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BarnettShaleDrilling-9323
Photo by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)/Wikimedia
Barnett Shale drilling rig near Alvarado, TX.

A group of Denton residents launched an effort Tuesday to outlaw fracking within the city.

If the Denton Drilling Awareness Group succeeds in getting the ban on the ballot and if Dentonites pass the measure in November, Denton will become the first city in Texas to make fracking illegal. Cities in other states have already passed similar laws, but Denton would be the first with existing fracking permits to do so.

The possibility of a city in Texas—a state that accounts for one-third of U.S. natural gas production—making it illegal to frack is sure to rattle the industry. Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December when it adopted prohibitive setback requirements for natural gas wells, but it still didn’t outright make fracking illegal. And Dallas isn’t Denton.

Denton sits atop the part of the Barnett Shale formation that’s richest in natural gas. The county is the fourth-highest producing within the Barnett Shale. It has 275 active gas wells within its city limits (Dallas didn’t have a single active gas well within city limits when it passed the de facto ban) and another 212 wells in the extraterritorial jurisdiction within five miles of city limits.

Nineteen operators own those gas wells. EagleRidge Energy, whose wells have been at the center of the debate between residents and city government, owns at least 107 active wells. The Observer contacted Mark Grawe, the chief operating officer and executive vice president at EagleRidge, but he refused to comment on the proposed ban. Asked how many gas wells EagleRidge operates in and around Denton, he said “in the hundreds,” and asked what percentage of its natural gas production is concentrated in the city, he only volunteered “a majority.”

Denton Drilling Awareness Group member Cathy McMullen moved to Denton when natural gas wells started springing up around her home in Decatur. She and her husband found homes for their farm animals and relocated to Denton with their rescue dogs, thinking they’d escaped drilling. But soon, a drilling rig went up 1,500 feet from their house.

“We were shocked because we’re in town, we’re next to a hospital and next to a city park so we thought they’ll never drill here,” she says. “Then they started drilling here and I told my husband, ‘That is my line in the sand. I’m not going anymore, we’re just fighting it.’”

Dentonites who support the fracking ban don’t expect it will be an easy battle, but they say they had no choice but to resort to a voter-adopted ban. Sharon Wilson, who has been organizing in Denton for five years, says residents have been trying to get city government to pass reasonable restrictions on natural gas drilling for years. The City Council passed a revised gas drilling ordinance last year, but residents were unsatisfied because it left out key protections such as prohibiting open pits, compressor stations, flaring and other measures they requested.

The ordinance also provides an important loophole. Energy companies can’t put new drills within 1,200 feet of homes, but that setback doesn’t apply to developers building new homes. Developers can build near existing gas wells, which energy companies can then return to redevelop, or re-frack. That’s what happened in a Denton neighborhood recently, where EagleRidge Energy bought existing gas wells and began operating them even though they are only 250 feet away from homes. In that case, the developer pledged to disclose the gas well locations to future homebuyers, but in general that isn’t required.

“The last straw was when they decided to allow fracking so close to the Vintage neighborhood,” Wilson says. “It’s been a horrible, horrible experience for these people … We had no choice, we were backed into a corner and the only way to protect families and future generations was to try to get it banned.”

The group has to collect 571 signatures in 180 days to get the ordinance change on the ballot. Wilson and McMullen are confident they can get the signatures easily because so many residents have complained about emissions, noise pollution and dropping property values, but whether a majority of voters decides to back the measure is another matter.

If they are able to muster enough support, the ordinance could still face legal challenges. In Dallas, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city after it passed the de facto ban, and in Colorado, the state joined oil and gas groups in suing the city of Longmont for its voter-adopted fracking ban. In Denton, the City Council can amend or repeal the ordinance even after it’s passed.

“And then we’d have to do the process all over again, which we’ve already decided we would,” McMullen says. “If we have to do this process 50 times we will do it.”

It’s only the beginning of a long battle for many of the cities attempting to ban or significantly restrict urban fracking, but what happens in Texas in the coming months (or years) will likely have an impact beyond the state’s borders.

A Taser
Marcelo Freixo/Flickr

Last week, a group of civil rights organizations including the ACLU and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition called on Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams to ban the use of Tasers and pepper spray on schoolchildren, citing the recent severe injury of a Cedar Creek High teen as an example of the devices’ potential to inflict serious damage.

Within the Texas juvenile justice system, guards are banned from using Tasers on young offenders. But in public schools, “resource officers” are allowed to use the devices—along with pepper spray—at the discretion of local school boards.

“Texas families deserve to send their children to school without fear, knowing they can trust their schools to be safe havens,” the letter reads. “Emitting a shock of up to 50,000 volts, Tasers are designed to restrain adults. They simply should not be used on children.”

Williams’ office responded Thursday that it doesn’t have the “statutory authorization” to impose a ban on the weapons, noting that the authority lies with local school districts and charter school boards.

“That is a conversation that has to take place among local elected officials,” he said in a statement.

Last year the same coalition of civil rights groups called on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to enact a ban on the “non-lethal” devices, and were met with a similar response. Commission officials, however, vowed to work with the criminal justice groups in providing specialized curriculum for school police officers. TCLOSE only requires school security to meet the “minimum standards” of peace officers as established by the Texas Education Code—generalized training that is not specific to dealing with minors.

John Helenberg, director of operations at the law enforcement commission, said the agency is forming an independent committee of “experts across the state from various law enforcement agencies,” to take a closer look at how peace officers should use force in schools. That review will begin in March, Helenberg said.

