Monthly Archives: May 2013

Texas Leads The Nation In Carbon Emissions. It’s Time To Mess With Texas.

Source: brionv/Flickr

This commentary originally appeared on the EDF Voices blog.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently released its annual report on carbon emissions from energy-related activities. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Texas once again led the nation, emitting an estimated 652.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010. That represents close to 10% of the carbon emissions from the entire country.

I love my state, but this isn’t a “#1” we should be proud of. Our emissions contribute to the global increase in carbon in the atmosphere and influence extreme weather patterns.

And yet, Texas continues to challenge protections to limit the amount of greenhouse gases, wasting valuable time and resources trying to thwart the efforts to handle a critical public health threat.

I know there are people in Texas who are concerned about the greatest environmental challenge of our time. And I am inspired by news of the 7% increase in renewable power generation in the state last year. And I am inspired by visionaries such as Elon Musk who is exploding into the market with zero emission technologies like Tesla. You’d see more of his cars in Texas if the state would let them.

Texas has tooted its horn as a pro-business state for years, which has led us down the smog-ridden road we are on now. It’s not too late to change the tune of our song to be pro- clean energy business.  Rather than constructing more fossil-fuel driven power plants, Texas can continue leading the nation with wind and solar development.  Renewable energy will not only continue to propel Texas’ economy, but also cut down on air pollution.  That’s a win-win for everyone, and a ranking for which Texas can be proud.

Posted in Air Pollution, Extreme Weather, GHGs, Renewable Energy| 2 Responses, comments now closed

Texas Picks Up The Clean Energy PACE

This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Energy Exchange blog.

Chairman John Carona’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bill, Senate Bill 385 (SB 385), which was sponsored by Chairman Jim Keffer in the House, is headed to the Texas Governor’s desk!  Building upon successful legislation passed in 2009 to authorize “PACE districts” in Texas, SB 385 clears some of the hurdles that prevent commercial and industrial properties from taking advantage of new financing for water and energy conservation efforts.

PACE is an innovative, market-based approach that helps alleviate the steep, upfront costs property that owners generally incur for water and energy improvements by using loans that are seamlessly repaid through an additional charge on their property tax bills.  The loan is then attached to the property, rather than the owner, and can be transferred if the property is sold.  PACE loans can be issued by city or county financing districts or financial institutions, such as banks.  Property owners who participate will start saving money on their utility bills each month as a result of water conservation, energy efficiency and/or renewable energy improvements, while repaying the loan annually when they file their taxes.  In other words, they will see net gains despite increased property taxes.  The program is entirely voluntary.

In 2009, Governor Perry signed House Bill 1937 (HB 1937) by Mike Villarreal, which established PACE districts in Texas for the first time.  Although cities and counties across the state began the process of setting up PACE districts, the entire process was derailed when the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) created an obstacle for residential PACE programs.  FHFA expressed concerns about the senior lien—that is, if a homeowner with a PACE loan defaults, the repayment of the PACE obligation would take priority over settling the mortgage.  There were also some structural concerns which would have “required the Texas legislature to amend or replace the existing statute.”  This new bill, SB 385, addresses the structural problems and applies to commercial and industrial (rather than residential) property owners, thus removing the senior lien concern from the equation. Read More »

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Legislation, Renewable Energy, Texas Energy Crunch| Tagged | Comments closed

Lessons Learned From West

Source: KVUE

At 4:00 p.m. today, the State Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives plan to announce the results of their investigation of the West, Texas fertilizer explosion that killed 14 people and injured over 200.

Information leaked to The Dallas Morning News indicated that investigators have three possible explanations for the explosion fueled by ammonium nitrate: ignition from a faulty golf cart, ignition from the fertilizer and seed building’s electrical system or an intentional act.

No matter what the conclusion, we’ve learned some very important lessons from this tragedy:

  • There is not enough coordination among state agencies covering the oversight of facilities like West;
  • Current penalties and fines don’t seem to be a deterrent to the those who violate safety and environmental laws;
  • There is a need for more thoughtful consideration as to appropriate locations of schools, hospitals and nursing facilities; and
  • There is a critical need for local emergency responders to have the best possible information regarding hazardous materials and potential health and safety risks in their communities.

As we begin to wrap up the legislative session in Texas, we are hopeful that our elected officials will do the right thing and strengthen environmental and safety protections instead of weaken them.  Over 400 people a year lose their lives in Texas from occupational injuries.  We can and should do better.

On a personal note, I’d like to give a shout out to my favorite Texan, Willie Nelson, 80 years young, who hosted a birthday concert benefitting the community of West and raised over $120,000. Thank you Willie!

