Engaging with climate change

By Bill Dawson

FlagsWith the 81st Texas Legislature now in the home stretch, a number of bills relating to climate change and cleaner energy have advanced far enough to give proponents hope that some, at least, may become law.

The biennial session began on Jan. 13 and is scheduled to end on June 1. Around its midway point in March, veteran environmental reporter Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News took note of lawmakers’ uncharacteristically strong interest in climate change this time around:

“Global warming has been a nearly forbidden phrase in the Texas Capitol,” he wrote. “But that might be changing.”

Loftis reported that legislators were not so much warming to a recognition of global warming’s risks for the state as they were acknowledging new political and economic conditions in the aftermath of the Democratic victory in the 2008 national election:

Texas’ new interest in climate change has less to do with scientists’ warnings over higher global average temperatures than with having a voice in national decisions and creating new business opportunities.

To illustrate, the House “carbon caucus,” led by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, doesn’t debate people’s role in global warming. The only topic, Chisum says, is what Texas will do about it.

Environmentalists and others who have been frustrated by the absence of a forceful state-level response to climate change in Texas had reason to be encouraged at the start of this year’s legislative session. Not only were some conservative Republicans like Chisum signaling that such action might be forthcoming, but Republican Rep. Joe Straus, an energy efficiency advocate from San Antonio, was elected to the powerful position of House speaker.

Things change quickly in the last weeks of a legislative session, as the clock runs down to procedural deadlines that eliminate many bills from further consideration. Besides that, it’s always dangerous to predict the fate of bills that are not clearly destined for passage.

With that cautionary word, here’s a rundown on some key bills related to climate change (some explicitly, some not) that have made significant progress toward enactment, and where they stood in the legislative process at the time of this article’s posting.

“No regrets” and water planning

As he did in 2007, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, introduced what he calls a “no regrets” bill, which would put the state government officially on a track that acknowledges and begins to address manmade climate change.

Among other arguments for the bill, Watson has asserted that “there is a great cost of inaction that will be noticeable in several ways.  Consider the costs to the state of Texas in the past several years from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dolly and Ike.  Furthermore, the longer we delay action, the more carbon that collects in our atmosphere, and the challenge of reversing that trend becomes more complex and expensive.”

The measure calls on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental protection agency, “to identify cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” It also “seeks to realize the economic benefits, cost savings to businesses and consumers, and environmental benefits of identifying and prioritizing no-cost and cost saving greenhouse gas reduction strategies first.”

Watson’s bill, SB 184, was approved by the Senate and referred to the House Environmental Regulation Committee. That same panel reported a companion measure by Chisum (HB 4346) and recommended it for the Local and Consent Calendar, a listing reserved for consideration of “local and noncontroversial bills.”

The “no regrets” measure’s sponsorship by two such influential and politically dissimilar legislators as Watson and Chisum is seen as boosting its chances.

Two related bills that explicitly address climate change – both by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso – were passed by the Senate and referred to the House Natural Resources Committee, which held a hearing on them on Tuesday and left both in a “pending” status.

Shapleigh’s bills, SB 1405 and SB 1406, relate to the question of whether state water officials should assess and include projected climate changes that potentially face Texas in their plans for future use and conservation of the state’s water resources. The Texas Water Development Board had controversially declined to do so in 2007. The Houston Chronicle reported at the time:

The board tasked with meeting the state’s water needs through 2060 says climate change is uncertain enough that it’s not worth accounting for in its long-range plans.

The statements on global warming, written into the 2007 State Water Plan, have puzzled some of the top climate scientists in Texas who expect increasing evaporation but not additional rainfall as temperatures warm.

DomeShapleigh’s proposals would make sure the Water Development Board factors climate change into its future planning.

SB 1405 would establish an advisory committee to help the board assess “the potential effects of climate variability” and also “existing climate models [the simulations of future climate changes that have projected the impacts of a buildup of human-produced greenhouse gases] to determine whether the models may be helpful in water planning on a regional or local level.”

SB 1406 would add “climate variability” to the board’s official mandate in preparing the State Water Plan.

Ken Kramer, Texas director of the Sierra Club since 1989, told Texas Climate News that Shapleigh’s bills both appear to have “a good chance” of emerging from the Natural Resources Committee because their House sponsor is Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, a committee member.

