The Whole Star

Larry Swearingen
Alex Hannaford
Larry Swearingen

On December 13th, an email popped into my inbox from Wiebke Swearingen, a German woman living in Texas. She wrote: “We expect a new date to be set for the very beginning of February. Court ruling is attached.”

The date she was referring to was for her husband’s execution, later set by a judge for February 27th.

I met Larry Swearingen one morning in early November at the Polunsky Unit in the east Texas town of Livingston. He had been on death row since 2000, convicted of the 1998 murder of a 19-year-old woman called Melissa Trotter. But the subsequent story I wrote for The Texas Observer described how a number of forensic experts took the stand at a hearing to explain how forensic evidence showed it was impossible for Swearingen to have been her killer.

In a fascinating development, these scientists claimed that judging by the lack of decomposition Melissa Trotter’s body had suffered when it was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest in January 1999, they were certain that Swearingen was in fact already in jail on outstanding traffic warrants at the time of her death.

I wrote then that Swearingen would remain on death row until the Court of Criminal Appeals made its decision. In a follow-up email that his wife, Wiebke, sent me in January, she wrote: “As you most likely know, Larry has been given a new execution date for February 27, 2013.”

His case has been taken on by the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. And in a motion filed today, the group’s lawyers have asked District Judge Kelly Case to allow post-conviction DNA testing in order to prove Swearingen’s innocence.

The motion says that evidence likely to contain biological material collected during the police investigation into the murder includes fingernail scrapings from Trotter’s hands, items of her torn clothing, a ligature used to strangle her and torn pantyhose found near Swearingen’s house. Before the trial, the motion states, the state tested the fingernail scrapings, which yielded male DNA that did not match Swearingen’s. “The rest of the evidence … has never been subjected to DNA testing despite Mr. Swearingen’s repeated requests, but it is still in the State’s possession,” papers submitted to the court note. DNA testing of this evidence, it says, “can both exonerate Mr. Swearingen and identify the actual murderer of Ms. Trotter.”

The Innocence Project wants to run the DNA through the national CODIS database, a repository of DNA profiles from convicted offenders and unsolved crime scene evidence.

February 27th is Swearingen’s fourth execution date. Three times before he has received stays after his attorneys asked the courts to hear evidence that they said pointed to his innocence.

The Innocence Project says that 18 people have been exonerated by DNA testing in the U.S. after serving time on death row. If his lawyers are successful, Swearingen could become the 19th.

Monica Sanchez
Jen Reel
Monica Sanchez

On December 5, nearly one year after she last saw her, Monica Sanchez was reunited with her 3-year-old daughter last week. The wait had been long and stressful – she hadn’t heard Sarahi’s voice or even seen a picture of her in 11 months – but she finally held her in her arms again.

In the August story Taken, I wrote about the struggles of two mothers whose children had been victims of international parental child abduction – a problem that plagues Texas more than almost any other state because of the border it shares with Mexico.

Sarahi’s father, Armando Muñoz Garcia, kidnapped his daughter in January and illegally took her to Mexico, where they lived in a small town in the state of Mexico. A family law judge ruled in May that Sarahi be returned to Texas for a custody hearing, but Garcia appealed the decision twice – first at the state, then at the federal level – before a federal judge reaffirmed the family law judge’s initial ruling.

A little more than a month later, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney, Mariano Nuñez, was able to pick Sarahi up in Mexico and bring her back to her mother in San Marcos. Sanchez says Sarahi is doing well and is happy to be home and to meet her new baby brother, but she will be going to therapy to deal with the trauma children face when they are abducted. Like many children who are abducted by a parent, Sarahi initially feared she’d be kidnapped again, this time by her mother, when she first saw her again.

Though Sanchez did not see her daughter for nearly a year, the case was resolved quickly compared to most international parental abduction cases, which can drag on for years. Rebecca Montalvo, who we also profiled in our August story, hasn’t seen the same success as Sanchez. A judge in Mexico recently denied her request to have her son returned to Texas, but she is appealing the decision.

