. She also owns a company, AAA Texas Process Service, that serves court papers for the Texas Supreme Court, according to public records.

Until she changed it yesterday, her Twitter profile identified her as a member of the “Oathkeepers,” a far-right organization largely comprised of cops and military personnel who promise to disobey orders they consider unconstitutional. DeShannon didn’t respond to an email from the Observer seeking comment.

The Observer contacted CPS on Tuesday about DeShannon’s Twitter account. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency wasn’t aware of DeShannon’s inflammatory racial views or her Twitter account. On Wednesday morning, the agency dismissed her. In a letter recommending her dismissal, CPS administrators wrote that her “comments were inappropriate and inflammatory” and “violated her ethical responsibilities to the children and families we serve.” In one tweet on July 15th, DeShannon complains, “I’m really f#cking tired of being politically correct for nothing after all these years!” Her most recent tweet, from two days ago: “I’m not racist..I’ll kill any color of person who tries to kill me first!”

Oiling the Skids for Chevron in Houston

Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund coughs up $12 million for Chevron.
An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).
An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).

Chevron is one of the world’s largest corporations, earning more than $240 billion in revenue last year. CEO John Watson raked in almost $25 million in compensation in 2011. And as of July, Chevron is the proud recipient of a $12 million grant from the state of Texas. For most people, or even a small company, $12 million is an enormous amount of money. For Chevron, it’s about what the company earns every four hours.

The $12 million in public funds came from the Texas Enterprise Fund, the stated purpose of which is to create jobs and spur investment. But critics have accused Gov. Rick Perry, who oversees the fund out of his office along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, of using the $500 million pool as a slush fund to reward allies and campaign contributors. But there’s another nagging question hanging over the Texas Enterprise Fund: Does it actually create jobs? Is it really a “deal-closer,” or just a way for corporations to wring more money out of taxpayers?

The Chevron example is instructive. The $12 million grant is earmarked for a 50-story office tower Chevron plans to build in downtown Houston as part of the company’s expansion plan. The project will create 1,752 jobs, according to the governor’s office. But would Chevron have created those jobs regardless of winning a grant from the Enterprise Fund?

Chevron has had plans for the property for at least five years. In 2008, Chevron announced that it would purchase 1600 Louisiana, the block where the 50-story tower will be located. “It leaves us flexibility and options for the future,” Edward Spaulding, a Chevron spokesman, told the Houston Chronicle at the time.

In June 2011, Chevron purchased Four Allen Center, a 50-story, 1.3-million-square-foot tower that was once Enron’s headquarters, for $340 million. It did so without help from the state.

“Chevron is pocketing millions in taxpayer handouts to do something they would do anyway,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “This is pure handout. That incentives are needed to induce behavior is just a charade.”

Asked what locations other than Houston Chevron had considered, a company spokesman responded by email: “It was determined that building a new building downtown is the best way to accommodate our business growth and expanding [the] Houston workforce. Chevron’s demand for office space in downtown Houston has exceeded the availability of owned space.”

Well, bully for them. But the question remains, if the state of Texas hadn’t coughed up $12 million, would Chevron have packed up and moved somewhere else? It doesn’t seem likely.

To access the state grant, Chevron also had to line up an incentive from local government. City council members have hardly addressed the “but-for” question. In a city council meeting on July 24, the council members fell all over themselves to lavish praise on Chevron and express support for a $2.7 million tax abatement for Chevron’s property. “They deserve our help on this,” said councilman Jack Christie, citing the company’s charitable projects.

Council member Melissa Noriega had the most expansive explanation. “This is exactly the kind of project that is appropriate where we take local match and leverage that to a much large amount of money that’s given by another entity that benefits Houston, that benefits our jobs, that improves our skyline, that makes a real opportunity. As we talk about the role of government there are places where it’s appropriate for us to intervene. This is that kind of thing.”

