The Good, Bad and the Ugly: Public Citizen Reviews the 87th Texas Legislature

Session dominated by GOP red meat issues, progressives claim some key victories

By Michael Coleman

Public Citizen joins members of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience at the Texas Capitol.
Public Citizen joins Rep. Erin Zweiner and members of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience at the Texas Capitol.

When the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature convenes, progressive lawmakers always have a battle on their hands, and that was certainly the case in the 87th Texas Legislature that adjourned at the end of May.

At a time when the state desperately needed bold leadership to fix the state’s broken power grid, confront rampant industrial pollution, protect voting rights and so much more, Republicans instead shoveled far-right ideology and reckless policy down Texans throats. At the heart of the GOP agenda for 2021 was voter suppression, attacks on women’s rights and transgender children and a breathtakingly irresponsible new gun law that eliminates restrictions on open carry.

Public Citizen opposed these policies with official testimony or in solidarity with other advocacy groups, but we’re most proud of our role in helping to defeat – at least temporarily – the anti-democratic assault on voting rights. After fighting throughout the legislative entire session to defeat the voter suppression bills, Democratic lawmakers in the final hours of the Texas Legislature simply walked off the House floor to deny the GOP-controlled chamber a quorum to pass the bill. Democrats were emboldened to do so by thousands of Texans across the state who attended protests, made calls, sent emails and letters, and took other actions in insistent opposition to the legislation.

Predictably, Gov. Greg Abbott angrily vowed to bring lawmakers back for a special session to consider the cruel voter suppression tactics that his party believes are necessary to keep the GOP stranglehold on Texas. Public Citizen will be energized, focused and committed in our effort to oppose them.

Winter Storm Response

In Texas, Public Citizen’s primary policy focus remains energy and environment, and we had a lot of work to do in the 87th session. Public Citizen’s Texas Director, Adrian Shelley, testified in person on nearly 30 different pieces of legislation. You can check out Adrian’s testimony here.

The most important energy legislation in the 87th session was Senate Bill 3, a wide-ranging bill that aimed to address the catastrophic failure of the Texas power grid during Winter Storm Uri in February. More than 100 people died (some estimates say hundreds more) when Texas’ largely deregulated energy grid failed during a brutal winter storm, leaving millions of residents and businesses without power.

SB 3 passed the Legislature and is expected to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, but it falls far short of what is needed to fix the grid and protect Texans in the event of another mass blackout. The bill requires only a limited amount of natural gas fuel facilities to weatherize their infrastructure – those deemed “critical” by an electricity supply chain mapping committee that will conduct its business in secret with the benefit of an open government law exception added to SB 3 in the last days. Proposed fines for failing to weatherize aren’t high enough to compel compliance, and the bill lacks a clear deadline for energy companies to comply. These are toothless policies that don’t look much better than the weak mandate imposed after 2011.

Lawmakers rejected incentives to encourage more energy savings by homes and businesses–such as SB 243 and HB 4556, which would have set new energy efficiency standards for Texas. SB 3 also failed to provide money to help Texans buffer their own properties against extreme weather. 

The GOP-approved legislation leaves Texans holding the bag for the energy companies’ steep financial losses resulting from their lack of preparation for the storm. The new law will enable companies to tap billions of dollars in state-approved bonds paid for by customers in the form of – you guessed it – higher energy bills. Millions of Texans said they were blindsided by Winter Storm Uri and the resulting blackout, which is why lawmakers did approve HB 671 to establish an energy emergency alert system to notify Texas residents when the state’s power supply might be “inadequate to meet demand” or in the event of power outages.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Public Citizen and our allies, the final version of SB 3 was stripped of a requirement that renewable energy companies be unfairly forced to pay for reserve power for the grid. As we’ve said many times, wind and solar energy – a linchpin of the new Texas energy economy – should not be a partisan issue. A majority of Texas lawmakers, including some Republicans whose districts have benefited from thousands of new clean energy jobs, agreed in this case. They opposed efforts to lay the burden of these additional costs onto wind and solar power producers.

One bright spot in SB 3, thanks to an amendment drafted by Public Citizen and added to the bill by Representative Donna Howard: weatherization plans will have to consider predictions made by the State Climatologist.

Clean Energy

In addition to beating back efforts to harm wind and solar producers in Texas in SB 3, the Legislature also approved SB 398, a solar bill of rights introduced by Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio. This bill protects the property rights of Texas residents, allowing them to choose their own energy resources and ensuring that solar customers receive the information needed to make informed decisions.

The Legislature also approved SB 415, introduced by Republican Sen. Kelly Hancock, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. This bill begins the integration of batteries as energy storage devices within the ERCOT system. Hancock’s SB 1281 also passed both chambers and is on Abbott’s desk. This bill purports to be about assessing transmissions costs for “consumers,” although the consumers it actually has in mind are many of the very power producers whose failures led to the February crisis.