Workers Defense Project Press Conference 12/11/12
Priscila Mosqueda
Workers Defense Project's Greg Casar presents Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo with a "Champion for Working Families" award.

In a small celebration at the Workers Defense Project office on Tuesday, the labor advocacy group presented awards—wooden lightboxes with small hammers inside—to Austin and Travis County officials who have helped institute a living wage floor for certain workers.

After years of advocating fair compensation, labor leaders saw a victory last month when the Travis County Commissioner’s Court approved a requirement that all companies receiving county tax incentives pay workers at least $11 per hour—$3.75 more than the federal minimum wage. A special subcommittee of the Austin City Council made a similar recommendation last month. Members who voted for the wage floor were honored at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt was the first to receive an award—handcrafted by Workers Defense employees and members—for leading Travis County’s implementation of the wage floor. Next were Austin City Council members Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez.

Labor leaders, including Workers Defense and Austin Interfaith, have been trying to get a living wage floor passed in Austin for years. Progress had been slow as critics argued that requiring companies to pay workers more would stifle economic growth.

“My response to that is: unfortunately this policy only applies to a miniscule number of construction projects within this county,” Eckhardt said. “And the idea that we would not be competitive by applying an absolutely justifiable—and frankly too low—wage floor to some of the most dangerous work in Travis County is a fairly outrageous position.”

The county agreed to tie the wage floor to the minimum wage for county employees, which is $11 per hour. The City of Austin uses the same standard. Greg Casar of Workers Defense said advocates originally wanted a $12-an-hour minimum, but it made sense to tie the construction wage floor to the county and city’s, so the pay floor can rise automatically with inflation. For now, the wage floor only applies to construction jobs (including contract work) for projects with local tax incentives, and the county doesn’t give nearly as much money in tax incentives as the city does, not to mention the state.

Texas leads the country in economic incentives given to new companies, with about $19.1 billion, or 51 cents per dollar of the state budget, going toward incentive programs each year, according to a New York Times investigation. (That figure is disputed.) Gov. Rick Perry has encouraged local incentives to recruit companies into Texas to help drive the state’s economic growth. But in 2011, Texas ranked 10th in terms of percentage of people living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data and the American Community Survey.

Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún says many of the jobs brought to the state are minimum wage and leave breadwinners ill equipped to support their families.

“We know Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and with that growth comes additional responsibilities and also opportunities,” Tzintzún said. “The city has had a unique opportunity to ensure shared prosperity and equal protection for those who are building our growing city.”

Tzintzún said Texas is the most deadly place for construction workers in the country, referencing a 2010 report that found a construction worker dies every two and a half days in the state. She also said nearly half the construction workforce in Texas lives below the poverty line, citing a study the organization plans to release in early 2013. In highly unionized states like New York, California, Illinois and Ohio, she said, construction jobs can support middle-class families.

Several developers and tech companies that have come to Austin have already agreed to some kind of wage floor and/or other terms presented by Workers Defense. Workers Defense Project and their supporters lobbied the City Council to require HID Global, Trammell Crow Co. and Apple to institute wage floors for construction workers, guarantee safe working conditions and commit to hiring a percentage of disadvantaged Austin residents graduating from construction training programs. Apple agreed to a $12 per hour wage floor for workers building its 38-acre campus in north Austin, and Visa recently volunteered an $11 per hour wage floor for all jobs tied to its center, including those needed to refit the building it will occupy. Workers Defense is still negotiating with HID Global.

Opponents, including the Austin Chamber of Commerce, have said they will continue to fight the wage floor. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell also opposes it and was the lone dissenter in the subcommittee recommendation to institute a wage floor at the city level for projects receiving incentives, arguing it will drive companies away from Austin. The subcommittee’s recommendation will go before the City Council next month.

Keystone XL protesters in Austin
Priscila Mosqueda
Anti-Keystone XL protesters in Austin

UPDATED: See below.

In early October, I met a group of environmental activists who were camping in trees 80 feet above the ground near Winnsboro, hoping to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction in East Texas. Keystone XL would bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas and, in the protestors’ view, unleash massive environmental destruction.  Local landowners have joined in protesting against TransCanada, the corporation building the pipeline. TransCanada has angered landowners by seizing land in the pipeline’s path.