Texas Appleseed and the ACLU examined the policies of 18 school districts in the state which volunteered to supply data; the use of pepper spray was prevalent throughout. The 2011 ACLU study also revealed the use of other weapons among the school districts: Killeen ISD listed police batons as one option; El Paso ISD reported using police dogs. Two Houston school districts recently began using “pepper guns,” which are more accurate than pepper spray.

The tactics used to restrain students are also determined independently by each school district and vary widely. Austin ISD officers use “soft empty-hand control” techniques when a student doesn’t respond to two verbal warnings, whereas Tyler ISD officers report using pepper spray after the student’s third failure to comply.

In 2009, several Hillcrest High students in Dallas were given medical treatment for exposure after an officer used pepper spray to break up a fight. Despite these injuries, information on force used against students and the types of implements officers wield is difficult to obtain because there are no legislative mandates requiring schools to report that data to the state. A Taser International spokesman told the Los Angeles Times in a 2009 article that “‘well over 4,000” law enforcement agencies nationwide use their product in schools.

map
League of Conservation Voters
Average environmental scores by state

Texas Republicans in the U.S. House did something truly impressive in the last session of Congress: Their voting records on the environment were even worse than the previous session, according to the League of Conservation Voters’ latest legislative scorecard. While the Texas GOP members collectively cast pro-environment votes 7.5 percent of the time in the last session of the 112th Congress, they sided with the environment a little more than 4 percent of the time in the first session of the 113th. At this rate, zero is within grasping distance.

Only one of the 24 Republicans in the House, Houston Rep. John Culberson, scored more than 10 percent. Five congressmen got the special distinction of scoring zero, taking what LCV considers a non-green position on all 28 key votes.

Not surprisingly, Texas Republicans favored policies beneficial to the oil and gas industry, including expanding offshore drilling and fracking, and voted against measures to protect air, water and green spaces. Many of the bills or amendments they favored would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to oversee industry and regulate toxic emissions and byproducts, including coal ash. Along with a handful of Democrats, they voted against clean energy funding and for legislative approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

Five Texas congressmen managed a perfect score. Call them the Zero Club—Reps. Ralph Hall, Joe Barton, Mike Conaway, Pete Olson and Blake Farenthold.

worst reps
These five House Republicans received a score of zero when they sided against the environment on all 28 key votes. From left: Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall; Joe Barton, R-Ennis; Mike Conaway, R-Midland; Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land; Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.

Democrats in the House voted “for” the environment one percent more than they did the previous session, at just under 77 percent. Three Democrats got scores of 96, but two scored under 50 percent.

The greenest there were freshmen Beto O’Rourke of El Paso and Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. Long-time green stalwart Lloyd Doggett of Austin rounded out the trio.

best dems
These Texas House Democrats got the highest scores on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard, with scores of 96. From left: Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso; Lloyd Dogget, D-Austin; Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, from Laredo, dropped from his already low score of 49 in the previous session to 29 this session, when he consistently favored fossil fuels and voted against measures protecting clean air and water. Cuellar joined four other Democrats in supporting legislative approval of Keystone XL, which requires a presidential permit. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, also scored under 50 percent, siding with the environment 46 percent of the time.

The worst-ranking Texas Democrats, by the League of Conservation Voters' standards. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo (left) and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville (right).
The worst-ranking Texas Democrats, by the League of Conservation Voters’ standards. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo (left) and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville (right).

Every single Democrat sided “against” the environment when he voted in favor of a Republican-introduced amendment to the 2014 omnibus funding bill that would keep FEMA from ending highly subsidized flood insurance rates. The League of Conservation Voters argues that the “artificially discounted flood insurance rates” lead to the development, and ultimately destruction, of floodplains. Six Republicans sided with the Democrats on this one, making it the only issue where a majority of GOPers voted in favor of the environment, by the LCV’s standards.

In the Senate, John Cornyn’s only “pro-environment” vote went to approving President Barack Obama’s appointment of Sally Jewell, the former CEO of REI, as secretary of the interior, which all but 11 senators did. He sided against the environment on the remaining 12 issues. Ted Cruz also approved Jewell, and cast another “pro-environment” vote when he rejected an amendment that would support Paul Ryan’s alternative budget plan. Though that plan would have continued billions of dollars in subsidies to the oil industry and would have lowered corporate income taxes, Cruz’s problem with it was that it would have funded Obamacare and would have increased spending in the short term.

The senators agreed on everything else, including cutting $60 million from the Department of Defense’s budget for advancing biofuels. According to the League of Conservation Voters, the DOD is the single largest energy user in the nation. They also both rejected Obama’s appointment of Gina McCarthy to the EPA, and voted for measures that would prevent federal agencies like the EPA from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Like their counterparts in the House, they voted against all clean air and water protections and for Keystone XL.

Here’s the full run-down by congressmember.

Texas Senate Scores:

Cornyn
8
Cruz
15
Texas House Scores 
Gohmert
7
Poe
4
Johnson, S.
4
Hall
4
Hensarling
7
Barton
0
Culberson
11
Brady, K.
7
Green, A.
89
McCaul
4
Conway
0
Granger
7
Thornberry
4
Weber
4
Hinojosa
82
O’Rourke
96
Flores
4
Jackson Lee
82
Neugebauer
4
Castro
96
Smith, Lamar
7
Olson
0
Gallego
64
Marchant
7
Williams
4
Burgess
4
Farenthold
0
Cuellar
29
Green, G.
54
Johnson, E.
93
Carter
29
Sessions, P.
4
Veasey
93
Vela
46
Doggett
96
Stockman
4
citgo

Seven years after Citgo was convicted of environmental crimes in Corpus Christi, a federal judge has finally sentenced the company—at least partially. U.S. District Court Judge John D. Rainey fined the multi-national oil company a little more than $2 million Wednesday for violating the Clean Air Act at its Corpus Christi refinery. Prosecutors had argued the company should pay up to $2 billion.