Reporting emissions, boosting renewables

An omnibus clean air bill, which addresses a range of issues, would also instruct state officials to engage directly with climate change. It is SB 16, authored by Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco. The bill passed the Senate last month and subsequently received a hearing in the House Environmental Regulation Committee, which still lists it as “pending.”

With regard to climate, Averitt’s measure would require three state agencies – the TCEQ, Railroad Commission and Public Utility Commission – to “jointly participate in the federal government process for developing federal greenhouse gas reporting requirements and the federal greenhouse gas registry requirements.”

SB 16 would further instruct the TCEQ to adopt state rules to implement such federal requirements. The Obama administration in March proposed a federal rule that would require mandatory reporting of greenhouse emissions by large sources. A number of states have already launched registries and reporting requirements.

In other legislative action this week, a bill by Watson aimed at boosting solar and other non-wind forms of renewable energy passed the Senate Monday on a 24-7 vote.

The measure, SB 541, would build on the foundation established by the Legislature in 1999, when it created the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring utilities to produce a certain amount of electricity by renewable means. That mandate is credited with jump-starting Texas’ wind-power industry, which has vaulted into first place among the states.

SB 541 as passed by the Senate would mandate the development of 1,500 megawatts of electricity from sources such as solar, geothermal and biomass by 2020 – half the amount of power that was sought in Watson’s original draft.

The State Capitol Report, newsletter of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, reported in its latest issue on Thursday that the debate over Watson’s bill had interestingly pitted him against Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, another outspoken proponent of solar energy:

Opposing (Watson’s) bill during Senate floor debate were Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte, and Sen. Daniel Patrick R-Houston.  Sen. Fraser noted that he had been a leader and author of a Renewable Portfolio Standard in past sessions.  He felt, however, that SB 545, his own solar incentive bill with a guaranteed cost to individual consumers and a specific amount of money for incentives and rebates, was a better approach to grow the solar industry in Texas than SB 541.  He did say that when Congress passes federal carbon legislation, he might be more supportive of a bill such as SB 541 since it might help mitigate the high costs.

Fraser cited a number of reports – including a study by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) on the impact on Texas of anticipated carbon reduction legislation and reports that Watson’s bill would lead to a $3 monthly charge on the average consumer’s bill – that he said convinced him to oppose the legislation. Fraser did state that “I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone who worked harder” than Senator Watson in passing the legislation….

Sen. Watson repeatedly explained during the Senate debate that the projected costs cited by Sen. Fraser were in essence worst case scenarios.  He said that his own analysis – backed by industry calculations – showed much lower numbers and in fact suggested that the overall benefits of the bill in cost savings, pollution averted, and new industries created would far outweigh those costs.

A staff member of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office backed that argument after the SB 541’s Senate passage, declaring on the group’s Texas Energy Exchange blog that “almost everyone supports (Watson’s bill) and the few who don’t are referencing outdated information and misrepresented data to support their contention that renewable energy would cost Texans too much without acknowledging any of the proven benefits.”

Fraser’s SB 545, which passed the Senate 25-4 last month, was referred to the House Energy Resources Committee, though it was withdrawn from the committee schedule on May 6. According to Fraser’s office, the bill blends concepts from various Senate bills introduced during this legislative session.

The measure, which has also drawn support from environmentalists, would encourage rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses along with other solar-related installations. Its stated goal is that “electric utilities administer incentive programs for residential and commercial customers to increase the amount of distributed solar generation, utility scale solar generation, and energy storage installed within the state in a cost-effective, market-neutral, and nondiscriminatory manner.”

Another bill by Fraser, SB 546, would set more aggressive state energy-efficiency goals for utilities, as would HB 280 by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. Fraser’s efficiency bill passed the Senate 29-1 in April and was favorably reported by the House Energy Resources Committee on Tuesday. Anchia’s bill was favorably reported by that committee last month.

Alliance for a Clean Texas, a coalition of environmental and religious groups, reported on its Web site Thursday that Anchia had requested that his bill be considered on second reading in the House along with Fraser’s measure.

Photo credits: Flags © Leslie Murray – Fotolia.com, Texas Capitol star © Brandon Seidel – Fotolia.com