Two months later, the battle over Keystone XL rages on. Construction began on the southern portion of the pipeline in August, drawing a fresh round of protests. But U.S. State Department approval is needed to complete construction across the international border.

President Obama rejected TransCanada’s initial application for the permit last January, but expedited the permitting process for the pipeline’s southern leg. TransCanada reapplied for the cross-border permit and a bipartisan group of 18 senators wrote a letter urging the president to support the project.

Two weeks after Obama won re-election, the environmental group organized a protest outside the White House with a crowd of 3,000. Protesters in Texas barricaded themselves inside section of pipeline that was ready to be buried in Winona last week. In the Houston neighborhood of Manchester, environmental activists Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey locked their necks to tanker trucks in front of a Valero refinery they say will be a destination for tar sands oil in Texas. The two have launched a hunger strike that has now lasted 11 days.

New efforts to block the pipeline have popped up in court, too. Michael Bishop, a landowner from Nacogdoches County, sued the Texas Railroad Commission last week, complaining the agency has neglected its obligation to protect the environment when considering pipeline permits and that it failed to investigate what TransCanada intends to transport through the pipeline. Bishop, who is representing himself, is seeking an injunction to suspend TransCanada’s permit to build the pipeline.

Bishop’s is the first lawsuit involving Keystone XL that has been filed against a state agency. Other landowners have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge TransCanada’s standing to claim eminent domain and condemn property.

TransCanada has been fighting back in court, too. In October, the company sued 26 people and three organizations that participated in various anti-Keystone actions, including protestors who took to the trees, those who locked themselves to machinery and others who blocked tree-clearing machines in Wood and Franklin counties. Eleanor Fairchild, the 78-year-old landowner who was arrested for trespassing on her own property in early October is also named in the suit. The company claims that delayed construction due to blockade actions “could realistically cause damages to Keystone in excess of $500,000.”

The first hearing for the case is set for January 26. Despite more civil disobedience actions and arrests, Tar Sands Blockade members said TransCanada hasn’t made any amendments to the suit or added any defendants. Blockaders believe the lawsuit is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”—commonly known as a SLAPP—meant to keep them from speaking out against the pipeline. The attorney representing the group has not returned the Observer’s request for comment.

The protest plans continue despite the lawsuit. The Tar Sands Blockade has planned another action camp to train protesters early next year, while a national anti-Keystone demonstration is planned for President’s Day, February 18, outside the White House.

Some analysts expect President Obama will eventually approve the project, though there’s no agreement as to when that will happen. Until he makes that decision, neither side is likely to back down.

Updated Dec. 11, 2012: A Texas County Court at Law Judge in Nacogdoches County sided with landowner Mike Bishop and signed a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction Friday that will stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on Bishop’s property until a Dec. 19 hearing.

“I will continue every effort to repel this foreign invasion and hopefully restore all of the property stolen by TransCanada via fraudulent means, to the rightful owners,” Bishop said in a press release today.

Bishop’s lawsuit challenges TransCanada’s characterization of tar sands as crude oil and cites the Texas Railroad Commission’s failure to study the composition of the tar sands oil when granting TransCanada its pipeline permit. Bishop argues that the tar sands oil does not meet federal and state definitions of crude oil because tar sands oil is a “solid mixture of hydrocarbons,” rather than a “liquid hydrocarbon,” when it is extracted. But TransCanada does not believe the injunction will delay Keystone XL, and spokesperson David Dodson said courts have ruled that tar sands are a form of crude oil.

Courtesy Rancho Alegre Radio Youtube channel

Seek first the obscure Conjunto music you desire, and ye shall find your refuge in the two-year-old Rancho Alegre radio blog. The blog itself is not a sophisticated or complicated endeavor, yet it is one fiercely bent on reviving the endangered Conjunto and Tejano genres of music. Tejano is an eclectic blend of Mexican folk and American rock fused with a heavy accordion drive, courtesy of early German settlers in Texas; Conjunto is the predecessor to Tejano, and strips away the modern rock sound in favor of a simpler dance-like beat.