In a blow to the residents who live near the Citgo refinery, the judge failed to put Citgo on any sort of probation and delayed setting restitution for the residents. The victims, who attribute a spectrum of health problems to exposure to the plant’s toxic emissions, are upset at the glacial pace of the case and a fine they consider a pittance for Citgo’s crimes.

“That is a punishment that does not fit the crime,” says Melissa Jarrell, a professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “What message does it send when a multibillion-dollar corporation receives a $2 million fine?”

In 2007, Citgo was found guilty of illegally operating two uncovered tanks containing oil and toxic chemicals like benzene for nearly 10 years at its refinery in Corpus Christi. On Wednesday, about 80 men and women from the Hillcrest and Oak Park neighborhoods near the plant—most of them minorities and many of them elderly—stood in the courtroom to await the sentence. Many of them had been awarded protection under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and were allowed to testify when the sentencing hearing began in October. The Citgo case marks the first time victims of an air pollution crime have received this designation and been allowed to share testimony in court, a precedent that could have broader implications for future victims of air pollution.

Despite this status, the victims may not receive compensation from Citgo. Jarrell has been following the case and attended the hearing with the residents yesterday. She says the judge said the victims might misconstrue what he had to say, so he would instead deliver his decision on restitution by written order within the next 90 days.

“What can I interpret from the fact that he doesn’t want to appear in court and talk to people?” she says. “It’s probably not very good information because with a written order he never has to talk directly to victims themselves.”

Confused by the judge’s decision to delay ruling on restitution, frustrated victims directed their questions to the prosecution. After waiting seven years to find out if they would receive any restitution that might help them with hospital bills or relocation, the residents didn’t understand why they now have to wait up to three more months to get an answer.

When the sentence was delivered, Citgo said it planned to appeal, which means it will likely be even longer before residents see compensation, assuming the judge orders Citgo to provide any.

“Even though we believe Judge Rainey was fair in this sentencing process, CITGO intends to appeal because the prosecution unfairly characterized the two water equalization tanks as oil-water separators,” Citgo said in a written statement.

Citgo has been arguing that the tanks don’t fit the regulatory definition of “oil-water separators,” since the U.S. government first indicted it in 2006. But a jury found the company guilty in 2007 nonetheless.

The Department of Justice had originally sought a much higher penalty for Citgo’s environmental violations—up to $2 billion. The prosecution based that figure on the $1 billion it estimated that the company had made from operating the refinery during the time it was breaking the law.

But in 2012, the judge agreed to capping Citgo’s financial penalty to the statutory maximum of $500,000 per felony count. That amounted to just $2 million, plus $15,000 for each misdemeanor count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after dead migratory ducks were found in the tanks, penalties that totaled $45,000.

There have been other major air pollution problems at the Citgo plant in Corpus since the company’s conviction, including an accidental release of at least 4,000 pounds of the highly corrosive and poisonous hydrofluoric acid in 2009. The company only notified a few residents of the release, and initially only reported a 30-pound leak. Residents complained of nausea, dizziness, burning throats and other problems at the time of the leak.

“These aren’t victimless crimes,” Jarrell says. “Citgo would like to paint a picture of a friendly neighbor in Corpus that provides jobs and donates to people in the community, which is true, but they were also poisoning people in the community for over 10 years and those people may not get anything.”

Adele_photo_1108
Adele Houghton
Adele Houghton

This is Part Thirteen 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, Part 10 with Carlos Perez de Alejo here, Part 11 with Kate Galbraith here, and Part 12 with John Nielsen-Gammon here.)

Adele Houghton is the founder of Biositu, LLC, a Houston-based consulting firm dedicated to, in her words: “leveraging environmental sustainability to enhance community health.” The idea is that the buildings we occupy, the streets we walk and drive on and the landscapes that surround us can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to extreme climatic events. As the effects of climate change continue to threaten vulnerable populations across the world, Houghton believes it is more important than ever for cities and states to prepare their communities with that in mind.

Government agencies, professional associations and developers hire Biositu to help them plan and build in a way that safeguards the environment, but also protects communities from the current and future effects of climate change. After becoming a licensed architect at 29, Houghton pursued a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins.

A native of Houston, Houghton currently splits her time between her hometown and Austin, and travels across the country to present her research. Our Q&A, edited for clarity and brevity, follows:

Texas Observer: You founded Biositu because you believe that smart planning and policy are based on the intersection of green building, climate change and public health. I think most people understand the connection between green building and climate change, but can you explain how public health fits in?

Adele Houghton:The way that green building and climate change are talked about most of the time focuses on one aspect of climate change, which has to do with the cause: greenhouse gas emissions. The building sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions so that’s why there’s been a big effort in areas around energy efficiency and renewable energy to reduce those emissions. But buildings … are also the places where we shelter during storms or other climatic events, and the rest of the built environment—sidewalks, roads, parks—can either contribute to or can reduce the impact of a climatic event.

A climatic event that’s been a major issue in Austin and Central Texas, and actually Texas in general, is extreme heat. [Some] cities and areas are more prone to the effects of a heat wave because they don’t have as much vegetation or as much tree cover, and then you add onto that that maybe there’s a population there that’s susceptible to negative health outcomes during a heat event. People who are not able to afford to keep their air conditioner running during a heat event tend to live in areas that also do not have as much vegetation or as much tree cover. So the built environment is exacerbating and underlying potential health vulnerability to extreme heat.