The council has largely talked around the nagging “but-for” question. The Observer put the question to James Rodriguez, the councilman whose district encompasses Chevron’s downtown Houston headquarters. “I didn’t have those particular discussions but we trust our economic development team, our staffers to look at the proposals and again they look at them case by case. They provide information to council and then they make their recommendations.”

The Houston Chronicle, while criticizing the incentives as “a race to the bottom … without any thorough cost-benefit analysis,” all but conceded that the city would greenlight the subsidies and encouraged the council to squeeze more amenities out of Chevron.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the frontrunner to replace Perry as governor, has already expressed ambivalence about the benefits of the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. “What I can say is that I don’t want to be involved in government picking between winners and losers,” he told the Associated Press in July.

Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells
UT-Arlington
Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in private drinking water wells near natural gas wells in North Texas’ Barnett Shale. The scientists analyzed samples from 100 wells, both inside and outside of the Barnett Shale. Their results were published online today in Environmental Science & Technology.

Some wells were near to natural gas production sites; some were not. Although arsenic was found in 99 of the 100 wells, levels were “significantly higher in active [gas] extraction areas.” Twenty-nine of the wells registered arsenic concentrations above levels that the EPA considers safe. One sample, near a natural gas site, was “almost 18 times higher” than levels found in the Barnett Shale prior to the fracking boom as well as the maximum arsenic concentration found in a well outside the active drilling zone.

The findings are likely to fuel continued debate over whether fracking is polluting drinking water. As the oldest major shale play, the Barnett Shale is of particular importance as scientists, regulators and citizens grapple with fracking’s impacts.

The authors, however, are careful to say that the cause of the contamination can’t be definitively pinpointed. Potential causes could include: mechanical failures such as faulty gas well casings or fluid spills; mechanical disturbances from drilling; or dropping water tables from overpumping and drought, (although aquifers in the area are currently rising and the historical data doesn’t show spikes in contaminant levels during past droughts). And like good scientists they call for more research.

“This study alone can’t conclusively identify the exact causes of elevated levels of contaminants in areas near natural gas drilling, but it does provide a powerful argument for continued research,” said Brian Fontenot, a UT Arlington graduate and lead author on the new paper.

The Texas oil and gas industry and politicians insist that groundwater pollution isn’t linked to fracking. There’s a grain of truth to this assertion. Despite an astonishing increase in fracking activity in Texas, research is sparse.

“Despite a number of recent investigations,” the authors note, “the impact of natural gas extraction on groundwater quality remains poorly understood.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels

For the last week, activists, lawmakers and media have demanded that DPS produce evidence that protestors tried to bring jars of urine and feces into the Senate gallery last Friday. No DPS trooper has stepped forward to say he or she personally saw jars of urine or feces, although the law enforcement agency’s head Steve McCraw has defended the allegations. McCraw has said all of the items, including glitter, bricks and tampons, were discarded and no names were taken. But today, none other than the state’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, claimed to have seen bottles of urine and bags of feces.

Dewhurst told Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party in a web-streamed interview that he “walked over to where [DPS] was screening” and saw DPS personnel “smelling” water bottles. “They had urine in it,” he said. Dewhurst, a former CIA operative, also said he saw DPS setting aside bags of feces to throw away. (A transcript is provided below.)

DPS’ original press release, from 4:49pm last Friday, stated that officers had discovered “one jar suspected to contain urine” and “18 jars suspected to contain feces.” Dewhurst said he saw an unspecified number of “water bottles” containing urine and an unspecified number of “bags” containing feces.

Dewhurst’s office didn’t respond to questions today about when and where he saw the bottles of urine and bags of feces. The lieutenant governor is six feet, five inches and the focus of intense media attention: It seems odd that in this era of ubiquitous social media, cameras and video his presence at the crowded Capitols security checkpoints would have gone unnoticed.

“Just like everything else with this, the more that is being told to us the more questions it raises,” said Scott Daigle, a spokesman in Rep. Donna Howard’s office.

