When the environment faces off against big business in Texas, experienced gamblers know where to place their bets. One reason the house odds are so lopsided is that the state’s top environmental regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality go to great lengths to ensure the law nearly always smiles on polluters.
“I wonder what the Vegas odds are on this commission overruling the administrative law judges’ recommendations and granting this permit,” pondered state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, at a June 13 TCEQ hearing. The commission was considering a permit application for TXU Corp.’s mammoth Oak Grove coal-fired power plant. A panel of judges had recommended denying the permit, but Watson wasn’t optimistic.
Sure enough, the commission, on a 2-1 vote, gave its blessing to Oak Grove, overruling the recommendations of two administrative law judges and the objections of countless citizens, environmental organizations, and elected officials from Dallas, Austin, and other parts of the state struggling with air pollution. Opponents said they would appeal the decision to state or federal court.
At the hearing, a long line of elected officials warned commissioners that ozone-forming emissions from Oak Grove would further complicate plans for the Dallas-Fort Worth area to attain federal ozone standards, and would erase virtually all the Austin area’s expensive efforts to avoid a similar federal crackdown. The judges concluded in August, after hearing months of expert testimony and reviewing oceans of evidence, that TXU had failed to prove its technology could meet pollution goals specified in the permit application.
The 1,600-megawatt power plant will burn lignite, the dirtiest form of coal. If built, the facility in Robertson County, about 50 miles southeast of Waco, will spew 1,440 pounds of mercury annually, more than 10 percent of the state total. In terms of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, the plant would emit about as much as all the CO2 reductions U.S. cities have achieved, according to advocacy group Public Citizen.
“I think this is actually-and I know full well the intensity of the differing opinions-this is good news for Texas,” said commission Chair Kathleen Hartnett White.
Showing Gov. Rick Perry’s skill at picking reliable yes-men, recent appointee H.S. “Buddy” Garcia cast the other yea vote.
Commissioner Larry Soward, who cast the dissenting vote, repeatedly expressed exasperation at White during the hearing. “I’d like the record to reflect that I respectfully disagree with everything you just read,” Soward said after White, a West Texas rancher, read her pre-written legal justification for approving the Oak Grove permit.
Soward has criticized the TCEQ permitting process as deeply flawed.
“I’m not sure why we send any of these [contested permits] to a hearing, because what we hear is once the executive director issues a draft permit, the show’s over, and the monkey’s dead,” Soward said.
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
Earlier this month, Roger Williams, a onetime car salesman, baseball prospect, and George W. Bush “Ranger” who bundled at least $200,000 for the president’s campaign, resigned as Texas secretary of state. Officially, the state’s chief election officer is leaving his post to pursue “other opportunities.” Those likely include a run at elected office. Williams has publicly expressed interest in Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat should she try for governor in 2010.
Maybe the leap from public steward to Republican candidate isn’t surprising, since Williams seemed amenable to using his supposedly nonpartisan office to score partisan points.
Take, for instance, the state lawyer who was fired after inadvertently embarrassing Bush adviser Karl Rove. Williams spoke with Rove after staff attorney Elizabeth Reyes told the Washington Post that Rove may have committed a civil offense by voting in Texas without meeting residency requirements. “He and I are friends,” Williams said of his phone conversation with Rove. Williams assured us that Rove would never, ever ask for Reyes’ head. Nevertheless, she got canned. (A subsequent investigation by Kerr County officials into the possible voting offense cleared Rove of any wrongdoing.)
More recently, Williams made headlines for a variety of snafus during the governor’s race. He dragged his feet certifying the ballot applications of two independent candidates challenging Perry-after encouraging voters to participate in primaries, which would prevent them from signing the independents’ petitions. And he was at the center of the nickname circus, ruling against Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s misguided attempt to brand herself “Grandma” on the ballot. By the end of the campaign, Williams came off as a Perry shill more than a champion of fair elections. As for his actual job of improving those elections, Williams’ led the e-voting charge, prompting one watchdog to tell the Austin American-Statesman, “Taxpayer dollars are being used to promote the use of the most insecure voting system ever used.” Now voting problems are rampant.
To recap: big campaign contributions, no relevant job experience, partisan use of office. Forget about the Senate. This guy belongs in the Bush cabinet.
CRADDICK’S MEN AT ERS
Few state agencies spawn as many conspiracy theories as the Employee Retirement System-the $23 billion pension fund for state employees that exists as an island unto itself in state government. The agency releases little information, and even veteran state government watchers have little notion of how it functions. With that kind of money to invest, the agency is especially vulnerable to corruption and abuse by the political crony class. So suspicions have been kindled as several allies of House Speaker Tom Craddick, and his financial backers, have taken increasing control of ERS in recent years.
Currently, one Craddick ally is running for re-election to the ERS board. Don Green, who’s served on the six-member panel since 2001, wants to retain his spot in a July vote of state employees (three board members are elected by employees; three are appointed by state leaders). In his day job, Green serves as Craddick’s budget director. But his affiliation with the controversial House speaker is curiously absent from the ballot ERS mailed out to state employees recently.
The ballot identifies Green as “Director of Budget and Policy, Texas House of Representatives.” Green is an employee of the House, but he actually works for Craddick in the speaker’s office, not for House administration. To find that out, state employees would have to read Green’s bio on the ERS Web site.
Craddick appointed the board’s most controversial member, Bill Ceverha, who served as treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority, the Tom DeLay-founded political action committee that helped put Craddick in the speaker’s chair in 2003. TRMPAC’s campaign activities led to DeLay’s criminal indictment and a civil judgment against Ceverha. Craddick appointed him to the board in 2003, and he’s been a source of controversy ever since. Ceverha has close ties to major Republican campaign donors, whose own investment portfolios could potentially benefit from familiarity with ERS activities. Some Democratic state lawmakers have long called for him to step down from the ERS board.
For his part, Green faces a runoff election against Kimberly Ross Eaton, a longtime parole officer. ERS will certify election results on July 27.