Environment: Hydrocarbon Rules

Fallout from the 84th Texas legislative session

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen (photo by John Anderson)

As in many years, the environmental fights at the 84th Legislature were mostly not to do good things, but to prevent bad things from happening – and at best, it was a split decision. The headline disaster was House Bill 40, often described as the Legislature's attempt to stop local bans on oil-and-gas "fracking." In fact, it's much broader than that: In language that waxes grandiloquently about the "healthy and economically vibrant communities" produced by the state's responsible development of oil and gas resources, the statute goes on to "expressly preempt the regulation of oil and gas operations by municipalities and other political subdivisions."

Any local regulation of any kind – restricted only to surface activities – must be "commercially reasonable." In other words, hydrocarbon rules.

In Senate Bill 709, the Lege took parallel steps to make it more difficult for citizens to contest permits (to pollute) granted by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality – unless a Texan is directly and personally affected by the permit, it will be much harder to get a hearing. The law's only virtue is that it just might provoke Environmental Protection Agency intervention – an outcome not exactly contemplated by its authors.

Defeated were several bad bills – notably several attempts to undermine local bag bans – and there were slight improvements in the regulation of ammonium nitrate storage. But on the whole, said Robin Schneid­er of Texas Campaign for the Environment, "The oil-and-gas, chemical industry, electric utilities, and waste industry are big winners this session. Industry said, 'Jump,' and most Republican and many Democratic legislators responded, 'How high?'"

The Sierra Club's Ken Kramer summed up the session as a "mixed bag" regarding water issues, especially in the wake of the final defeat of what has been nicknamed "Grid­zilla" – a "proposed state water 'grid' of reservoirs, pipelines, pumping stations, and other infrastructure to move massive volumes of water around Texas" – by an environmental, rural, and fiscally conservative coalition. Kramer said there was some progress on uses of graywater and other secondary water sources, as well as many "water project" bills that will have to be monitored in implementation. Very late last week, it had appeared that Hays County citizens' uphill campaign for broader regulation of the Trinity Aquifer (HB 3405) had died on the House floor. Instead, it was magically resurrected by the reversal of a parliamentarian's ruling, and is on the governor's desk. Whether it will succeed in saving residential wells from commercial drainage remains to be seen.

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen also summarized a mixed report card for the session, saying there had been some progress on residential solar and on water conservation, but also pointing to HB 40 and SB 709 as "limiting local control and citizens' rights." "Thwarting ugly bills," Smitty noted, has its own virtues: Right up to sine die, Grid­zilla remained on his watch list.

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