Fox in the Henhouse on the Texas Coast “Is that all right with you, Carl?” By John Schwartz Austin BOREDOM. Fight the boredom. It’s difficult to pay attention to Texas’ public hearings, especially those on coastal natural resources management. Topics like that sound stultifying on their face; it’s no wonder that the media paid so little attention to the June 9 meeting of the Natural Resources Policy Advisory Committee \(part of the more zippily named TENRAC Texas Energy and Natural Resources Advisory gether in the mind, become meaningless. But beyond the words, one thing should be remembered: these bodies were formed to protect the Texas coast, both ecologically and economically, from those who would despoil it for a profit. And that is why it is not boring at all when one participant in that June meeting later called it “the greatest perversion of the public interest I’ve ever seen.” The meeting had been called to review the Coastal Natural Resources Report before passing it on to TENRAC, which would pass it on to the legislature. “Intended as a tool for decision-makers, the report provides ready access to needed information and delineates possible solutions to the problems identified,” its preface reads. Whose interests were served, if not the people’s? If you guessed the oil and gas industry, pat yourself on the back for having mastered the obvious. Oil companies have an interest in every area of coastal natural resource management. from annexation rights of cities to ecological protection of the fragile wetlands and sand dunes. And, strangely enough, those oil company stands differ strongly from environmentalists and pro-public control positions. So why was Carl Hester, a lobbyist for Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas \(an asEXXON dictating policy to committee members at the June meeting? It may have something to do with the fact that the committee chairman, Louis Beecherl, was appointed by Governor Clements. It might have something to do with the fact that Beecherl himself is an oilman former president of Texas Oil and Gas. How’s this for an example of a publicspirited governmental body at work? At the June meeting, an argument sprang up over whether to remove exemptions in the Dune Protection Act that exclude grazing animals and oil and gas from the regulatory ambit of the Act. Despite testimony about flooding and other ecological damage caused by poorly laid pipelines, Beecherl decided to retain the present exemptions. At the close of discussion, he turned to Hester and asked, “Is that all right with you, Carl?” It was the fourth time he had asked that question during that meeting. “I think that’d be good,” said the lobbyist, who then joked. “I’d like to put oil and gas right under those cattle. Protect Protectors This is not just a lot of fuss over water and sand. At the meeting, Dr. Bill Fisher of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology said, “We’re not talking about the preservation of some esoteric, unique envistructural component in hurricane impacts and . . . erosion.” The Bureau of Economic Geology is not known for harboring environmental extremists. Thus Texas’ natural treasures protect its other treasures, and we are warned to protect our protectors in return. The discovery that man-made structures cause erosion makes us appreciate the natural barriers even more. While the dunes and beaches protect life, the wetlands and estuaries produce life. There the salt and fresh water come together, and the varying degrees of salinity foment the low end of the food chain: plankton and diatoms. Shrimp and many species of fish also develop in the delicate wetlands environment. The report also dealt with disposal of toxic wastes, and called for muchneeded “siting criteria” to avoid future Love Canals, by ensuring the safest locations for toxic waste dumps. Ask the Lobbyist Some items on the agenda were not ecologically oriented; the Texas coast’s economic activity also came under scrutiny. Gulfward annexation was the first item on the coastal report. Texas’ coastal cities have been hurting for money over the last few years because of off-shore oil and gas exploration. The workers and their families have an economic impact on the town for instance, they use city services yet the towns’ tax bases receive nothing from the workers’ place of business because it lies outside the city limit, several miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The money problem worsened after President Reagan discontinued the Coastal Energy Impact Program, which was designed to compensate the coastal towns for the tax base they were losing to offshore oil rigs. And there were the other Reaganomic pressures on the coastal cities brought about by the budget cuts. Resourceful. Port Arthur tried to make up the lost cash through “spoke” annexation: the city annexed out to one of Superior Oil’s rigs, and started raking in approximately $700,000 annually. Since most offshore rigs are beyond the cities’ 10.5 mile annexation limit, spoke annexation discriminates against close-in builders, who end up compensating coastal cities for the economic impact of all of the rigs. Texas Mid-Continental Oil \(for the oil companies’ rescue by proposing a one-mile limit, which is too short to reach rigs. Senator Walter Mengden carried the bill, which stalled in the legislature and ended with an interim moratorium on gulfward annexation while the Senate Natural Resources committee studied the problem. It is sure to come up again this session. 4 JULY 9, 1982
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