While the 86th was not a halcyon session for environmental progress – no surprise, alas, in Texas – there was indeed some limited improvement. The Texas Emissions Reduction Program (presuming the governor’s signature pen is in working order) was put on a permanent footing: continuation of the current fund (about $77 million/year, via HB 1) and soon a trust fund (HB 3745) to be administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (meaning more long-term money) for projects to improve air quality, particularly as related to transportation. There’s also new funding for parks and wildlife, and for Railroad Commission inspection of solid waste sites and wellheads.
Although literally years late, under the supplemental appropriations bill (SB 500) money was finally designated for Hurricane Harvey reconstruction ($1.7 billion in rainy day money), and SB 7, addressing infrastructure, was amended to include “nature-based” strategies (e.g., wetland restoration). At the Lege, hindsight rules – rather than acknowledge that changing climate conditions are creating weather disasters, officials are grudgingly funding post-flooding repairs. Nearly a dozen bills were introduced to “study” the effects of climate change – not one received a committee hearing.
The oil and gas industry “own the Capitol building,” said Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment, speaking of the lobby’s success in blocking environmental progress. One bill, HB 3557, caused particular anger among activists: It will criminalize even peaceful nonviolent action against industry projects (e.g., pipelines), imposing state jail felonies for “impairing or interrupting” operations. (Opponents have already announced court challenges on First Amendment grounds.) Overall, said Adrian Shelley of Public Citizen, the Lege continues to value “corporate interests over the health and safety of Texans.”
In 2019 Texas Campaign for the Environment worked with neighbors of waste facilities or proposed waste facilities to get two good bills passed into law.
HB 1331 by Rep. Ed Thompson will raise the application fee for solid waste permits so that taxpayers and consumers are footing less of the bill for polluting facilities. That bill has been signed by the Governor.
HB 1435 also by Rep. Ed Thompson will require TCEQ to actually visit a proposed waste site before they approve its permit and verify some of the information in its application. This bill requires rule-making and the TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker stated that his agency plans to do a wider look at the rules on trash facilities after the session ended.
These bills were important steps forward for improving the waste industry in Texas and they send a message to our environmental agency that they need to act to make even more changes soon.
TCE helped defeat some legislation that would have made it more difficult to oppose pollution permits and pre-empt local governments when it came to waste facilities and tree ordinances, for instance.
Unfortunately, some bad legislation was passed despite objections from TCE and our supporters and allies HB 2771 to begin the process of dumping waste from fracking into Texas waterways. There were also many other laws we and allies sought that went nowhere because special interests got them bottled up.
This was the session after the monumental climate disaster of Hurricane Harvey. Instead of getting down to business on how to prevent future loss of life and property damage, the state legislators passed HB 3557 a bill to over-criminalize people who are putting their bodies on the line to protect our planet and the people and other living things on it. People who engage in peaceful and non-violent action now face felonies.
On Sunday, filibuster could have killed this bill but not one Senator was willing to step up and defend our civil liberties and the rights of planet protectors.
Just last Wednesday a lawsuit was filed a similar law in Louisiana. It’s highly likely that our taxpayer dollars are going to be spent defending this unconstitutional law in Texas too. This was a travesty.
The supporters of this bill used under-handed methods and frankly lied to advocates to pass this bill. It’s no exaggeration to say that powerful polluting industries such as the oil and gas industry own the Capitol building.
In the closing hours of the legislative session, Texas lawmakers voted to approve a controversial measure that would make it a felony for protesters to interrupt the construction of oil pipelines.
Under House Bill 3557, “impairing or interrupting” a pipeline would become a felony punishable by up to two years behind bars. Damaging a pipeline during construction would carry even stiffer penalties, becoming a third-degree felony with up to 10 years in prison time.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s is expected to sign the energy industry-backed bill into law.
“This was a travesty,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, adding that the proposal is an assault on the free-speech rights of landowners, indigenous groups and environmental activists.
Critics say HB 3557 specifically targets environmental groups by allowing the state to fine nonprofits found guilty under the law as much as $500,000. Most would fold if hit with such a stiff financial penalty, they add.
