Naked City

The Lege and the Environment

Here's a look at what the 79th Legislature did in the area of environmental policy.

One bill that the entire environmental community successfully battled to keep from surfacing would have limited or eliminated citizens' rights to request Texas Commission on Environmental Quality-contested case hearings, according to Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office. He said the hearings have historically made a big difference in regional air quality.

Another "all hands on deck issue" was the proposed "takings bill," HB 2833, which mercifully died. Had it not, city and county governments would've been required to compensate developers for lost value on their land due to regulations such as water quality measures, zoning, or transportation planning. The bill was seen by some as a shot at Austin's environmental coherence; Smith said it could've cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars based on some of the development issues in Southwest Travis Co.

The state's West Texas wind power resources, capable of meeting a significant share (some advocates say all) of the state's energy needs, will be maxed out if more power lines to the area aren't built by early next year. The legislation that could have provided the fix, SB 743, stalled over telecommunication policy disputes, "held hostage in battle," says Smith. An increase to the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard, from the 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy currently used to 7,880 megawatts by 2017, was killed along with it.

SB 712, dealing with Public Utility Commission energy efficiency program grants, was among the totally bogus bills to pass. The legislation changes the programs' broad focus to only deal with peak energy usage, "merely shifting the time energy is used" and "heavily impacting the cost savings and effectiveness of the efficiency programs," said Smith.

A boon in several areas for greens was HB 2912, which makes it easier to figure out how much renewable energy affects pollution reduction, requiring studies of both building efficiency codes and certain commercial appliances' efficiency. The bill also requires that reports of accidental or unpermitted "upset" emissions from facilities like chemical plants and refineries be submitted in a single, easily understandable version.

So what's next? If a special session on education and school finance is called, Smith says, "we're hoping that the governor will choose to address advances in renewable energy development as well. Wind generators raise significant funds for schools through property taxes, thus school finance would be an appropriate place to address an increase in the Renewable Portfolio Standard." Currently, the 2% of wind in the state's energy portfolio earns nearly $16 million for Texas pubic schools.

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