Q&A: What Houston Can Do About All Those Floods

Houston energy attorney James Cargas
Houston energy attorney James Cargas

Founder of Oilpatch Democrats James Cargas, former member of the Clinton Administration’s council on sustainable development and current energy counsel for the Houston mayor’s office, is looking to unseat Republican John Culberson, an eight-term U.S. House member. He sat down with the Observer at the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention for an interview on energy policy and the environment.

Texas Observer: On energy and environmental policy, on a scale from Bernie Sanders, who says fracking should be banned, to Donald Trump, who says climate change is hoax, where do you fall?

James Cargas: I think I’m in the middle. The answer in terms of balancing is you let the markets decide. The father of hydraulic fracturing was George Mitchell from Houston, Texas. He wrote a wonderful editorial a year before he was passed away saying: One, it must be done sustainably and, two, you must regulate it.

I do not oppose fracking. Here’s the thing, because there’s so much cheap, abundant natural gas, coal is going out of business. And coal is not just dirty in the burning, but also in the mining of it. I spent a couple years working for a natural gas company in West Virginia. There’s mountaintop removal there that’s a crime to the environment. Here’s how messed up our laws are at the federal level. If you spill something into a river in West Virginia, that’s a violation of the Clean Water Act. If you do mountaintop removal and you eliminate that river, [it’s] not a violation of those laws.

TO: Folks who are supportive of the coal industry are still holding out for clean coal technology. Do you see that as an option?

JC: The U.S. Department of Energy has put millions of dollars into testing out that theory. And they’ve stopped. Basically, what they’ve found is that the volume of carbon coming out of a coal plant in one day is too much to reroute and put back in the ground. On a chalkboard it might be attractive, but the reality is there is way too much carbon. It’s not a viable option.

TO: Wind energy has had a lot of success in Texas, but the same can’t be said for solar. How do you push solar forward in Texas?

JC: From my experience, net metering would really open up for individuals to have solar panels in their houses and make that more cost effective. At the same time, the more electricity you’re generating in Houston, in Dallas, in major metropolitan areas, the less you have to transfer from far away like West Texas. So you don’t need [long-distance] power lines either.

The state law right now doesn’t allow a municipality like Houston to be a retail electricity provider. McDonald’s and Walmart can get registered and create their own retail electricity provider and buy power directly from the wholesale market. The city of Houston has over 550 buildings. We use 1.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. We’re not allowed to buy from the wholesale market. The law says anyone can be a retail provider except for cooperatives and municipalities. So that needs to change.

TO: In the last few months, the city of Houston has faced record flooding. What policy changes do you think should be made to help the city adapt to the emerging climate reality?

JC: I have future constituents who have experienced 100-year floods every year. They got flooded out last year in the Meyerland and Braeswood area, and they got flooded out again this year. And I admire Mayor [Sylvester] Turner for stepping in and trying to help these people, but it’s not all his responsibility.

Nobody is holding the U.S. Army Corps accountable. The Corps is responsible for navigable waterways. They’re underfunded. Barker and Addicks dams are two dams that hold back water from coming down Buffalo Bayou. Since 2009, those dams have been on the U.S. Army Corps’ extremely critical condition list, meaning they’re highly likely to fail. So the Army Corps won’t fill them up to capacity. So the water flows south into Brays Bayou, it overflows the banks and the poor people there get it instead.

FEMA pays for the damage, honors flood insurance, for people to get flooded out again in a few years. It would actually be cost effective to give that money to the Army Corps to do their job and take care of those bayous in Houston.

TO: Are there any other systemic changes that the city of Houston can make to decrease the risk of flooding?

JC: The city of Houston does not have zoning, but you have to get a building permit and they’re pretty strict about that. But Harris County is more than just the city of Houston. There are unincorporated sections. I understand that a lot of the times, developers go in and they get waivers. They’re supposed to have detention ponds, but they get one half the size. Instead of doing detention at all, they write a check to Nature Conservancy to build a detention pond 50 miles away. That doesn’t fix the flooding where they are. We issue a lot of waivers. So the rules are there, but you have to follow them.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 8:06 am CST