Rancho Alegre radio was conceived in the midst of the steep personal challenges of its host and owner, Frank Cuellar. In 2010, at age 39, Cuellar suffered six strokes in quick succession, followed by temporary blindness. In the months after, he was laid off from his job at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, underwent four surgeries for his blindness, and found himself engulfed in depression. With little to occupy his time and mind, Cuellar turned to radio to pass the days as he waited for his sight to return. What he discovered was that radio had become a shockingly homogeneous medium, and Cuellar struggled to find any stations that would play his beloved Tejano music. “I realized that there’s a void out there. Right now there’s almost no Tejano radio,” he told me. “There’s probably twelve stations in the whole U.S. It’s just been abandoned by the big record companies. And when I was ill, I just realized that there’s some crap on the radio.”

It was shortly after this revelation that Cuellar paired with his close friend, web designer Piper LeMoine, to start a blog that sought to revive interest in Conjunto and Tejano by recording and sharing interviews with musicians. The blog also features a playlist which includes nearly three days’ worth of songs.

Cuellar is the Lone Ranger of the radio scene. Shamelessly self-righteous in his pursuit, he has made it his mission to travel around the state to interview Conjunto and Tejano stars before the genres die out. Rancho Alegre radio blog, though, has not always enjoyed as careless an existence as its name implies (“alegre” can be loosely translated from Spanish to mean “cheerful”). In 2010 Rancho Alegre gained the negative attention of Para La Gente, an Austin-based Tejano radio program featured on KTXZ 1560 AM. “We were disappointed in the music programming … we’d be hearing Nashville country on the Tejano station,” LeMoine tells me. “And it was weird and so we were like you know what, let’s write about it, it’s bothering us, let’s put it out there. Maybe somebody will agree. And so that kind of caught [Para La Gente’s] attention …” Though LeMoine underplays the vulgarity with which Cuellar attacked Para La Gente in a series of blog posts in 2010 (saying on July 26 that the program “smells something awful” and on October 24 calling Para La Gente’s programming “bullshit”), the posts created an all-out cyber war fought by the passionate proponents of Tejano revitalization and defenders of Para La Gente radio.

Eventually the two groups and their supporters put aside their differences in favor of the common cause to renew interest in Tejano. “We buried the hatchet and we were like, look, these are just our opinions, it’s our business, whatever,” says LeMoine. Yet the incident was a sharp introduction to the divisive bickering that is so common not just among Tejano fans, but between traditionalist and progressive fans in any musical genre.

On Cuellar and LeMoine’s underfunded island of misfit archivists, getting a good interview on a tight budget with well-known musicians is all in the name of the game. Cuellar describes a recent trip with his wife Gaby and LeMoine to interview famed Tejano musician Agapito Zuniga in Corpus Christi. “We split, and we maybe had $80. I was like well, we’re not eating! We’re just going. Dollar menu only!” Cuellar and LeMoine are hardly typical curators, but Cuellar’s experience in archive work and LeMoine’s tech savvy have made for an ideal pairing.

The program reflects its founder: as Cuellar gains strength – making a slow recovery from his strokes and eye surgeries – so does Rancho Alegre. It is his only child, and more than that, it is the online record of his and his family’s own historical narrative as told through music. Rancho Alegre is not destined to become an ephemeral collection. The radio blog, though young, is growing in popularity: Cuellar and LeMoine organized the premiere Rancho Alegre Conjunto festival in February 2012, which turned out to be wildly more successful than they had originally imagined. “Everyone else was like, you’re bringing those old guys?” Cuellar laughs. “They were like, you’re not gonna have a packed house and I was like, yes I am.” His stubborn determination
paid off: The Austin American-Statesman ran a generous spread of the event, and festival musicians made appearances at Austin landmarks like Antone’s and Waterloo Records.

