Mean to Green: How the Texas Legislature Took its Toll on the Environment This Session

Lawmakers have weakened citizens’ ability to challenge polluters, made flying drones over oil and gas facilities a jailable offense and slashed funding for the state’s environmental agencies.

Protesters rally outside TCEQ headquarters in Austin. The agency has had its budget slashed by over $150 million.  Naveena Sadasivam

In Texas, environmental wins are few and far between and the Legislature is particularly rough on green causes. In 2013, for instance, lawmakers reduced citizens’ ability to contest a class of underground injection wells that can contaminate groundwater sources. Two years later, in 2015, propelled by Denton’s decision to ban fracking, lawmakers passed with blazing speed a ban on fracking bans.

This session, between debates about where kids can pee and whether helping women get an abortion should be a crime, lawmakers at the pink dome continued their tradition of gutting environmental and public health protections. They reduced funding to the state’s environmental agencies, altered public notice requirements about air quality permits for industrial facilities and confirmed Kelcy Warren, head of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. When an already underfunded budget for the state environmental agency reached the governor’s desk, he slashed more than $90 million in funding for two air quality programs.

But before we get to the ways the Lege chipped away at environmental protections, let’s take a look at the meager wins this session.

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WINS
Brought Back Electric Car Rebates: The Legislature reauthorized the state’s biggest clean-air initiative, the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), and in a win for the environmental community, allowed its use for plug-in electric and hybrid car rebates. Combined with a $7,500 federal rebate, the $2,500 rebate will help make plug-ins and hybrid cars competitive with conventional cars, environmental advocates say.

The bigger picture, however, was bleak. Lawmakers cut funding for TERP by a third, from $118 million to $78 million. And like in previous sessions, budget writers failed to appropriate most of that money to TERP, instead leaving it untouched in order to help balance the overall state budget.

Blocked Expansion of a Radioactive Waste Site: Representative Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, introduced a bill this session that would’ve allowed Waste Control Specialists to expand its capacity to accept radioactive waste at its 14,000-acre Andrews County facility. After lobbying efforts by Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition, Landgraf removed key provisions that would’ve given the company permission to expand its facility, leaving only a requirement for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to study storage capacity.

Beat Back a Ban on Plastic Bag Bans: Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, proposed a ban on local government bans and taxes on plastic bags. Hall argued that plastic bags were the “most environmentally friendly option for transporting groceries” and that cities had “overstepped their authority” with the bans. The bill never got out of committee as a result of strong opposition from environmental groups and advocates from the ranching and agriculture industry, who argued, respectively, that plastic bag bans reduce trash in landfills and prevent livestock suffocation from eating plastic.

LOSSES
Underfunded Environmental Agencies: The Lege cut funding for a number of state agencies that protect the environment. Funding for TCEQ was reduced by $64 million, about 7 percent of its budget. Most of the cuts were to air quality programs.

Governor Abbott also took an axe to the TCEQ budget when it reached his desk this week. He vetoed $87 million in funding for a program that helped low-income Texans get assistance to replace vehicles that didn’t pass state inspections, claiming it is “ill-conceived and dubious … and should be abolished.” He also vetoed about $6 million in funding to TCEQ that would’ve allowed the agency to plan activities to reduce smog pollution.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also had its funding slashed by $100 million, about 12 percent of its budget, with a large portion of the cuts affecting funding for upkeep and renovations at state and local parks.

Weakened Local Control and Public Participation: Continuing a trend of reducing the public’s opportunity to protest polluting facilities, the Lege sent a bill to the governor by Senator Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, to consolidate notice periods for air quality permits. The law shortens the overall time the public has to comment on an air quality permit in front of TCEQ and eliminates a second notice to the public that a company has applied for a permit.

Lawmakers also gave TCEQ and the state attorney general’s office the right to veto cities’ civil environmental-related lawsuits. If the legislation becomes law, it will require cities to submit their intention to sue to TCEQ and the attorney general. If Attorney General Ken Paxton, who touts repeatedly suing the Obama administration over stricter environmental regulations, decides the issue is one he wants to pursue, the city’s lawsuit will not proceed. Ultimately, it might lead to Paxton settling a case with a polluter on lenient terms instead of a local government pursuing tougher terms.

Passed Up Opportunity to Reform the Railroad Commission: Eight years after the Sunset Commission first submitted recommendations for reform, the Lege finally passed a bill to renew the Railroad Commission’s authorization. But lawmakers ignored most of the reforms that environmental advocates and staff at the Sunset Commission, the entity charged with periodically reviewing state agencies, had been clamoring for. In doing so, lawmakers have allowed the agency to continue without changing its confusing name — it has nothing to do with railroads — or limiting campaign contributions to commissioners.

Outlawed Flying Drones Over Factory Farms and Telecom Facilities: HB 1643, which has been sent to the governor’s desk, makes flying drones over oil and gas facilities, large-scale animal feeding operations and telecommunications facilities a Class B misdemeanor. The bill will limit the ability of citizens and advocates to research the environmental harms of these facilities and uncover shady business practices.

Gutted Wind Energy Tax Credits: SB 277, which is also awaiting action from the governor, prohibits the state from providing tax credits to new wind turbines installed within 30 miles of a military airfield. About 40 percent of all wind farms in Texas are near a military base. If SB 277 becomes law, it could hamstring future wind energy development.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She is currently an Ida B. Wells fellow at The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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Published at 2:26 pm CST
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