Other examples that we’ve seen recently are flooding, with the flood down in [Austin’s] Onion Creek a few months ago. That occurred in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding; [that development] probably shouldn’t have been allowed to be built there in the first place. A lot of the time the people who live in those areas are predisposed to being more vulnerable, for example, by not being able to get out. They don’t have a car because they may be from a population that doesn’t have a huge amount of resources. So what you see when you’re adding the public health layering to what’s already discussed in the climate change and green building world is that the type of population that lives or works or travels through a vulnerable area can either reduce the impact of an event [or exacerbate it].

TO: Do you think that this interconnectedness between the three things has gone ignored? Or do you think that now organizations and governments are catching onto the idea that planning for the impacts of climate change and protecting the public’s health go hand in hand?

AH: I think it’s a mixed bag. There’s definitely growing recognition that adaptation is something that needs to be considered alongside with mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), which has really been the focus of most climate programs until now. Adaptation means responding to and preparing for the changes that are occurring because of climate change … Just over the past two years a number of municipalities and states that have started down the road of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions have also realized they need to prepare for and start responding to these increased risks related to climate change. Whether or not they include a health component is another question. I think adaptation in and of itself is really useful and valuable; when you also bring in some of the population health data that the health department can contribute—particularly if you bring it in in a mapping or geospatial kind of way—it makes it easier to target which areas combine these two vulnerabilities, the vulnerability of the built environment and the vulnerability of the population.

A lot of the time adaptation work that’s going on is focusing almost entirely on infrastructure and buildings and isn’t providing that overlay of looking at how does the population change this equation. Does it make it more necessary to adapt or less necessary to adapt? Or do we need to adapt in a way that we don’t realize because we need to pay attention to the population? It gets even more complicated when you think about how the population is going to change in the future and in a state like Texas that’s particularly important because of the population growth that’s happening here.

TO: I’ve seen some climate change projections that say the higher temperatures are going to be leading to more heat waves and heat-related deaths in urban centers. So in what other ways is Texas especially vulnerable, and are urban centers more vulnerable than rural areas?

AH: That’s a really good question and I think that that’s a question where public health and health data can really help evaluate in a way that would provide information that wouldn’t be there if you were just looking at the infrastructure.

If you were just looking at the infrastructure you’d say because a rural area has got, by definition, mostly vegetative surface and not very many roads and buildings [it might not be as vulnerable]. But if you look demographically there are large areas of the state in rural areas that are lower income with an aging population that is already starting to face issues of mobility and they also potentially don’t have as much security in terms of electricity—if the electricity goes out in a rural area it’s probably not going to be repaired as quickly as in an urban area.

So I can’t tell you based on my own research what exactly is the difference between a rural and an urban area, but those might be some of the questions I would ask if I were to look at the relative vulnerability of rural versus urban areas. There hasn’t been much activity that I’m aware of in Texas in particular around climate change adaptation in rural areas. Most of it has been work in urban areas and again a lot of it has been focusing on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

TO: Are any Texas cities catching on to the benefits of green building and planning? Are any of them considering public health impacts in their planning and projects?

AH: Most, if not all, of the major cities have started working in the realm of green building at the least. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso have all made commitments around green building. Whether or not they explicitly mention climate change is related to the political climate of that city. In Houston, for example, there’s a big push to enhance energy efficiency, but it’s not necessarily talked about in relation to reducing the impact or the cause of climate change; it’s instead talked about in terms of making a building a better business investment because you’re not wasting energy.

There have been efforts to start focusing on climate change as well. For example in San Antonio and in Austin there have been pushes to radically increase the renewable energy use in the city and in particular in city buildings. Houston has also been trying to move their buildings over to renewable energy and they’ve been changing their vehicle fleet over to hybrid and electric vehicles. In terms of bringing public health into the conversation, I worked with the city of Austin a few years ago to develop some vulnerability maps that combine these two vulnerabilities that we’ve been talking about: the built environment and social vulnerability. We mapped out, at the neighborhood level in Travis County, where are the most vulnerable neighborhoods to extreme heat or flooding. The idea behind that project was that it could be used by the climate change program to help inform policy decisions so that resources could be distributed more to those areas that have that combined vulnerability. Since then, very recently the City Council in Austin [passed] a proposal to start addressing adaptation more directly.

Areas that are most vulnerable to heat in Travis County are darkest.
Biositu, LLC
Areas that are most vulnerable to heat in Travis County are darkest.
Areas prone to flooding in Travis County are darkest.
Biositu, LLC
Areas that are most prone to flooding in Travis County are darkest.

In San Antonio they’ve been incorporating under the umbrella of this “green city of the future” a number of health and wellness initiatives. So the overall topic is green San Antonio, but as a component of it there’s a lot of emphasis on active living, on cycling, on trying to get people to start moving around the city in a way that doesn’t require a single person in a single car, and of course that will have many benefits in many ways. It will benefit their air pollution, because if you can get more people out of their cars that reduces the vehicle emissions. It also will benefit the population by culturally helping them to start reducing their obesity rate.

TO: So you’re talking about some Texas cities that are making efforts toward this, but overall how does Texas compare to other states in terms of at least climate change preparedness?

AH: At the city level I think there’s definitely work going on. … As a state, the politics in the state have made it very difficult to develop some sort of coordinated response to climate change. However, there’s also the fact that the death rate related to heat waves is a major priority of the state health department because it’s the number one killer from a natural disaster standpoint. Then of course flash flooding is also a major concern, in part because it’s the second killer, and it’s also a major cause of injury and is a lot more dramatic when it happens. You don’t see really dramatic images of a heat wave killing people the way that you see dramatic images of what happened in Onion Creek a few months ago.