In a blow to the planet and efforts to stave off climate change, the Legislature approved SB 13, which would require state pension funds and Texas’ massive K-12 school endowment to divest from firms that “boycott” fossil fuel companies. 

Texas Emissions Reduction Program

Unfortunately, in Senate Bill 1, the legislature approved language that will divert more than one-third of the $270 million annual Texas Emissions Reduction Program budget earmarked for getting old, polluting vehicles off of Texas roads. Instead, Texas will now spend that diverted money on on new roads. New roads mean more cars and more pollution, so this was a terrible policy decision by Texas lawmakers. 

However, HB 2361 sponsored by Rep. Brooks Landgraf and approved by the Legislature expands the new technology implementation grant program administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to include advanced clean energy projects, new technology projects that reduce emissions of regulated pollutants from stationary sources and projects that reduce emissions from upstream and midstream oil and gas production.

Chemical Safety

Despite the assurances of new Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan that the legislature would address the rash of petrochemical accidents plaguing Texas, lawmakers passed little substantial reform. 

House Bill 1820, by Rep. Erin Zwiener and negotiated carefully with Republicans, would have created stronger consequences for the worst environmental offenders in Texas. But Phelan allowed the legislation to be scheduled dead last for floor debate, ensuring that it died there. Sure, Phelan and others may trumpet Senate Bill 900 by Sen. Carol Alvarado, which creates new standards for chemical storage tanks, as a win. But it was written on industry’s terms and is definitely not a significant check on the petrochemical industry’s worst environmental abuses in Texas.

Aggregate Production Operations 

The Legislature saw several good bills introduced to help control growing aggregate – or rock mining and crushing operation – pollution in Texas, it approved only one: HB 416/SB 952 by Rep. Armando Walle/Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, which requires detailed plot plans in applications for standard permits for concrete batch plants. Other significant legislation on this issue failed to pass, including HB 1627 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, HB 1912 by Rep. Terry Wilson, HB 767 by Rep. Dan Huberty, and HB 281 by Rep. Andrew Murr.

Oil & Gas

Texas lawmakers are notorious for coddling the state’s oil and gas industry, and the pattern continues in the 87th Legislature. House Bill 17 sponsored Rep. Joe Deshotel and signed into law by Abbott would preempt local jurisdictions from banning climate-warming natural gas in new buildings. Backed heavily by the natural gas industry, this shortsighted and irresponsible giveaway to industry is written so broadly it could even end other local incentives to encourage green construction. Critics also argued that it could actually lead to more widespread blackouts because it will increase demand for gas from apartment complexes and offices when power plants need it during freezing weather.  

Electric Vehicles

One of the most important electric vehicles bills of the session, SB 1202, exempts electric vehicle charging companies in Texas from having to register as a utility in order to sell power. It passed both chambers and is on its way to Abbott’s desk.

The EV industry was unable to pass the Texas Electric Vehicle Transportation Act, HB 2221, despite early momentum in the House. Fortunately, each of several bills that would have imposed unreasonably high fees on EVs failed to pass.

Water

HB 2225 introduced by Rep. Tracy King of Uvalde directs the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to acquire water rights that protect flows of water in our rivers and streams and to our bays and estuaries.

Bees

Bees – a crucial link in the production of fruits and vegetables – are dying off at an alarming rate because of climate change. SB 1772 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo establishes a voluntary pollinator-friendly designation for solar farms.

[UPDATE] Unfortunately Governor Greg Abbott vetoed this bill, saying, “Voluntary laws are not needed to drive public behavior.” This justification is demonstrably false. To give one example, the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, which provides funding to replace polluting vehicles and is the most cost-effective air pollution reduction strategy ever developed in Texas, is entirely voluntary.

Eminent Domain

Landowners across Texas have advocated for years now for reform of the process by which private land is taken for uses such as oil pipelines. This session the Legislature passed several eminent domain bills that we hope will be just the start of reform of the process.

SB 721 is a bill requiring appraisals of property in the condemnation process to be timely released to the property owner. 

SB 725 states that additional property taxes owed due to a property having been condemned, that tax must be paid by the condemnor and not the landowner. 

SB 726 increases the number of actions a condemnor has to take to show “actual progress” on a project within a 10-year period or a landowner can repurchase the property or easement taken.

HB 4107 provides that notice to landowners of a survey it must be written with an indemnification provision, requires restoration, and a survey plat provided.

HB 2730 provides more information in the landowners bill of rights, more information about easements, and discusses more requirements for right-of-way agents including coursework.

Nuclear Waste

Public Citizen and its advocates also won another round in the longstanding fight to prevent harm to Texas from dumping of nuclear waste. HB 2692 – introduced by Rep. Brooks Landgraf – purported to include a ban on high-level nuclear waste coming to the facility in Andrews, Texas. In fact the bill included a ban that was likely ineffective and paired it with an amazing number of financial handouts and concessions to the waste dump’s operator. In an unusual alliance, Public Citizen, oil and gas industry players and Gov. Abbott all opposed this bad bill.  

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