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    Fossil fuels get a boost from Texas lawmakers

    June 6, 2023 - Emily Foxhall


      Texas legislators largely ignored pleas for reform from environmental advocates during this year's legislative session -- failing to act on lowering energy use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color.

      At the same time, the laws they did approve try to block local attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate tax incentives for renewable energy companies and support building more fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

      "The climate is worse off for the Legislature having met," Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.

      Lawmakers passed a huge economic incentives package to lure companies to Texas, which included the oil and gas industry but excluded wind and solar energy companies.

      Ideas supported by Democrats to reduce electricity demand -- and consequently reduce emissions from electricity production -- didn't get far in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

      A bill that would have established a 1% energy savings goal by 2030, for example, stalled in the House. That legislation would have required power utilities to implement initiatives like installing new windows, insulation or water heaters in businesses or homes.

      "Energy efficiency is the cheapest megawatt you can buy," said Colin Leyden, Texas political director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "That was a big disappointment."

      Still, some significant climate and environment legislation passed: Texas will spend more than $2 billion to boost water supplies and prevent flooding, two of the most destructive climate impacts in Texas as droughts are worsened by higher temperatures and rains and hurricanes get stronger. State lawmakers also approved bills that will buy more land for state parks and increase penalties for companies that pollute.

      And, in a modest gesture to bolster the transition to renewable energy, a handful of bills will clarify rules for developing geothermal energy and smooth the way for electric vehicle chargers to be built -- although EV drivers will have to pay an additional $200 annual fee starting in September.

      Energy efficiency proposals fail

      Politicians mostly failed to push the state to improve energy efficiency in businesses and homes and reduce energy demand to alleviate strain on the state's main power grid.

      State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, argued that Senate Bill 258, which included the 1% energy efficiency goal, would have helped during the deadly 2021 winter storm that saw skyrocketing power demand push the grid close to collapse and plunged millions of Texans into darkness for days. Supporters highlighted how it would lower electricity costs and reduce emissions created by producing electricity.

      "Energy efficiency programs are really the lowest-cost solution to reduce energy waste," Anchía said.

      The House Committee on State Affairs never voted on it.

      Other ideas died with it, including one that would have offered loans or rebates for upgrading or retrofitting homes. Legislators also rejected a bill to create a Texas Energy Efficiency Council to coordinate the state's energy efficiency approach.

      "What they seem to ignore ... is the fact that we can, in a way that's cheaper for consumers and also is better in terms of the climate because it reduces emissions, we can do things on the demand side," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

      Conservatives, meanwhile, argued that gas-power electricity was key to shoring up the grid, and applauded efforts to do so this session. Brett Bennett, a policy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in a statement that the Legislature "did what it needed to do this session" to ensure a reliable grid.

      Local climate policies restricted

      Texas Republicans passed several pieces of legislation that will tip the scales toward fossil fuels and thwart local efforts to speed the transition to renewable energy.

      Senate Bill 1017 will block cities from adopting ordinances that prohibit engines based on their fuel source starting Sept. 1. A proposal floated in Dallas to restrict purchases of gas-powered lawn equipment inspired the legislation.

      Another bill, Senate Bill 1860, targeted a proposed "climate charter" in El Paso. Proposition K, which El Paso residents voted down in early May, would have amended the city's charter to create aggressive renewable energy goals and make controlling carbon emissions a cornerstone of major city decisions. The Senate bill, which is awaiting approval by the governor, would require cities to get permission from the Legislature before approving changes to their charters that purport to address climate change.

      And a sweeping bill that will allow the state to siphon power from blue cities, seizing control of regulatory areas including labor, agriculture and natural resources, may also impact local climate proposals, some climate advocates said. The bill is expected to be signed by the governor.

      Extreme heat ignored

      The Legislature also largely ignored bills that would have helped Texans adapt to the rising temperatures brought by climate change.

      Extreme heat is an extreme danger in Texas, where heat-related deaths reached a two-decade high last year during the state's second-hottest summer on record. More than two-thirds of Texas' 100 prisons don't have air conditioning in most living areas, and summer heat has killed prisoners.

      The Texas House proposed spending $545 million to install air conditioning in prisons, the Senate proposed spending nothing, and the final budget didn't allocate a dime (although $85.7 million for maintenance projects could be used to install some air conditioning).

      House Bill 2127, the sweeping local control bill, may also block heat-related city ordinances. Local ordinances mandate 10-minute breaks for construction workers in Austin and Dallas to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke on the job. But HB 2127 would bar cities and counties from passing regulations and overturn existing ones that go further than state law in many policy areas, and labor advocates are worried it will override those hard-fought protections.

      Some House Democrats sought to require a study on the impacts of climate change in Texas, to little effect. One bill, filed by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would have required the state to compile an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and create a climate action plan. It didn't get a hearing.

      Environmental justice proposals die

      Frustrated Texans who live near industrial facilities took buses from Houston to the Capitol to call on lawmakers to strengthen environmental regulations on concrete batch plants -- where materials like sand, water and cement for concrete are poured into mixing trucks -- and other industries that tend to pollute predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Their activism appeared to get some results with Senate Bill 1397.

      Lawmakers increased pollution penalties for industrial facilities from a maximum of $25,000 a day to $40,000 a day for major violations of state environmental regulations. They also lengthened the time the public can comment on agency matters following a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit hearing to 36 hours. Currently, the public can comment on permits for new plants before, during or, in some cases, after a public meeting. The bill still needs the governor's approval to become law.


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