So I think it gets more press in that sense, and similarly with hurricanes. … I think that we saw the vulnerabilities of Houston during Hurricane Ike in relation to the storm surge in a way that we hadn’t seen in real time in the past. There have definitely been studies done about it and warnings that this could happen and it definitely could become a Katrina situation—something like New Orleans could happen in Houston and I think that’s a growing realization in the city. So that’s definitely become more of a priority as well.

But because there’s no state coordination around the topic … it makes it difficult to justify economically making the changes to the built environment that are needed in order to enhance our resilience. In comparison, there are other states—California and Massachusetts are two great examples—where there’s been a real focus on combining an approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as changing policies, changing the built environment to enhance resilience and really working across state agencies to coordinate so that the health department becomes a major part of the process.

In California a few years ago they passed the first legislation, as far as I know, that combines green building land use policy with climate change mitigation and adaptation. It’s basically a requirement to the cities and metropolitan regions in the state saying when you’re developing your land use policy you need to be paying attention to how those plans are protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as making your city or region more resilient to climate change. New York state has done something similar … And Massachusetts has done something similar. So it seems like there’s a movement with the states really taking this on in an active and vocal sort of way to say at the state level what we’re going to try to do is coordinate across agencies so that we understand what the vulnerabilities are, [and how] social infrastructure and policy infrastructure can either stand in the way of progress or can benefit resilience, and then leave it to the local [government] to develop strategies and policies and actual projects.

TO: Do you think that’s what needs to happen in Texas? What do you think is the most important change that needs to happen here, and does it need to happen at the state level?

AH: I do think that, assuming we could remove the politicization of the term “climate change” from the discussion, the approach of creating a statewide framework and then leaving it to the locals or to a metropolitan region to figure out what makes the most sense for that region, seems like something that would be politically palatable in Texas. I think the problem is that there’s been so much focus and wasted energy on denying whether or not climate change is happening, and why is it happening that it makes it difficult to take a step back and objectively look at this approach, [which] is very federalist as a foundation so it’s something that Texas politicians would be supportive of if they weren’t so concerned about denying that climate change is happening.

I-635 flyover in Dallas
David Herrera/Flickr
More Texas commuters are avoiding scenic highway flyovers like this, where I-635 crosses U.S. 75 in Dallas.

People in big Texas cities are driving less, and riding bikes and public transportation more, according to a new study of American commuters.

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a consumer research group, studied commuters in America’s 100 largest cities and found that in all but one city, car commuting has declined in roughly the last 10 years. The researchers called it the “first ever national study to compare transportation trends for America’s largest cities,” and said said the study made it clear the “driving boom is over.” That’s true even in Texas, a state known for its love of cars, big trucks and highway sprawl.

The report, released Wednesday, included Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas: Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio. Researchers based their findings on data from the U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Transportation. (You can read the full report below.)

TexPIRG—the national group’s Texas offshoot—hailed Austin as a leader in reducing the number of drivers on the road, with a decrease of 4.5 percent in the number of workers commuting to work by private car between 2000 and an average of the years from 2007-2011. Austin’s was the third largest reduction in the country.

McAllen came in next at 3 percent, followed by El Paso (2 percent), Dallas (1.2 percent), San Antonio (0.6 percent) and Houston (0.3 percent).

McAllen saw the most dramatic rise in the nation in passenger miles traveled on public transit per capita from 2005 to 2010, with a 366 percent increase. The Monitor noted that while McAllen bus ridership is growing fast, its average—0.79 miles per capita—is still far below cities with bigger bus systems. Austin residents, for instance, average 145 miles per capita on a bus.

El Paso also saw a 29 percent increase in miles traveled on public transit, followed by Austin (22.9 percent) and San Antonio (1.5 percent). Public transit miles actually decreased in Dallas by 12.6 percent, and in Houston by 7.6 percent.

Researchers also considered the possibility that the 2008 recession drove car owners to take cheaper public transit. But many cities with the biggest decreases in car commuting, like Austin, were also affected less by the recession. Urban areas with the highest unemployment, poverty and falling income didn’t correlate with declining car use. The largest reduction in drivers comes from the youngest generation with an age range of 16 to 34.

The researchers offered a few possible explanations: an increase in interest in biking and public transit from millennials, paired with the retirement of car-commuting baby boomers; more people working from home; and expectations that gas prices will remain high in the long run.

It may be hard to picture Texans outside of Austin running to public transit, but Houston Mayor Annise Parker responded to the study with enthusiasm for her city’s “aggressive approach to providing alternatives to driving,” with new light rail and bus routes, and bike-friendly initiatives in one of the country’s most spread-out cities. Pulling Texans out of their cars may not be such a stretch after all.

 

Arthur Laffer (left) and Gov. Rick Perry
Arthur Laffer (left) and Gov. Rick Perry

If you listen to Texas conservatives, California is a dilapidated hellscape that’s rapidly plunged into Third World status, like Bangladesh with more plastic surgeons.

At a get-together convened by the Texas Public Policy Foundation today, Gov. Rick Perry joined legendary conservative economics guru Arthur Laffer in yet another in a long list of bids to wrest control of the national consciousness from that great nemesis of our greater state — California.

Chuck DeVore, a six-year member of the California State Assembly who moved to Texas and joined TPPF in 2012, introduced Laffer, the supply-side sensei who gave to the conservative movement in the 1970s the gift of the Laffer Curve, reportedly drawn-up on a napkin.

Laffer imprinted on the Reagan revolution the argument that economic vitality and tax revenues could be grown by cutting tax rates. Laffer’s theory and its implications are hotly contested, and  many mainstream economists don’t subscribe to his interpretation of the curve.

