Page 39


POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Political Animals DEAD MONKEY 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 CO 2 reductions U.S. cities have achieved, according to advocacy group Public Citizen. “I think this is actuallyand I know full well the intensity of the differing opinionsthis 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 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 Perryafter 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 AmericanStatesman, “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 Systemthe $23 billion pension fund 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 29, 2007