May 27, 2019, marked the end of the 86th Texas Legislative Session, which began in January. A plethora of environmental disasters–including multiple floods; the March fires at the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown and the ITC petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park; and the April chemical fire and deadly explosion at the KMCO warehouse in Crosby–have plagued Houston in recent years. These horrific events raised expectations that environmental-related issues would be a substantial focus of the 86th session. (The subsequent fire and explosion at a second ExxonMobil Baytown plant in July reinforced the need for such a focus.)
And the legislative session, the first since Hurricane Harvey, did indeed put forth some environmental legislation, including increased funds to support flood mitigation. We asked some of our member organizations to give us their feedback on the legislature’s environmental activities.
The following information summarizes reports shared by six of those groups, listed below. For more information and in-depth analyses, please visit their websites.
- Sierra Club – Lone Star Chapter – Cyrus Reed, sierraclub.org
- Texas Campaign for the Environment – Robin Schneider, https://www.texasenvironment.org/
- Bayou Land Conservancy – Jill Boullion, https://www.bayoulandconservancy.org/
- Texas Climate News- Randy Lee Loftis, http://texasclimatenews.org/
- Air Alliance Houston- Bakeyah Nelson, https://airalliancehouston.org/
- Public Citizen- Adrian Shelley, http://www.texasvox.org/
Several bills that passed could directly benefit the Texas environment. SB 26, signed by Governor Greg Abbott, puts on the November election ballot a Texas constitutional amendment that, if approved, would permanently allocate all revenue from the state sales tax on sporting goods to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Texas Historic Commission.
HB 3745 was passed in the House and Senate to continue allocating revenues for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) programs, which provide financial incentives for reducing pollution generated by vehicles, ships, trains, and heavy equipment; these incentives will expire when Texas meets the Federal Clean Air Act requirements to reduce ozone pollution.
HB 907 increases the number of TCEQ inspections done in the aggregate mining industry and intensifies fines for failure to register with the TCEQ. (Aggregate mining products include crushed stone, gravel, sand, clay, and marl.)
And finally, two bills that will assist Houston are SB 500 and SB 7, which allocate billions of dollars toward flood relief, including funding for housing buyouts as well as structural projects. Approval of part of the funds created by SB 7 will appear on the November election ballot as a constitutional amendment as well.
Many environmental wins in the 86th legislature were seen not only in bills being passed, but in bills being blocked. One CEC member group, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, successfully lobbied against several bills that would have degraded the state’s environment. Two that tanked, HB 2269 and SB 1021, would have doubled the importation of low-level radioactive waste while reducing fees and taxes, thereby leading to less oversight and revenue.
The Sierra Club also successfully fought two bills proposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization funded by fossil-fuel companies, to hinder the future advancement of wind energy. Lastly, the Club helped turn back HB 3750, which would have “prevented cities from enforcing water quality ordinances and other related measures in their extra-jurisdictional territories that were more stringent than federal or state standards.”
The most controversial piece of legislation that many activists, including the Sierra Club and fellow CEC member group Texas Campaign for the Environment, fought against was HB 3557, or the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” HB 3557 not only makes it a second-degree felony (two to 20 years in prison) to damage or destroy “critical infrastructure” such as pipelines, power plants, and chemical plants; the bill also deems it a state-jail felony (up to a year in jail) to impair or interrupt (i.e., protest against) the operations of such infrastructure. Despite the strong efforts made to knock HB 3557 down, it was signed into law by Governor Abbott on June 14.
In addition to the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act”, two bills that passed despite the best efforts of environmental activists were HB 1824 and HB 2771. HB 1824 authorizes in-river mining in the San Jacinto watershed, a practice that is banned in most other countries. The bill lacks any mention of oversight by state agencies. Similarly, HB 2771 allows for the dumping of fracking wastewater into our waterways.
Environmentalists also saw defeat in bills that did not get passed. For instance, despite the multiple chemical fires in Houston this year, legislators rejected any efforts at passing bills to prevent further industrial catastrophes and improve Houston’s air quality. And the formation of many environmental commissions and councils, including the Texas Global Climate Change Commission, the Texas Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission, the Texas Climate Impact Assessment Council, and the Texas Environmental Justice Advisory Council, was blocked from getting a vote.
Several hoped-for bills were also killed before reaching a vote. SB 892, which would have criminalized altering carbon emission controls on diesel pickup trucks and releasing excess toxic exhaust, was blocked in the House by a procedural maneuver. SB 2070, which would have outlawed using commercial waste from grease and grit traps as fertilizer, was also short-circuited in the House. And HB 4078 and SB 180, which would have strengthened requirements for new waste facilities in poor or minority communities, were both stopped in their tracks early. These were all setbacks to eradicating environmental injustices in Houston and throughout the state.
Despite such whiffs, the environmental initiatives that passed during this legislative session, as well as the potentially negative bills that were blocked, signal progress. More information about the 86th Texas Legislative Session can be found at https://capitol.texas.gov.
CEC Volunteer Stuart Stern contributed to this report.