DeVore was effusive in his praise for Laffer — he credited the economist with helping to wreck the Soviet Union. But he wasn’t the only one. Laffer related that he’d had breakfast with gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, and that the two were in perfect sync. Rick Perry, too. “I cannot say that there’s anyone I respect any more than Arthur Laffer,” Perry said in his opening remarks.

Last time Laffer made waves in the state, it was for less auspicious reasons. Since the end of the Reagan years, Laffer’s been getting paid for lending his name to some highly dubious business propositions. In 1990, Laffer received a fee for touting a “multi-level marketing scheme” called FundAmerica — the founder of which was charged in Florida for running a pyramid scheme. Laffer was one of several involved who were hit with a $150 million class-action lawsuit. In 2002, Forbes criticized Laffer for lending his name to Casmyn Corp, which mined gold in Zambia and Zimbabwe before imploding in catastrophic and outlandish fashion.

In 2004, he was sued for his endorsement of Qualmag, a San Diego company attempting to develop a “batteryless power supply capable of operating on static energy.” Investors said the firm was predestined to be a flop — and Laffer settled. Then, last year, 52 Texas investors sued an investment fund associated with Laffer, the Laffer Frishberg Wallace Economic Opportunity Fund, for allegedly funneling money into Biz Radio, a company also tied to Laffer, “with no hope of reasonable return.” Investors claim the company was a Ponzi scheme.

At the event today, Laffer spent much of his time comparing the economic vibrancy of California to Texas, noting that one alternate method of calculating poverty rates puts California at the top of the list. That, combined with the Golden State’s high cost of living and highly-paid public employees, proved the efficacy of the ‘Texas Model.’

California has been a mess, for a whole host of reasons, many of them relating to the awkward and convoluted way the state is governed — a bastardized kind of direct democracy — a subject that received much attention from The Economist in 2011. Many of the obstacles California homeowners and businesses face seem unreasonable — but Laffer also touted several metrics that seemed to muddle his case.

California, Laffer bemoaned, “pays educators 20 percent more than Texas.” Social workers, he said, “make over $56,000 a year. In Texas it’s $37,000 — a 53 percent difference.” It’s certainly Laffer’s right to argue that it’s better for teachers to be paid less, but it might not be the winning argument he thinks.

Perry preferred to paint with a broad brush, pointing to recent high-profile features of Texas’ rapid economic expansion.

“How many people, just a short 10 years ago, would have said, the United States Grand Prix would be in Texas?” he asked the crowd enthusiastically, referring to the Formula 1 race in Austin this weekend.

That wasn’t all Perry was taking credit for.

“There’s a reason they’re building a new performing arts facility in San Antonio, Texas, right now. There’s a reason that in Fort Worth, they built a new museum of modern art,” he said. “That Dallas has build two new performing arts facilities in the last 10 years. The American Film Institute’s headquarters is in Dallas now.

“It didn’t happen by accident. It’s because of policies we’ve put in place in the state.

“I think the debate’s over,” Perry said. “The proof is in the pudding. Texas wins.”

California wasn’t the only blue state to garner the speakers’ derision, though. Laffer slammed the administration of former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, who he said he had once taught.

“Full disclosure: He was a C student,” he said. “And he may not have earned the C.”

To which Perry replied: “What’s wrong with being a C student?”

In closing, TPPF President Brooke Rollins offered the consolation of the free market to Californians. As if she was talking about a relapsed drug addict to unsympathetic friends, she intoned to the crowd: “We want California to do well.” If all those Angelenos just decide they want to get clean, “prosperity is around the corner.”

It’s worth getting the Californian perspective in this. Governor Jerry Brown famously called Perry’s efforts to woo companies to Texas “barely a fart.” Brown, who’s been increasingly praised for able leadership and California’s own changing fortunes, recently passed a budget that restored cuts to education — and even began paying down the state’s debt. The economy is coming back, and the Golden State even has its own version of Texas’ Rainy Day Fund.

But other Californians don’t take too kindly to naked derision, either. Subjecting Texas to other metrics, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee responded to Perry’s consistent criticism this February by bemoaning Texas’ “high dropout rate, lack of health insurance coverage and economic disparities,” its status as “a state that is last in mental health expenditures and workers’ compensation coverage, first in the number of executions, first in the number of uninsured, first in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and first in the amount of toxic chemicals released into water.”

“Texas can be better and wants to be better,” the editorial concluded. “Californians should help it out.”

Anti-Abortion Groups Receive Thousands in Funding from ‘Choose Life’ License Plates

As Texas law forces abortion clinics to turn patients away, anti-abortion centers receive $46,100 in new funds.
"Choose Life" license plate

Today Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the first recipients of funding from the state’s new “choose life” license plates. Thirteen organizations from Corpus Christi to Dallas will split $46,100 generated from the sales of almost 2,300 plates. The anti-abortion groups will use the money to provide services—mostly media advertising—promoting adoption over abortion.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature authorized the sale of specialty license plates exhorting Texas drivers to “choose life.” For $30, Texas drivers can purchase a cheerful kid-drawn plate and $22 will go toward anti-abortion organizations. Non-profits bid for the cash through a “competitive grant process.”

But it’s not that competitive. Applicants that provide abortions or have any affiliation with abortion providers are specifically barred from applying. A “Choose Life Advisory Committee,” comprising seven prominent figures in the anti-choice world, picked the winners.

The lucky recipients are all crisis pregnancy centers and anti-choice maternity homes, like Aggieland Pregnancy Outreach, Inc, which will receive $5,000 for “media advertising to promote adoption and the services of the organization”, or Corpus Christi Hope House, which is getting $5,000 to provide adoption training for staff and material assistance for pregnant women.