Posted in Environment, Texas Permitting| Tagged , | Comments closed

Voluntary Clean Truck Programs Reduce Emissions At Ports, But Fall Short Of Clean Air Goals

Voluntary truck replacement programs at ports are a common means of improving local air quality without imposing strict restrictions.  However, new research shows that these voluntary programs, while a critical component of a comprehensive clean air plan for ports, are limited in their overall effectiveness, especially when considered in the context of mandatory programs.  A new peer-reviewed study by Environmental Defense Fund, “Emissions reduction analysis of voluntary clean truck programs at U.S. ports”, will be published in the July issue of Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.  The study, authored by Elena Craft, PhD and me, demonstrates that voluntary programs only reduce emissions by one to four percent compared to a baseline of truck emissions before program implementation.  Furthermore, the potential emission reductions are limited to 15 percent for particulate matter (PM) and 35 percent for nitrous oxides (NOx), two pollutants linked to serious health risks.  This means that, under current program guidelines, only a fraction of total truck emissions could be reduced through voluntary replacements.  These findings are striking given the accomplishments noted at ports that have implemented more rigorous programs, such as the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program, which set a progressive ban on older, more polluting trucks, ultimately requiring the use of clean trucks that meet the 2007 emissions standards.

This is a critical environmental and public health issue.  Short-haul drayage trucks have been found to contribute substantially to port area air pollution, and there is broad consensus from communities, cargo owners, transportation providers, and ports that older trucks need to be retrofitted or retired in order to reduce the public health risk from emissions associated with freight transportation.

In 2009, EDF announced a partnership with the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Port of Houston to replace older, polluting trucks with new, cleaner models.  The outcome of this partnership resulted in the best incentive program in the country for owner-operator truck drivers.  The Drayage Loan Program combined federal and state grants to provide drivers with low-interest loans and high value grants to trade in their truck.  While voluntary programs, such as the one at the Port of Houston, have helped build stakeholder support and drive progress toward cleaner air, the limited capability of voluntary programs, as demonstrated by this study, highlights the need for stronger actions on behalf of all partners.  This is especially true for Houston, as emissions from trucks operating at the port are estimated to amount to approximately half of all emissions within the port’s 2015 projected emissions inventory.  Read More »

Posted in Drayage, Houston, Transportation| Tagged | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Premature To Remove Texas City From The Air Pollution Watch List

Estimated Distribution of Benzene Annual Concentration, Based on Retrieved Primary Source Location and Wind Direction Frequency

Last week, EDF, along with Air Alliance Houston (AAH), submitted comments to the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reflecting why we believe the proposed removal of Texas City for the pollutants benzene and hydrogen sulfide from the state’s Air Pollution Watch List (APWL) is premature.

The APWL is a list of areas in Texas where concentrations of harmful pollutants exceed the state’s own health-based screening level guidelines. While inclusion on the list indicates that additional scrutiny is given to permits issued to facilities in the area, some of the APWL areas have been listed for over a decade. This is significant because exposure to these toxics may impact human health and may lead to serious health outcomes, such as birth defects or cancer.

EDF has been actively engaged with TCEQ to improve management of the APWL program and to renew efforts to improve air quality in hotspot areas. TCEQ first added Texas City to the Air Pollutant Watch List in 2001 because of elevated concentrations of propionaldehyde. The organization added benzene in 2003 because the annual average concentration at the Ball Park Monitor exceeded the long-term health-based Air Monitoring Comparison Value (AMCV) of 1.0 ppb.[1]  Hydrogen sulfide was then added in 2004 based on mobile and stationary monitoring data showing exceedances of the 0.08 parts per million (ppm) threshold.

TCEQ’s proposal claims that recent air monitoring information justifies the removal of Texas City from the APWL. However, new analyses completed by EDF and AAH, indicate that data from the current monitoring network are not adequate in justifying the removal of Texas City from the APWL. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Air monitoring information has not been correlated with wind direction, meaning that the existing monitoring network does not capture the predominant downwind concentrations of pollutants in neighborhoods closest to the largest sources. As illustrated in the insert, the largest concentration of benzene is expected in between the existing monitors.
  • BP Texas City: The largest emitter in the area is also the worst environmental performer. BP Texas City is ranked as the largest benzene emitter in the region, not just the state. On March 23, 2005, an explosion killed 15 employees and injured 170 as a result of workers re-starting a unit at the BP refinery that had been closed for repairs. The problem started when workers filled a tank with 138 feet of flammable liquid, when it should have been filled with only 6.5 feet of liquid. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that BP had cut costs, resulting in risky working conditions, which were likely the cause of the catastrophic event. An investigation by the Chemical Safety Board found numerous problems, including out-of-date equipment, corroded pipes, and faulty safety alarms. This explosion has been characterized as one of the worst workplace incident in the U.S. between 1989 and 2005.
  • BP Texas City II: More recently in November 2011, there were reports of gas leaks at the BP Texas City refinery. A concerned citizen initially reported a sulfur dioxide leak to the National Response Center. BP confirmed an ongoing leak of methyl mercaptan; the odor was so toxic that 30 workers from a neighboring plant downwind were taken to the hospital.

Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, TCEQ| Comments closed

Don’t Be Fooled By Recent Lows: The Texas Energy Crunch Is Still A Big Issue

This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Energy Exchange blog.

This past month, we experienced refreshing, cool and somewhat wet weather in Texas.  However, those working on energy issues know all too well that this weather change doesn't mean we have escaped the worst of the “energy crunch.”  As the farmers say: “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait ten minutes and it will change.”  Despite cooler temperatures, an unplanned power plant outage during a warm day late last month forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to issue an advisory, demonstrating just how quickly things can change.

At the same time, recent ERCOT reports indicate that reserves will be tight this summer due to an anticipated record level of high energy demand and stunted growth in new electricity resources – thus making conservation notices likely and rolling outages probable.  All of this points to the important role conservation programs, like demand response, can play for ERCOT.  Some ERCOT staff and stakeholders have recognized the importance of demand response, which allow customers to voluntarily reduce electricity use in response to a signal from utilities.  Others have called explicitly for programs that pay customers for reducing energy the same way generators are paid for producing energy, an approach EDF has advocated for several years.

ERCOT and a few retail electric providers already have conservation programs, albeit limited, in pilot phases that compensate customers for their participation.  But in comparison to other regions, Texas lags far behind other states – despite having the highest potential for conservation and clean energy resources in the U.S.  That’s why the three remaining weeks of the legislative session are so important: two critical pieces of legislation that would open up demand response in Texas to meet our electricity reliability goals and drive further market competition are under review.

Senate Bill (SB) 1351 from Senate Business & Commerce Chairman John Carona would require ERCOT to allow customers to participate in all competitive energy markets; the bill passed the Senate earlier this week and is now on its way to the House of Representatives.  SB 1351 is an excellent piece of legislation to propel demand response in Texas, but alone it is not enough to ensure Texas can keep the lights on during the hottest summer days.  A separate bill from Senator Kirk Watson, Senate Bill (SB) 1280, would accomplish just that by requiring ERCOT to secure enough demand response to meet its reliability needs if existing resources fall short; the bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Business & Commerce committee.

These bills will make all the difference this summer and for many summers to come.  The Texas Legislature has the opportunity to ensure that ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) have all the necessary tools to avoid rolling blackouts over the next several years as we wait for new energy resources to come online. Read More »

Posted in Demand Response, Legislation, Texas Energy Crunch| Comments closed

The West, Texas Tragedy Could And Should Have Been Prevented

I recently spoke at "A Conversation About the Environment," hosted by the Texas Tribune, with fellow speakers Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texas’ environmental protection agency; Laura Huffman, State Director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas; and Kate Galbraith, Texas Tribune’s leading energy reporter.  At the event, Kate kicked off the discussion with a quote from my colleague Elena Craft’s blog post regarding the West, Texas fertilizer explosion.  I made note of an important fact from Elena’s post that Texas leads the nation in total fatal industrial accidents, with over 400 deaths in 2011.  For comparison, California came in second (and has a population larger than Texas), with 260 total deaths.

Soon after, PolitiFact Texas reached out to me to inspect my claim.  While my statement that Texas leads the nation in industrial accidents is accurate, they questioned why I did not qualify the statistics of deaths caused by industrial accidents on a per-worker basis. One reason that I chose not to use a per-worker comparison is that even though the rates compare per 100,000 people, there can be a significant difference in variability in the rates between high population states like Texas and low population states like New Hampshire or West Virginia. That is because there is an order of magnitude difference in the workforce population between Texas and these smaller population states. One would need to characterize that variability over multiple years to determine whether variability had a significant impact on the rate. The point of my comment during the Texas Tribune event was to highlight the fact that far too many workers die unnecessarily in Texas every year in workplace accidents that can and should be prevented.

