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The 88th Texas Legislature: What We’re Watching

By José Medina

The Texas Legislature convened again, as it does every two years, earlier this month. And Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick were sworn in for a third term.

The legislative session is not in full swing yet, but the pace of things will only quicken from here on out until the final gavel falls on May 29.

While we wait for the announcement of committee assignments and all sorts of public hearings to start in earnest, here is an overview of what the Texas office of Public Citizen will be working on during the 88th Legislative Session.

Fixing the Grid

Despite what some would want you to believe (see: Abbott, Patrick, and others), the Texas electric grid is not secure. We sit here almost two years since Winter Storm Uri knocked out power to millions of Texans, and only marginal progress has been made by lawmakers to ensure the lights stay on.

But you don’t have to go back to when Uri hit for proof that lawmakers should do more. All you have to do is go back to this past brutal summer of record temperatures and energy demand. Many Texas cities saw more days above 100 degrees last summer than they had seen in decades. The high temperatures led to the grid seeing record demand for electricity on 11 different occasions and triggering calls to conserve from state officials. These many warnings tell you that we could be just one extreme weather event from losing power to our homes and businesses.

State leaders took only marginal steps to secure the grid during the last regular session, and specials, in 2021. For example, Senate Bill 3, signed into law by Gov. Abbott, requires a limited amount of natural gas fuel facilities to weatherize their infrastructure to prevent the loss of gas supplies that contributed to the Uri outages.

What Should Be Done

Public Citizen supports policies that will secure the grid by reducing the electricity demand. Here are some ideas we’ll be advocating for at the Capitol:

  • A new energy efficiency standard that mandates at least a yearly 1% reduction in energy demand.
  • Investment in demand-side strategies for single- and multi-family homes, including energy efficiency, weatherization, and demand response programs. These programs will put money in Texans’ pockets, make homes more comfortable, and decrease energy demand.
  • Federal funding, including the Inflation Reduction Act, is utilized to invest in weatherization and efficiency.

We will also advocate for reforms to the Public Utility Commission of Texas and ERCOT, under Sunset review. The PUC regulates utilities and can impact energy demand and its costs. It also oversees ERCOT, which manages the grid.

Clean Energy and Electrification

We saw notable progress on clean energy during the last session. A few examples include legislation sent to Gov. Abbott’s desk to create a solar bill of rights and a bill to start the integration of battery storage within the ERCOT system.

What Should Be Done

Transitioning to renewable energy and from polluting fossil fuels benefits the environment and public health. Here, too, a lot more can be done by legislators. Texas already leads the nation in wind energy generation, but we could be left behind if we don’t act more aggressively.

Here is what we recommend:

  • Use of federal funds for investment in wind, solar, and battery storage; and for addressing the financial obligations of decommissioning fossil fuel facilities.
  • Directing the PUC and ERCOT to thoroughly analyze the value customer-sited solar energy provides to the grid and the state. Solar is underutilized in homes and businesses because it isn’t properly valued.
  • Establish statewide programs to assist residents in accessing federal funding for building electrification and installing efficient heat pumps for HVAC and water heating.
  • Funding for expanded access for low-income consumers to community solar programs.
  • A mandate to update local building codes to incentivize the use of electrified appliances.
  • Passage of the Electrification Transportation Act to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and bring EV ownership within reach for all Texans.

Oil and Gas Industry Waste and Pollution

Have you ever driven around Texas and seen a bright flame shooting into the sky at a refinery? It’s a pretty good bet that you have. The practice is called flaring. It is wasteful and highly harmful to the environment.

What Should Be Done

We believe the Legislature should clamp down on oil and gas industry pollution by:

  • Tax flared or wasted methane gas and phase in a total ban on routine flaring and venting.
  • Increase the bonding requirement for wells to ensure remediation is completed and new orphaned and abandoned well sites are not created. Use federal funding available for this purpose.
  • Require disclosure of fracking chemicals, especially when PFAS “forever chemicals” are used.

A TCEQ that Works #ForOurCommunities

Every state agency gets a performance evaluation about every 12 years. This year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will get its review from lawmakers.

The reviews we’ve been hearing from the public, however, are not great.

This past year, Public Citizen and its partners hosted a series of town halls in advance of this review, which the state calls “Sunset” and results in legislation that gives an agency its marching orders for the future. What we have been hearing from Texans is that the TCEQ appears to hand out more permits than it does fines to polluters. Some have shared very personal stories of the TCEQ allowing a polluting facility to be located next to schools and hospitals.

In other words, Texans have told us that they don’t see the TCEQ working for them or their communities and are instead too focused on economic interests.

What Should Be Done

This Sunset process is an opportunity to bring positive reforms that side with people instead of corporate interests. Our recommendations for improving the agency include:

  • Eliminate economic interests from the TCEQ’s mission.
  • Give Commissioners the authority to deny a permit based on considerations of equity and justice.
  • Establish an Office of Environmental Justice and publish a thorough EJ impact analysis of decision-making, including permits.
  • Enforcement reforms, including higher fines and mandatory enforcement.

Protecting Texans from the Concrete and Aggregate Industry

Aggregate Production Operations (APOs) include sand and gravel mines, rock crushers, hot asphalt mix plants, and concrete batch plants. These facilities create unacceptable health risks and greatly impact the quality of life for their neighbors.

What Should Be Done

We support significant industry reform that includes:

  • Firm setbacks between these facilities and residences of at least 440 yards, perhaps double that.
  • Established best practices that reduce dust pollution, water use, noise and light pollution, truck traffic, and other local impacts.
  • Address the cumulative impacts of multiple facilities through permitting, allowing the agency to reject permits that would further cluster APOs in vulnerable communities.

Defend Local Control

Some lawmakers love cities and counties making their own decisions until they don’t.

Local control has been under attack for several legislative sessions. For example, in previous sessions we have seen preemptions of a local fracking ban by the City of Denton and local restrictions on natural gas connections for buildings.

Public Citizen will oppose any legislative proposals that would make it harder for local governments to encourage building electrification, which is critical to fighting climate change and improves air quality.

Defending Human Rights

Basic human rights are under attack from many directions, including by some in the Texas Legislature.

We support the protection of fundamental rights of access and autonomy, including:

  • Defend democracy by increasing access to the polls through automatic voter registration, more polling locations, expanded hours, and expanded access to mail-in ballots.
  • We believe women should make their own healthcare decisions about birth control and abortion and oppose any restrictions on their reproductive rights within our state or their ability to travel to another state to obtain reproductive care.
  • Expand healthcare access by accepting federal funds for Medicare and supporting Medicare for All.
  • We support full equality for LGBTQ Texans and their right to live freely and openly in their communities without fear of discrimination because of who they are or whom they love. We also support the right of transgender Texans and their families to make medical decisions without interference from politicians.
  • We support sound immigration policies that treat migrants with compassion and dignity and are afforded all applicable rights under the U.S. Constitution. We further oppose the misuse of taxpayer dollars to militarize our southern border.