The Texas Medical Association condemns the methods crisis pregnancy centers use to persuade vulnerable women not to have abortions. Critics contend they use manipulative tactics to promote birth or adoption and provide misleading and scientifically-biased information. For example, they tell women that abortion causes suicidal thoughts and breast cancer, although there’s no medical evidence for such claims. They subject vulnerable clients to inaccurate yet graphic descriptions of the abortion procedure. In exchange for such biased counseling, the centers give women “mommy dollars” with which to buy baby gear from their stores.

Regardless, the state bankrolls scores of centers in Texas.

In an Observer investigation last year, we reported that crisis pregnancy centers had received $26.3 million in public money since 2005. The cash comes from state budgets for family planning, health screenings and preventive care. These crisis pregnancy centers do not provide any medical care to their clients, yet charge the state more per person than a family planning clinic would. Moreover, crisis pregnancy centers prefer chastity over prevention, so they dissuade their clients from using contraception that might protect them from sexually transmitted infections or further unplanned pregnancies.

Earlier this year, lawmakers channeled another $4.15 million per year into crisis pregnancy centers. Accordingly, five new center—in Clarksville, Leander, Odessa, Sulphur Springs and Paris—have joined the state-funded rolls, increasing the current number to 53.

Meanwhile, at least four family planning clinics closed this year for lack of public funding. This adds to the 60-plus that closed last year due to budget cuts, and the 14 abortion clinics that closed this month as a result of House Bill 2.

By the numbers

By the Numbers

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Priscila Mosqueda
Carlos Gutierrez arrives in Austin after traveling 12 days and 701 miles from El Paso on his Pedaling for Justice campaign.

Carlos Gutierrez rolled into Austin Saturday after a 701-mile bicycle ride from El Paso. Austin was the final destination on his 12-day ride across Texas to raise awareness about Mexican asylum seekers.

News cameras crowded around an exhausted and emotional Gutierrez as he carefully stepped off his bike and looked around, searching the crowd for his father’s face. For the next few minutes, family members and supporters took turns hugging the 35-year old cyclist.

Just two years ago a ride like this would have been unthinkable. A successful businessman in Chihuahua, Gutierrez was targeted by cartel members who demanded monthly extortion payments of $10,000. When Gutierrez could no longer pay, cartel members cut off his feet and left him to die as an example to other business owners.

Miraculously, Gutierrez survived. But to save his life his legs had to be amputated below the knees. Afterward, Gutierrez and his family fled Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. His asylum was neither granted nor denied. Instead, it was “administratively closed,” so that Gutierrez, while able to work, is in a sort of limbo until his case is reopened.

Typically, less than two percent of Mexican asylum cases are granted each year. Last year 9,206 Mexicans applied for political asylum in the U.S., and only 126 received asylum, according to U.S. Justice Department data. Carlos Spector, the El Paso immigration attorney who is representing Gutierrez, says the reason so few cases are approved is political. If the U.S. starts granting asylum to Mexicans, he says, it would be admitting that violence really does exist in Mexico and that the war on drugs has failed.

In exile in the United States, Gutierrez was struggling to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Then one day he met Eddie Zepeda, a prosthetic specialist, who pledged to help Gutierrez walk again with the help of prosthetic legs. Zepeda provided all of his services free of charge. Gutierrez refers to Zepeda as his guardian angel.

Carlos Gutierrez hugs his mother after completing his journey to Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
Carlos Gutierrez hugs his mother after completing his journey to Austin.

Gutierrez has come a long way since then, training for months to ride across Texas and raise awareness about the violence and impunity destroying the fabric of Mexican society. To bring attention to his situation and that of thousands of other Mexicans fleeing violence and seeking asylum here, he embarked on his Pedaling for Justice campaign in late October.

“I’m not here to point the finger at anyone; simply to alert the government as to what’s going on with the Mexican people,” Gutierrez said. “People from other countries are granted asylum as soon as they touch American soil, but not us Mexicans. Because even with the circumstances we’ve lived through – in my case the attempt on my life – it isn’t enough to get asylum. I don’t think it’s fair that it’s this way for Mexicans just because we are from a neighboring country.”

The war on drugs that started in 2006 has claimed thousands of Mexican lives and has forced thousands more to flee their homes. But Mexicans continue to be denied asylum because judges argue they are not fleeing political persecution, but are tortured, kidnapped or threatened in their home country only for economic gain. Thus, it isn’t the state that’s persecuting victims, but common criminals. Gutierrez’s lawyer Carlos Spector disagrees.

“Asylum law doesn’t reflect the Mexican reality, which is that much of the extortion is possible because of the relationship with the state. ‘Authorized crime’ really reflects reality much more than the concept of ‘organized crime.’ Organized crime implies that there are bad criminals on one side and good guys, like cops, on the other. In reality, authorized crime better describes what we’ve seen – that organized crime is not possible without the complicity of the municipal, state and federal police.”

Because the police is an extension of the state, Spector says, and because the police is often responsible for acts of violence or allows acts of violence to occur with impunity, the state is responsible for what happens to victims of organized crime. That, he says, makes it political persecution.

Spector, who started the nonprofit advocacy group Mexicanos en Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile, won the first-ever asylum case for a Mexican national in 1991. Since then, he’s been able to win political asylum for more than a dozen people, including victims of violence in the Juarez Valley and Mexican journalists who exposed organized crime.

Gutierrez joined Mexicanos en Exilio when he moved to El Paso two years ago, and later had the idea of cycling across Texas to educate U.S. lawmakers about the desperate situation so many Mexicans find themselves in in their home country. He’s trying to combat the misconception that some lawmakers have that asylum-seekers are trying to abuse the legal system in order to gain lawful status in the country.