While endangered due to lack of programming, Conjunto is not insignificant; it continues to resonate with Texans irrespective of ethnicity or language, and stands as an artistic reflection of a generation of Tejanos. Cuellar and LeMoine make no claims for the infant Rancho Alegre’s academic credibility, but there is discussion of eventually sending the Rancho Alegre blog and audio interviews to such esteemed archival collections as the Harry Ransom Center or the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Yet Cuellar is firm: “Money was not ever the reason for any of this … I love it when I hear elderly people, or any people, come up and they say they listen to this [radio program], or they say they listen with their grandmother. I love it. It’s the best pay to me that I could ever get.”

The Rancho Alegre online playlist page proudly announces, “Sit back, crank it up and spend some quality time with your host, Baldomero ‘El Parrandero’ Cuellar. Each show is over an hour of the best Tejano and Conjunto ever recorded. Enjoy!” LeMoine and the Cuellars’ fierce love and enthusiasm for the genres is undeniable – and with any luck, their efforts will help ensure the survival of Conjunto and Tejano in Texas.

For the last several weeks I’ve been posting Electoral College predictions on a hallway grease board at Texas Southern University, where I’ve been teaching journalism for the past two years. The last story I put up reported that nine different aggregations of polling data predicted Obama to win.

But folks at this historically black college are understandably nervous. The secretary for the dean of the School of Communication, Linda Wynn, asked me if I was really sure about all those numbers I had posted on the grease board. Are you hearing something else? I asked. Well, yes, she said, and then I noticed the twinkle in her eye. Fox News, she said.

Another reality. I’m not sure how Fox gets its numbers, but there is a lot of gut feeling, from Rush Limbaugh to George Will, that Romney will win. To them this is a signal moment in American history, to turn back the big-government, socialist handouts and “take back” the country. This morning on Fox a black commentator declared that Obama might win if he stayed on the East Coast and looked after storm victims. Instead he is campaigning on “revenge.” Revenge is an interesting projection, a word that seems to fit the Republican campaign rhetoric more than the Democratic.

I suppose it would be rude for Republican pundits to declare that Nate Silver of the New York Times is right and the polls show the momentum belongs to Obama. Tomorrow will be a new day, a day to talk about revenge if Obama wins, a day to talk about revenge if Romney wins.

My students say that those African Americans who are opposed to Obama’s re-election bring up his support of same-sex marriage and abortion. A few are opposed to his health care bill. That is, social issues rule rather than the economy.

There was a little flurry of excitement this morning when students brought up the issue of Romney and tampons. Seemed he was against women using them and the Republicans might abolish them. A learning moment. When we Googled the story it seemed to be a hoax that some naïve liberals fell for.

The ever-alert Fox News had a picture this morning of a Black Panther, dressed in black beret and black combat fatigues tucked into paratrooper’s boots. Now there is a scary image. He was supposed to have been standing near a polling place in Philadelphia. William Kristol thought he bore more investigation.

The Philadelphia Panthers have been a sore point with a Houston-based group of tea partiers called True the Vote. True the Vote believes that the Panthers engaged in some electoral shenanigans that Eric Holder at the Justice Department refused to investigate thoroughly. A black conspiracy. True the Vote will have its poll watchers at the elections. Two years ago some of them were accused of intimidating voters in Houston’s Third and Fifth Wards, predominately black neighborhoods.

The other image that is lingering is that of a photograph of an Obama effigy hung with a rope noose at a Shell gas station. The gas station is supposedly in Jacksonville, Florida, but that doesn’t seem certain.

My students are offended but not horrified. They’re surprised that there might be that level of residual hate. Most of them have been stopped by police while driving and have been treated rudely, and were indignant.

They agreed that the shadow of racism hangs over the country and the election. I told them about Faulkner’s famous saying: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

Two years ago at St. Mary’s Church, a polling place in the Third Ward, one of the tea party activists pitched a scene at St. Mary’s and was asked to leave. But it had been quiet all day, said the campaigners camped out a hundred feet from the polls. The True the Vote poll watchers are probably not needed in Texas, which is guaranteed to vote Republican. Reports from Ohio indicate that some of them have shown up there.

