3 Big Takeaways For Texas Energy And The Environment From This Year's Legislative Session | Texas Public Radio

3 Big Takeaways For Texas Energy And The Environment From This Year's Legislative Session

Originally published on May 31, 2019 9:52 pm

The 2019 legislative session saw fights over renewable energy, climate resilience and pipeline construction. Now that the dust is settling on the field of battle, what do the results tell us about Texas lawmakers' priorities for energy and the environment?

Here are three takeaways.

In Texas, pipeline companies claim the right to take land through eminent domain – with minimum public input or oversight. When fights erupt between industry and landowners, they often play out in the courts, on the news and, like clockwork, at the state Capitol.

For the last several sessions, landowner groups and their allies in the Legislature have tried to push for more oversight of the eminent domain process. But this session was especially busy for pipeline bills, possibly because it coincided with the announcement of a plan to build a 430-mile natural gas pipeline right down the road from Austin through the Texas Hill Country.

Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, represents much of the area where that pipeline is set to run. She sponsored multiple bills in the House not only seeking to reform eminent domain, but also touching on things like land remediation and emergency preparedness. While each received hearings, none was voted into law. 

On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Lois Kolkorst's bill to overhaul the process by which pipeline companies claim eminent domain made it further along in the process. But it, too, eventually died. 

It speaks to the power of the industry at the Texas Capitol that the most significant piece of pipeline legislation to pass this year was a pro-pipeline bill. 

House Bill 3557 increases penalties against protesters who engage in certain types of civil disobedience around so-called "critical infrastructure." The bill is widely seen as an attempt to discourage the types of protests that happened against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines.

If it becomes law, protesters who damage or impede the operation of a pipeline face felony charges and years in prison. Groups that organize to support acts of civil disobedience against pipelines and other energy-related facilities are also liable for a fine up to $500 million. 

The 2019 legislative session started exactly 501 days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. It was too long a wait for many hurricane survivors and their advocates. But there were still expectations that big things could be accomplished to help recover from the last big storm and prepare for the next one.

The most important pieces of Harvey-related legislation to come from the 2019 session related to recovery and resilience. A plan to create an “infrastructure resiliency fund” received bipartisan support and will set aside billions of dollars for storm-readiness projects, if voters approve the money next election season.

But legislation that would have mandated oil and gas facilities better prepare for the next big storm fared worse. 

One example?

Public health groups say Harvey highlighted the need for Texas to create stricter oversight of petrochemical storage tanks. The danger posed by those storage tanks was further demonstrated during the session by two tank fires near Houston.

Still, lawmakers rejected a bill to allow oversight of storage tanks by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

While these efforts sought to address increased storm risk, the words "climate change" rarely, if ever, came up. There could be a reason for that: Bills that specifically addressed the climate crisis did not get a hearing.

"It's really disappointing that many of our lawmakers refuse to say the word climate change," says Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen Texas. "The only way we can really ... update our assumptions about what's realistic for weather and climate in the state is to call the problem what it is."

It was going to be a showdown for the ages. As this year’s legislative session got underway, Texas fossil fuel supporters and interests squared off against an up-and-coming competitor: the state's fast-growing renewable energy sector.

The battle was to take many forms. House Bill 2908 would have looked for ways to cancel the effects of wind- and solar-friendly federal subsidies. There was a push to remove these projects from eligibility for local tax incentives. Another bill would have made it more difficult for renewable projects that span several counties or school districts to avail themselves of local incentives. 

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential pro-fossil fuel think tank that, critics say, lobbies for the industry, supported the bills. But all of them ended up going down in defeat. It was a possible sign of the emerging clout of the renewable energy sector. 

"The coalition that formed around this issue ... included rural school districts that care about investments in their communities, suburban families that want clean air for their kids ... consumers, including industrial consumers that want cheaper electric power," said Jeffrey Clark, president of the Advanced Power Alliance, a renewable energy lobbying group. "It was that coalition of Texans that were able to push back against an unprecedented attack." 

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