By Randy Lee Loftis
Texas Climate News
This is, for the most part, a roll call of the damned, the abandoned, the disappeared.
Bid farewell, without your ever having met them, to the Texas Global Climate Change Commission, the Texas Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission, the Texas Climate Impact Assessment Council, Texas State University’s water conservation study, Texas A&M’s state climate preparedness study, the climate sections of state agency strategic plans and the state Climate Action Plan.
All were proposed in the 2019 Legislature to help an acutely vulnerable state get ready. None passed. Most died unheralded and unheard. So did the Texas Environmental Justice Advisory Council and an Amber Alert-type system to notify the public of environmental emergencies.
But say hello to the Flood Infrastructure Fund and the Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund, vehicles inspired by Hurricane Harvey to help cover local costs of big storms without daring to mention that man-made climate change is one reason they’re needed. Scientists have attributed part of Harvey’s record-setting destructiveness to man-made disruption of the climate system.
At the same time, a year in jail for protesters who damage or disrupt pipelines and other structures – and potential bankruptcy for organizations that sponsor such protests – seem close to becoming law.
Here’s a chronological review of how Texas legislative leaders dealt with – or didn’t – climate and other environmental matters during their just-finished session.
On Feb. 1, a bill (SB 180, Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston) to protect poor and/or minority communities was last seen before the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee. Its identical twin (HB 4078, Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City) vanished March 21 at the House Environmental Regulation Committee.
On Feb. 12, a bid for Texas agencies to plan for climate change (HB 100, Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas) expired in the House Natural Resources Committee.
On Feb. 25, it was adieu to creating the Texas Global Climate Change Commission (HB 942, Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas), which met its premature demise at House Environmental Regulation.
That same day the Texas Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission (HB 928, Anchia and others) disappeared from House Environmental Regulation.
Two days later, the end came at House Environmental Regulation for the Texas Environmental Justice Advisory Council (HB 1491, Reynolds).
On March 5, the Texas Climate Impact Assessment Council (HB 1980, Reynolds), vanished from House Environmental Regulation.
March 11 marked the entire lifespan of an effort to protect state employees for retaliation for mentioning climate change at work or in reports (HB 2558, Rep. Erin Zwiener D-Driftwood). The bill slipped away in the House State Affairs Committee.
March 12 was the first and last day for a bill (HB 2880, Zwiener) before the House Natural Resources Committee. It would have had Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment study whether building practices discourage water conservation.
March 13 proved unlucky for a Texas A&M climate and preparation study (HB 3023, Rep. Mary González, D-Clint), which left the living in House Environmental Regulation.
On March 21, the proposed Climate Adaption Plan (SB 2069, Sen. José Menendez, D-San Antonio) went to sleep in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.
That same day, an industry-backed effort to hinder new pollution rules (SB 2387, Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson) arrived moribund at the Senate Natural Resources Committee. A twin bill (HB 3816, Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria) vanished after passing House Environmental Regulation.
On March 25, a bill (H.B. 4156, Zwiener) to temporarily block pipeline companies’ eminent domain power was permanently blocked in the House Land and Resources Management Committee.
On April 25, a committee-approved bill (HB 1924, Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso), requiring regulators to go easy on first-time violators failed to get a full House vote.
On April 29, a bill (SB 1446, Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas) to toughen standards on aboveground tanks, spurred by damage from Trinity River flooding and Hurricane Harvey, got stuck in mud after a hearing in the Senate Water and Rural Affairs Committee.
On May 7, a House-passed bill (HB 4116, Zwiener) to establish a voluntary financial assurance fund to help prevent water pollution went silent at the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee.
A Senate-passed bill (SB 1672, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock) to study the spread of crop-damaging invasive insects and plant diseases – a climate-change impact, although the bill never mentions that – arrived at House Calendars on May 10. It went nowhere else.
On May 16, the House Energy Resources Committee received a Senate-passed bill (SB 185, Miles) expressing displeasure with a 2014 well blowout in Fort Bend County. It required well drillers to tell regulators immediately about mishaps and mandated an Amber Alert-type system to tell the public. It went dry at the House Energy Resources Committee.
Prospects were brighter on May 16 for another spills bill (HB 2203, Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, and others). In 2015, Sugar Land city officials didn’t find out about a plant’s radioactive Cesium-137 spill for six days – and first heard about it from reporters. The bill, mandating notice of radioactive materials spills to local governments, got wide support, but House Environmental Regulation made the notices confidential, exempt from public disclosure. The bill, including the affront to the public’s right to know, has awaited Abbott’s signature since May 16.
On May 17, Abbott signed a controversial bill (HB 1953, Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland) that opens the door for converting waste plastics into fuel and other products. Petrochemical companies pressed hard for the bill, which environmentalists opposed.
On May 22, the Senate approved a House bill (HB 2794, Morrison and others) to transfer the Texas Division of Emergency Management from the Department of Public Safety to the Texas A&M University System. The suggestion came from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, a response to Hurricane Harvey – although state reports on the 2017 storm have largely avoided mentioning climate change. The bill awaited Abbott’s signature as of May 28.
On May 24, both chambers agreed on a potentially big-ticket item related to climate change. The bill (SB 7, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe) authorizes tapping the state’s rainy day fund to provide loans and grants for local governments to handle flood risks from big storms. Like other bills, its text and backgrounders refer to storms and disasters, but not to a broader link to climate change. It’s awaiting the governor’s signature.
On May 27, both chambers agreed on revisions to the session’s most controversial environmental bill (HB 3557, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall). It’s a response to the 2016 protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its supporters at the North Dakota site of the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline, a project of Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren’s company, Energy Transfer.
The Texas bill allows up to a year in jail for “impairing or interrupting operation of [a] critical infrastructure facility” – meaning for damaging or disrupting operations at a pipeline or similar site. At the last minute, House and Senate negotiators added a limited protection for protesters: an escape clause if protester did only “superficial” damage – a proviso we can call the “it was just graffiti” defense.
But the measure also allows up to $500,000 in fines for a “corporation or association” – that is, a group organizing protests – convicted under the act. And it opens them up to civil liability even if they haven’t been convicted.
Backers called the bill a needed safeguard for the states’ critical infrastructure. Opponents said it needlessly duplicates existing trespassing laws and is meant to silence peaceful dissent.
One bill deserves attention out of chronological order, if only because it’s about a more pleasant topic (wine) than leaking tanks and imprisoned protesters. With enough squinting, it might look like a response to climate change.
Apparently, the Texas wine industry has had disputes with warehouse operators over ownership of grapes and byproducts, such as fermented liquids. The bill, (SB 1939, Sens. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Perry), is meant to resolve them. It earned a toast when Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on May 7.
Without following a bunny trail into the accounting intricacies of Lone Star viticulture, we might call the bill a climate response based on a single phrase in a staff analysis. It says Texas wine growers face many challenges – including “drastic weather events.”
As science has already proved, as the backers of the big infrastructure funds bill implicitly acknowledge, and as some studies that died in the Legislature might have underscored had they lived, climate change is bringing more drastic weather events to a state already regularly drowned or broiled by them.
Neither the wine bill nor its analysis links grapes in warehouses to global warming. It’s a half glass for anyone hoping Texas officials would explicitly respond to climate change. But for the 2019 Texas Legislature, that’s about as full as it got.
Randy Lee Loftis, an independent journalist in Dallas, is senior editor of Texas Climate News.