I had hoped to camp out at Obama headquarters in the Third Ward and wait for the results and talk to the campaign workers. But the Obama campaign is tightly controlled, and I would need permission from Chicago. A couple of my emails failed to get through and I decided to watch at home. Silver gives Obama very high odds for winning. Some indignant pundits, such as Joe Scarborough, have been saying it’s a tossup. Fifty-fifty. A cliff-hanger. That makes a better story, perhaps, but never argue about numbers with a man who can run 25,000 different computer simulations in the time it takes to make a pot of coffee.

Obama’s headquarters in the Third Ward are housed in a remodeled gas station, the old-time kind covered in stucco with a portico. Texas has been written off. For weeks a team of volunteers has been making calls to Florida voters. Laptops dial thousands of phone numbers of uncommitted voters and when someone answers, a volunteer picks up a cell phone and makes a pitch.

If Florida goes for Obama, some of the credit will be owed to the volunteers in that old gas station, said Daniel Boettger, a young man who’s been working there for the last two weeks.

This is Boettger’s first campaign. He didn’t manage to vote in the last presidential election, when he was attending Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. He’s as optimistic about the numbers as Nate Silver. He said he’s been so busy at the volunteer center he hasn’t had time to cash the small checks the campaign has sent him. If the Republicans are making out this election as critical, so is Boettger. Electing Obama was one thing. To fail to re-elect him would be a terrible setback.

After the election he’ll have to figure out what’s next. He had a sales job, but hated it. He’d like to do something to make a difference. He’s thinking about law school. I get the feeling he would like to settle down somewhere. He grew up “all over,” which is to say, his parents were both in the Air Force. His father was German, his mother, African American. He has green eyes, a light tan complexion and reminds me of the man he is campaigning for, the man Nate Silver says has a 90.9 percent chance of winning.

Michael Berryhill is associate professor and chair of journalism at Texas Southern University. He is also the author of The Trials of Eroy Brown, the Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prisons, from the University of Texas Press.

Lining up to vote outside a Massage Envy.

At the age of 20, I lost my voting virginity on November 6, 2012, between 10:30 am and 12:30 pm in a defunct Washington Mutual bank sandwiched between an H-E-B and a Massage Envy in Austin. I drove to the voting site feeling a strange mix of apprehension: What if I voted for someone I would regret, someone that I would be ashamed to tell my grandchildren I voted for?

With the shaky confidence of a rube in a big city, I got out of my car and, before I took two steps toward the polling station, was approached at my car by a fellow voter.

“Ma’am, are you a racist?”

I assured him that I was not.

He proceeded. “I need some gas for my car, and I’ve already been turned down by two people. If you’re going to vote for Obama then you’ll give me gas money so I can get my car started.”

I informed him that, although I was not a racist in any way, I did not have any spare change with me. He abruptly moved on towards another unsuspecting voter exiting his car.

The bizarre turn of events, as it happened, settled my voting nerves, and I approached the line for the polling station with a new confidence.

I then waited in line for two hours.

You could tell which people were newbies like myself. Every voting alumnus had a book with him or her to pass the time, while the rest of us resorted to staring at cracks in the cement. The guy behind me, who was wearing a neon green Ron Paul shirt and an “I LOVE RON PAUL!” wristband, got in an argument with an election official for his political attire. The man stubbornly refused to discard his Ron Paul gear for five minutes until, in an act of dramatic defiance, he stripped his shirt and continued, bare-chested, to wait in line. I had forgotten about the rule against campaigning at the actual voting site (I was fondly reminded of an oft told family story, in which my older brother, still in a stroller, excitedly yelled “Dukakis, Dukakis, Dukakis!” at a 1988 voting site while my mother and election officials frantically tried to shush him).

After two hours, the line finally came to an end – I had successfully jumped through the various hoops of confirming my address and my name, and, finally, was next in line to vote.

My turn came, and I courageously marched up to my assigned voting booth. I punched my access number. And then, the ballot itself.

I progressed carefully, double-triple-quadruple checking that I did indeed select the candidates that I desired to win. That final moment came: “Cast ballot?” I hesitated for a final second before clicking “Yes”.