In the interview, Dewhurst also said he personally met with DPS a “dozen times” after the Wendy Davis filibuster to go over security. “We had enough firepower that we could have defended the Capitol against a brigade of a thousand al-Qaida.”

**

[Begins ~27:20]

Toby Marie Walker: “There were—

David Dewhurst: “Bottles of urine, bags of feces. Awful.”

TMW: “I know there’s people who say, ‘Oh that didn’t happen because DPS didn’t save it’.”

DD: “It did. It did. It did. I saw some of it.”

TMW:”…I’ve heard from members and other people who saw some of it.”

DD: “Absolutely and it’s the same as myself I walked over to where they were screening and they were getting bottles out and smelling them, they were getting water bottles out and smelling and they had urine in it. And there were bags they had set aside and were going to put in the trash and throw it out, of feces. Just despicable. Despicable.”‘

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2 before its passage Friday night.

Lost in the dramatic events of Friday’s final showdown over the anti-abortion bill was a remarkable speech by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). It started out a critique of the Democrats’ legislative dealings with the Republican majority—inside baseball, really—but then built to a full-throated declaration of God’s wishes for the second special session of the Texas Legislature and a channeling of the wishes of women and the fetuses they carry.

Now, Patrick’s not known for his subtlety. After all, he came up in the world of right-wing radio and modestly titled his bible-inspiration manual The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read.

Patrick recently announced a run for lieutenant governor, challenging the bumbling Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and two other very conservative Republicans of somewhat different flavors, Ag Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Patrick has made little secret of his disdain for Dewhurst’s mishandling of the anti-abortion bill but it was his venomous and unapologetically Christian-ist speech on Friday that really marked the beginning of the campaign and showed just how extreme Patrick can be.

The Senate doesn’t lack for members willing to wear their faith on their sleeve. Sen. Eddie Lucio, the only Democrat to vote for House Bill 2, gave a half-hour rambling seminar on his personal theology, quoting Mother Teresa and citing John Locke, to justify his belief that life begins at conception. But Patrick goes even further.

He has a history of invoking God to justify his far-right politics. He even knows God’s schedule. In February 2011, he said of a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram, “This is God’s time to pass the bill.”

Patrick reviewed his own book on Amazon.com, humbly writing, “Since God inspired me to write this book, He automatically gets 5 stars and the CREDIT!”

In a 1958 TV interview with Mike Wallace, theologian and minister Reinhold Niebuhr defined “a bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.” He may have had a politician like Dan Patrick in mind.

I suspect Patrick wouldn’t wear one of those “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets so popular back in the Bush era. Not for him, the open-ended question. “Jesus Does as I Do” is more his cup.

In his Friday address, Patrick managed to speak for women seeking an abortion, unborn babies and God, practically in one breath. That proved too much for one woman in the gallery, who shouted “I can’t take it anymore”:

We talked about the choice, you ask us, well don’t we put ourselves in the place of the woman and her choice, what choice does the baby have? Who speaks for the baby? Do you think if the mother had a conversation with the baby and said, ‘you know, this just isn’t really convenient to give birth to you right now, do you mind dying?’”

Woman yells, “I can’t take it anymore.”

Patrick: “I think that baby would say –“

Dewhurst: “Could you pause for a moment, I think the lady is going to be escorted out.”

Patrick: “I don’t get mad with those folks, I pray for them.

He went on to focus on the key Republican talking point about House Bill 2—that it’s about women’s health more than anything else, but he soon pointed out that he knows how God would’ve voted on House Bill 2 on July 12, 2013.

So at the end of the day, I respect the arguments, it’s been a good day of debate, but I can’t sit here and listen to all this talk that leaves out the most important person in the process, the baby. So who do I listen to?

I don’t apologize for being pro-life and I don’t apologize for being a Christian, and I listen to the word of God on this issue. The Bible tells us we are born in the image of God, and I believe when a baby’s life is destroyed we are destroying the image of God. And there should be no one out there celebrating it. If they want to, fine. But I will never stand on this floor, and I will never cheer, and I will never support anyone who celebrates destroying the image of God.

Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.
Sen. Dan Patrick during debate on House Bill 2.

There’s two ways you can go in life, a lot of people say I believe in God, but there’s a quantum leap when you go from believing in God to believing God. A lot of people believe in God. If you believe God, how would God vote tonight if he were here?And I know I’ll get raked over by the liberal blogs and some people in the media for bringing this up on the floor, but let’s just be honest. Are we a nation that stands for a Judeo-Christian ethic, or are we not? Do we get down on our knees and pray when our children get sick, or when we have a tragedy in West, Texas, or 9/11, who do we turn to then? We turn to God, and say, “God please bless us. “But on this case, “no, no, no, God, sorry, we’re not with you on this one.”  Well, I say the people who are for this bill aren’t any better than people who are against it, aren’t any more godly. I’m just saying we’re listening a little closer.

So I’m proud to stand and vote for this bill. I believe we are improving women’s healthcare, and I believe we care about these children. As they said, when it comes to choice, when it comes to choice, the baby doesn’t have a choice, the baby doesn’t get a vote, but tonight the baby’s going to get, by my count, 19 votes. 19 votes, every Republican and one courageous Democrat will stand and vote for the babies and women’s healthcare.

And I respect everyone’s comments, and I hope you respect mine, because you’re passionate, I’ve heard the passion from my dear friend Senator Whitmire, from my good friend, I’ve heard your passion, but let me tell you, you don’t get to outrank me on passion. And I’m just as passionate, and I care just as much, and I know that this is the right vote on this bill, on this night, on this time. Thank you very much.”

Jesus wept.

Things have moved so fast and with such dramatic fashion during the roaring abortion debate at the Capitol that we’ve almost lost track of all the unbelievable things people have said over the past few weeks. So, we’ve gone back and tried to collect the best of the best, er, the worst of the worst—the craziest, stupidest and funniest stuff people have said, tweeted or—in the case of the sign guy—held… so far.

 

“We have funded what’s called rape kits that will help a woman, basically clean her out.”—State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, June 23rd on House floor.

“Making abortion essentially inaccessible in Texas will add an anxiety to sex that will drastically undercut its joys. And don’t be surprised if casual sex outside of relationships becomes far more difficult to come by.”—Burnt Orange Report writer Ben Sherman in a post entitled “Bro-Choice: How #HB2 Hurts Texas Men Who Like Women,” July 3rd.

“I’m hear to bring another perspective, a country boy perspective. I’m here to bring you my country-boy wisdom. In the country we have crops. We have cows, we have sheep. If a crop doesn’t produce, it’s eliminated. If an animal doesn’t reproduce, it’s eliminated. …If America is going to survive and hold on we’ve got to reproduce. We’ve got to end abortion.”—Lee Kuty, Caldwell, Texas at Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on July 9.

“I regret my abortion.”—Sign held by unidentified male anti-abortion protester.

“David came about as a result of his mom and dad, who were just 16 at the time, going to a Planned Parenthood deal where they taught them how to use contraceptives. They were not sexually active at that point. They got into the car, and they were so hot and bothered from this deal, he couldn’t even get the condom on.”—Steve Toth on the dangers of sex ed, recorded talking to Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

“It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”—Rick Perry on Wendy Davis, speaking at the National Right to Life Convention in Fort Worth.

“Some of them have been here chanting in the Capitol, ‘Hail to Satan, hail to Satan, hail to Satan,” he said tonight. “Anyone who opposes this bill, whether he realizes it or not, is a tool of Satan.”—First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress at the Stand For Life rally at the Capitol July 8.

“Seems to me we do more for eagle eggs, than babies in the womb.” —SB1 supporter in July 8 committee hearing.

“We have reports, and I have my staff taking a look at the video,” Dewhurst explained, “and if I find, as I’ve been told, examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I’m going to take action against them.”—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, June 28, in an interview with HotAir.com. Dewhurst later said he would not be arresting reporters.