Furthermore, people are not statistics. Fifteen people lost their lives in the West tragedy, many of them first responders who entered the facility without having knowledge of the true risks or that they would lose their lives that day. Joseph Stalin infamously remarked that, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The individuals that lost their lives in the West explosion deserve better than to be called a statistic.  People don't die or hold funerals on a per-worker basis.

The tragedy in West, Texas could and should have been prevented. Texas public officials have cut funding to key agencies responsible for ensuring strong public health and safety protections. And right now, several bills are working their way through the legislature to further weaken public health protections, even as tragedies like the explosion in West continue to occur. This is the reason that our team at Environmental Defense Fund is committed to advocating for strict oversight of environmental compliance in Texas.

Texas can and should be a safer place to work. One preventable death is one too many.

Posted in Legislation| Comments closed

EDF Goes Back To Court To Support Climate Pollution Reductions

This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Climate 411 blog.

Another high-profile clean air case played out yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas and some industry petitioners.

The lawsuit challenges EPA’s efforts to ensure smooth, uninterrupted permitting for large new industrial sources of climate pollution in Texas.

EDF was part of a coalition of clean air advocates that filed two briefs in the case. We filed in support of EPA, along with Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club.

At issue in the case are State Implementation Plans, or SIPs as they’re commonly known.

Here’s some background on the case

U.S. clean air laws require that large new industrial sources obtain construction permits providing for cost-effective modern solutions to mitigate climate pollution. The states are empowered to provide those permits – through their SIPs.

In 2010, EPA found that 13 states, including Texas, lacked the ability to carry out that requirement.

All those states except Texas worked with EPA to ensure permitting authority was in place. That allowed large new industrial sources in those states to obtain the needed construction permits.

In an August 2, 2010 letter to EPA, Texas wrote that it:

ha[d] neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring, or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.

That brings us to the lawsuits.

Here’s a look at what happened in court yesterday

Judges Judith Rogers, David Tatel, and Brett Kavanaugh heard oral arguments.

The judges closely questioned Texas and industry petitioners about the impact of the court’s recent decision in another case that we’ve written about.

In that challenge to the Endangerment Finding, before the same court, judges upheld EPA’s first-generation climate protections.  The decision in that case said that EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act was:

unambiguously correct

In light of that earlier ruling, EPA argued that its actions were necessary to ensure that sources in Texas could get permits.

That became one of the main points of discussion during oral arguments yesterday – as the judges pressed Texas and the industry petitioners to describe how EPA’s actions caused them any injury.

Read More »

Posted in Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Agency, GHGs| Comments closed

The Law Of Common Sense

Over the last week, media outlets around the country have highlighted lack of regulation and enforcement as contributing to the tragedy in West, where 15 people lost their lives, many of them first responders.

State officials have commented many times that there is adequate state oversight under the existing laws. And yesterday, eight state agencies testified about the tragedy at a special hearing held by the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. As you might imagine, the overall tone of the speakers was defensive, and ultimately, none of the state agencies testified that they would have done anything differently because they were all doing their jobs.

What about the laws of common sense?

The attitudes presented yesterday are frustrating and disappointing for communities.  Texas is a great state and we can do better. We can start by taking a critical look at some of the bills working their way through the legislature right now designed to weaken public health protections. Consider the following bills that are in various stages of the legislative process:

  • House Bill (HB) 824 (Calligari) – Spill Reporting
    HB 824 aims to create a volume-based exemption for reporting accidental spills and discharges from wastewater facilities. Unfortunately, this one cleared the House Natural Resource Committee and is on its way to House Calendars.
  • Senate Bill (SB) 957 (Fraser) and HB 2082 (Ritter) – Contested Case Hearings
    These two bills would dramatically alter the way the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) handles certain permits and the judicial and administrative review process. The bills would shift the burden of proof on permits to the public, limit public input, and restrict evidentiary hearings.
  • HB 1496 (Van Taylor) – Hydraulic Fracturing
    HB 1496 would restrict a municipality’s ability to impose restrictions on hydraulic fracturing to protect public safety by adding any interest in an oil or natural gas well to the definition of private real property.

More information on current bills under consideration can be found here.

At the hearing, Progress Texas PAC Director Glenn Smith made comments that should make us all take notice:

Even this preliminary inquiry shows how dangerously wrong Rick Perry was when he said we had adequate regulations. State Chemists says security requirements are fence and door locks. The insurance commissioner says there is no requirement that the plant be insured, and that West Fertilizer's insurance was woefully inadequate to the risk. The TCEQ testified that the plant operated without a permit from 2004 to 2006, and that was only caught because someone filed an odor complaint in 2006.” Read More »

Posted in Legislation, TCEQ| Comments closed
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