That was it. I walked from the voting site to my car feeling light. I had just joined the elite in the world who could and would vote for the next leaders. I wanted to eat a burger and watch a football game in front of a TV that cost as much as my small car – I was an American.

I got into my car and buckled my seatbelt, ready to return to work. So what if the whole process was a touch anticlimactic, and I might have built up the event itself to be much more exciting than it actually was.

I still got my sticker.

Writer Emily Mathis displays her "I voted" sticker.
Writer Emily Mathis displays her “I voted” sticker.
Solar advocates
Priscila Mosqueda

Seven years after the Texas Legislature passed a bill calling for the state to add 500 megawatts of non-wind renewable power to its energy mix by 2015, the Public Utility Commission has yet to enforce the law. Solar power advocates are urging the commission to enact rules that would implement the change and add another 2,500 megawatts to the target by 2025.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard passed in 1999 under Gov. George Bush was largely responsible for kick-starting wind energy in Texas and making the state the national leader in wind capacity. Advocates say the 500 MW non-wind provision could do the same for solar energy.

But the commission has declined to adopt the rule. PUC chair Donna Nelson has said the target set by the Legislature is not a mandate, and that the commission doesn’t have the authority to enforce the rule. The Sierra Club and a dozen other groups filed a petition with the commission in September requesting they open a rulemaking process to claim that authority, but the commission has until November to decide whether it wants to do that or not.

Clean Energy Works for Texas, a coalition of environmental organizations, rallied outside the commission’s offices Thursday, where renewable energy advocates and industry representatives talked about solar power’s benefits and delivered petitions.

Two businessmen said their solar companies have grown from two to about 25 people in a few years, and both are poised to open second offices. Both will be in California.

“I would rather it be in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston, but the reality is California has taken a stand to support the development of the solar industry seriously by setting statewide goals and local support for their solar companies,” said Resolve Solar CEO Tim Padden. “I want to see this happen here in my home state. These could be Texas jobs.”

California leads the nation in installed solar capacity, partly thanks to ambitious renewable energy standards and generous incentives to businesses and homeowners. The state has set a goal of 3,000 MW of installed solar capacity by 2016 and is already at 1,342 MW. By comparison, Texas ranks 13th in the nation in installed solar capacity. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Texas has 124 MW of installed photovoltaics, though Kaiba White of Public Citizen says many users don’t immediately report their units, so the number is probably about 20 MW higher.

“This is absolutely confounding, given our solar resource, our electric demand and our shortage of reserve capacity,” said Stan Pipkin of Lighthouse Solar. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Critics have long held that solar power and other renewable energy sources are too expensive. In a letter to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who wrote Commissioner Nelson asking her to enforce the non-wind provision, Nelson said, “I continue to believe that a non-wind renewable energy mandate would unreasonably increase the cost of electricity for Texas ratepayers.”

But a June 2012 study commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Energy Foundation found that increased solar capacity would have meant lower average wholesale energy prices in Texas in summer 2011. According to the report, an additional 2,500 MW of solar would have reduced prices by $1.50 per megawatt-hour, and 5,000 MW would have reduced prices by $2.90 per megawatt-hour. That’s partly because solar performs the best during hot, cloudless summer days when power demand soars.

At the rally, speakers also stressed the benefits that solar power offers to local economies. They said they’ve tried several times to get the Public Utility Commission to create rules that would enforce the 2005 measure, and will continue to do so until it listens.

“No matter what these commissioners say in response to our petition, we’re not going anywhere,” said Dave Cortez of Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance. “We are going to carry this campaign through the Public Utility Commission sunset and we’re going to carry this campaign through the state Legislature in their January session.”


As the deadline to extend a key tax credit for wind energy nears, threatening to deal a blow to the industry, advocates are asking two Texas congressmen to vote for extending the credit.

Texas leads the nation in installed wind capacity, with more than 10,000 MW of wind power providing nearly 10 percent of the state’s electricity. Advocates are urging representatives Quico Canseco (R-San Antonio) and Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi) to demand a floor vote in the U.S. House before the lame duck session.