“This is my baby and I will fight! and I will fight! and I will fight! to protect my baby.”—Rep. Villalba (R-) waving a sonogram image of his 13-week old fetus. House debate, July 9.

rickperrymulti

Ever since Rick Perry flamed out in spectacular fashion as a presidential candidate, political prognosticators have been speculating—baselessly at times—about his next step. Would he run for re-election as governor, potentially serving an unprecedented 18 years? Would he make another run at the White House? Would he retire and join Rudy Giuliani on the lucrative motivational speaking circuit?

Today, Perry revealed what his staff had billed as “exciting future plans” and put to rest some of the speculation. At a press conference at the Holt Cat dealership in San Antonio, the longest serving governor in Texas history announced that he will not seek re-election. “The time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership,” he said, pausing to gather himself as he betrayed some emotion. Or, as Perry once put it, “Adios, mofo.”

As for another presidential bid, Perry didn’t address it directly, saying he would announce future plans at “an appropriate time.”

Perry’s speech was a laundry list of his accomplishments as governor, with a singular focus on his strong suit: Texas’ relatively robust job growth.

Fact-checkers could cancel their Thanksgiving plans just trying to account for all of his claims. My personal favorite: Perry said his policies have made “special interests… uncomfortable.” He said this speaking at a Caterpillar dealership owned by Peter Holt, who is Perry’s ninth largest donor. Holt and his wife, Juliana, have given Perry more than $637,000 since 2000.

Journalism is the first draft of history but the media is already writing his legacy. Here’s how the AP led its story today:

Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history who famously muttered “oops” after forgetting during a 2011 presidential debate the third of three federal departments he’d pledged to close, announced Monday he won’t seek re-election next year to a fourth full term.

Oof.

Perry may be tempted to prove his critics wrong and rescue his reputation. But how successful could he possibly be? The field is going to be much tougher in 2016 and his polling at this point is abysmal. A recent PPP survey, found that Texas Republicans preferred Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Only 18 percent of Texas Republicans thought he should run. “Rick Perry’s presidential aspirations appear to be dead in the Lone Star State,” the pollsters wrote in a synopsis.

There’s also the more important matter that he continues to have little appetite or knack for the hard stuff presidents deal with, e.g. foreign policy, complex policy questions. Just a few weeks ago, the governor mixed up Lebanon and Libya. Yes, anyone can make mistakes but Perry has a record of more than just the occasional gaffe: He seems genuinely uninterested in policy and tries to cover it up with bluster. There are plenty of other reasons a presidential bid, while making for great entertainment, would be a bad idea. Read Observer Editor Dave Mann’s post here for more.

Perry stepping aside clears the way for the first open-seat governor’s race in Texas since 1990 (the classic Ann Richards-Clayton Williams race). Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott will be heavily favored to win the governorship.

For Wendy Davis, it means she can’t run against her perfect foil. She can’t run against damaged goods and a governor that many Texans have grown weary of. If Davis makes a bid for the Governor’s Mansion, she’ll most likely have to face Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, currently sitting atop a campaign fortune of $18 million and counting. The silver lining, though, is that Abbott is every bit as right-wing, if not more so, than Rick Perry. And in recent polling, Davis actually performs better against Abbott than she does Perry. Abbott leads her 48-40 (still a big lead) vs. Perry’s 53-39 advantage.

Whoever’s the next governor, he or she will inherit an office that has been transformed. In his 12 years in office, Perry has found ways to turn a weak, largely ceremonial office into a powerful position that commands the state’s political structure. From cultivation of a large bench of loyalists doing his bidding in the sprawling apparatus of state agencies, to working with a pliant Legislature to set up multi-billion-dollar funds (see: the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas) plagued by misappropriation and charges of cronyism, the governor’s office is now a real CEO position. What’s more important is how he used that office—and how his successor will use the accumulated power—but that’s a story for another day.

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