“We’re not here because we wanted to be or because that was our inclination,” Gutierrez said. “The circumstances that led me to this country were that I had my feet mutilated. This isn’t a game, we’re not playing with the law, with justice, with the system at all – this is the reality.”

Gutierrez says he set out on this ride to help other people in the same situation he’s in. Now that his long journey is behind him, he wants to do something bigger to help more victims of drug violence, especially ones who like him have suffered a physical disability at the hands of organized crime.

“People keep asking me, ‘What’s next?’” he said at the press conference today in Austin. “Something big. It doesn’t stop here. I won’t stop until God stops me. No one else and nothing else can stop me, only God.”

HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL (FOR RELEASE)
The Houston Ship Channel in December 2010.

As Houston makes plans to expand its port, residents near the Houston Ship Channel are bracing themselves. The predominantly Hispanic and black East Houston neighborhoods bordering the port are already exposed to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and not without consequence. A recent survey, conducted by the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, found that residents of five neighborhoods surrounding the Ship Channel suffer from higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses than average Texans.

The findings reinforce what people in these neighborhoods have known or suspected for many years, but they also come at a critical time for the Port of Houston. Along with other port cities, Houston is preparing for the expansion of the Panama Canal, slated to be complete by 2015. Record-setting freight activity is already underway at the Port of Houston.

Los Angeles, Miami and Houston are among the many cities investing millions in huge dredging projects to make their channels deep enough for the “post-Panamax” ships that will soon sail into their harbors. But with more (and much larger) vessels come greater diesel emissions, and Ship Channel residents worry their hard-hit communities will only suffer more with increased air pollution. Diesel exhaust has been linked to respiratory and heart disease, and is a known carcinogen.

According to the report, which analyzed self-reported health data from nearly 400 people in Houston’s East End, Fifth Ward, Denver Harbor, Manchester and Pasadena neighborhoods, adults in those areas suffered from asthma and other respiratory diseases at more than twice the rate of other Texans. And while 3.69 percent of Texan adults have been diagnosed with cancer, the survey puts the cancer rate in the Ship Channel at 5.61 percent.

Last month, the World Health Organization officially added air pollution to the list of known carcinogens. According to the organization, air pollution was responsible for more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths worldwide in 2010, and also increases the risk of bladder cancer. Scientists have long known that air pollution can lead to or exacerbate heart disease and respiratory diseases such as asthma.

But because some pollutants have unclear and wide-ranging effects on human health, and because diseases like cancer can have a variety of causes, it’s difficult to trace specific medical conditions to particular pollutants. In Houston, people aren’t just exposed to one pollutant, but to a variety of potentially toxic emissions from a vast industrial complex that includes refineries and chemical plants. Despite recurring health problems, more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t have health insurance.

Elena Craft, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund of Texas, says although the study can’t pinpoint the sources of East Houston residents’ medical conditions, it sheds light on an alarming concentration of illness that requires immediate attention.

“We know there’s an increased risk [in the Ship Channel], but to pinpoint is more difficult, especially on self-reported data,” Craft says. “It would take further investigation to get a better handle on the extent of the issue and where there might be more serious problems.”

Craft, who was not involved with the study, says she hopes it will empower area residents to demand change. She says many sources contribute to Houston’s air problem, not just the port, but that residents could pressure the port authority to actually start addressing emissions, the way Southern California homeowners did in the early 2000s.

In 2006, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together adopted a comprehensive clean air action plan to drastically reduce emissions and encourage the development of clean technologies. It was an unprecedented victory for both area residents and environmentalists, especially since the San Pedro Harbor was Southern California’s single biggest source of air pollution and Los Angeles has long been the nation’s smoggiest city.

Through cutting vessel emissions, replacing old diesel trucks with new or retrofitted trucks, and investing in initiatives like electrified docks that ships can plug into, the ports have exceeded their emissions reduction goals for some pollutants. By 2012, the two ports had cut their diesel particulate matter emissions by 77 percent (eliminating 645 tons) from 2005 levels, sulfur oxides by 88 percent (4,675 tons), and nitrogen oxides by 56 percent (9,154 tons). When seven terminal operators violated San Pedro Bay’s new diesel emissions standards, they each paid $1 million in cleanup costs as part of a settlement reached in 2011.

It’d be a rather monumental stretch to imagine the Port of Houston Authority adopting measures as aggressive as Los Angeles’, not to mention actually enforcing them to the point of fining companies for environmental violations. But in its report, the coalition does make some recommendations that could be a good starting point for cleaning up Texas’ biggest port and most polluted major city.

First, the coalition says the port authority needs to be a leader in reducing emissions, partly by giving preference during bidding to contractors with clean practices. It also recommends setting up emissions reduction goals and installing fence-line monitors to help enforce federal air-quality standards. Houston should follow the Los Angeles-Long Beach Ports’ example, the coalition suggests, by phasing out old diesel trucks and introducing electricity to ports so ships can conserve diesel fuel while docked.

The Port of Houston Authority came under scrutiny last year after a critical report by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. During the last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that set term limits for board commissioners and fired four of the seven commissioners. Two of the remaining three members had recently been appointed, so only one of the commissioners currently on the board has been there for more than a year.

Fresh blood could be a good sign, but Craft says so much change makes it to hard to predict what the board might do. The body says it values environmental stewardship and that it has taken measures to clean up the air. But Houston remains in non-attainment of federal air quality standards, and environmentalists say the port area has a long way to go.

“I think there’s all kinds of questions that this report can raise to the port authority,” Craft says. “If I were the port authority I would be incredibly concerned.”

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