The representatives’ districts are big wind production zones, with 926 MW and 1088 MW, respectively, of installed generation. In Canseco’s district, the Anacacho Wind Farm under construction near Uvalde will add another 99 MW when it goes online next year.

On Thursday, members of the BlueGreen Alliance, The Wind Coalition and American Shoreline, Inc. outlined the need for renewing the federal production tax credit before it expires at the end of the year.

“Wind energy has helped grow our economy and has kept the lights on,” said Dave Cortez of Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance. “Congressmen Canseco and Farenthold have an opportunity to take politics out of this equation and put working families first by giving wind power the same long-term support provided to other sources of energy.”

There are 7,000 wind-related jobs in Texas, according to industry group The Wind Coalition. Director Jeff Clark says some of those jobs will be lost if the tax credit is not extended, citing the Sierra Club’s finding that nearly 2,300 wind jobs have already been lost nationwide since the beginning of 2012 due to uncertainty surrounding the credit’s expiration. The wind industry says 37,000 jobs will be lost nationwide if the credit expires, though there are not yet any projections for how many Texas jobs would be lost.

But opponents of the tax credit, which subsidizes wind power by 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, say the industry will always need a federal crutch to compete with other energy sources. Mitt Romney upset some farm-state Republicans by saying he’d end the tax credit. Support for the wind industry has become an important election issue in states like Iowa, where farmers increasingly rely on wind turbines for income.

“Right now the wind power industry is getting a huge tax credit,” Farenthold said, according to the Raymondville Chronicle. “That is taxpayers’ money. I think they should be treated like anyone else.”

But wind energy advocates argue that all new energy sources initially need support, and that the tax credit is working as it’s supposed to.

“The capacity factors are becoming stronger and stronger and are competitive with coal and gas generation, but obviously innovation needs to be incentivized—the oil and gas industry was incentivized in its infancy,” Amshore Project Developer Jeff Neeves said. “Technology always needs to have some support to advance and to beat the monopoly of the status quo and the wind industry needs a temporary subsidy. I think that’s the big misconception, that this is some sort of long-term subsidy for the industry and it’s not; it’s just a means of incentivizing this new technology.”

A 2011 study commissioned by The Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., found that the federal government provided energy incentives of $594 billion for oil, natural gas and coal between 1950 and 2010, $335 billion of which was in the form of tax concessions. In that same period, wind, solar and biofuels combined received $74 billion, or about 9 percent of total incentives.

If extended, the production tax credit, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, would cost about $1 billion per year.

“I don’t begrudge wind farms,” Canseco said in May, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “But we don’t just need wind farms. We are sitting on a mother lode of oil and natural gas,” he added, echoing the oft-used rhetoric that Obama is “picking winners and losers” in energy.

But Neeves said letting the subsidy expire could set the U.S. back decades and would result in lost jobs, revenue and grid stability.

“It doesn’t make sense to vote against that,” Neeves said. “To me it’s voting against the interests of your own district and constituents if you don’t support the production tax credit and you don’t support the incentivization of innovation and progress.”

Illustration by Matt Wright-Steel

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a three-part series this week on the Warren Horinek case, a story the Texas Observer first reported in August 2010. Horinek was a former Fort Worth police officer convicted in 1996 of murdering his wife. He is serving a 30-year sentence.

As the Star-Telegram details, whether it was a murder or a suicide is still, sixteen years later, a matter of heated debate. Observer Editor Dave Mann’s exposé—”A Bloody Injustice“—examined the circumstances of Bonnie Horinek’s death and the problematic blood-spatter testimony of a single expert with little scientific training used to secure Horinek’s conviction. Many forensic experts, not to mention the Tarrant County DA’s office, maintain that Horinek is innocent and argue that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that he was administering CPR to his wife after she committed suicide.

Dave’s reporting led to additional coverage by CNN and the Daily Beast. The Star-Telegram revisits the case at a time when Horinek and those who believe is innocent are running out of legal options. A judge in Tarrant County could rule soon on Horinek’s writ of habeas corpus.

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