Environmentalists and some lawmakers unsuccessfully argued for softer penalties during debate on the bill. Schneider likened a felony conviction to a “scarlet letter” which would be enough to convince some protestors to stay home.
“It’s a much deeper risk,” Schneider said. “I think a lot fewer people will be willing to stand in front of bulldozers.”
Last week, environmental and civil-liberties groups filed suit in Louisiana, alleging that state’s similar pipeline protest law is unconstitutional. Texas activists pledged to track the outcome of the Louisiana case.
This story was originally published by Grist and is shared here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The fight against a Texas pipeline just got a little more challenging. On Monday, the Texas Senate passed legislation that makes interfering with pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and $10,000 in fines. And just the “intent to impair or interrupt” operations could still cost you a $4,000 fine and a year behind bars.
The new legislation raises the risk for landowners hoping to block construction of Kinder Morgan’s $2 billion, 430-mile natural gas pipeline from West Texas’ Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast. The proposed project would cut through the Hill Country, an ecologically sensitive 25-county region in Central Texas that is home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
As oil and gas production booms in the Permian Basin in West Texas, companies have been rushing to build pipelines across the state. Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway pipeline is currently the most prominent pipeline project in the state and has faced tremendous opposition from landowners who stand to have their property seized due to state law that grants private, for-profit companies the power of eminent domain. Residents are also concerned about groundwater contamination, as the project would come very close to Hill Country aquifers, one of which is the source of 80 percent San Antonio’s drinking water.
“It’s a pity that policymakers are continuing to protect the dirty fossil fuel industry and there are higher fines for chaining yourself to a fence than a company gets for poisoning the water with benzene,” said Jennifer Falcon, campaign manager for the Society of Native Nations. She called the legislation “a fear tactic to dissuade environmental justice movements.”
Since protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline captured national attention in 2016, five states have enacted laws laying out harsh penalties for protesting so-called “critical infrastructure”—facilities such as pipelines, compressor stations, refineries, and wastewater treatment plants. At least seven other states are considering similar legislation. Laws in South Dakota are already being challenged in court and a similar legal pushback appears imminent in Louisiana, where at least 16 people have been arrested under one such law.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the state Senate passed its own anti-pipeline protest legislation 27-4 on Monday, with eight Democrats also supporting it. The House has already passed a version of the bill but will need to vote again on the Senate version, which has lighter penalties than the House bill. From there, it will head to Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s desk, where he is likely to sign it into law.
The bill’s sponsors have claimed the bill will not limit the ability of Texans to protest or picket.
“What this does is similar to what Oklahoma and Louisiana have done, is provide a disincentive to act beyond your First Amendment protest rights and begin damaging [infrastructure],” said Texas Senator Brian Birdwell, a Republican representing Dallas-Fort Worth and a sponsor of the bill on the Senate floor Monday. “If you go past the peaceful protest, then this act is operative.”
The legislation is similar to model bill language published by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch Brothers. The author and sponsor of the bill in both the House and Senate have ties to ALEC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Senator Birdwell and Texas House Representative Chris Paddie attended ALEC conferences in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
The bill has garnered overwhelming support from the oil and gas industry. In an email statement, Todd Staples, president of the industry group Texas Oil and Gas Association, said it is “badly needed because, unfortunately, we have seen too many examples of illegal activity that is costly to Texas businesses and local governments and puts employees of these facilities in danger, as well as endangering local law enforcement who respond.”
But environmental and labor groups oppose the legislation because they say it overly criminalizes regular protest activity. The Senate version of the Texas bill penalizes people who trespass “with the intent to damage or destroy the facility or impair or interrupt the operation of the facility.” The bill also makes organizations that “compensate” protesters liable for damages.
“A company could say, ‘By being on this property you’re interfering or impeding with operations,’ and that would be a misdemeanor,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit group.
Opponents of the Texas legislation succeeded in watering it down: An earlier version of the bill punished trespassers who interfered with oil and gas operations with felony charges on par with indecent exposure to a child. An amendment filed by Democratic Senator Juan Hinojosa downgraded the penalty to a misdemeanor, which is still punishable with up to a year in prison and a heightened penalty of $10,000 in fines.
Falcon from Society of Native Nations said the bill will have a disproportionate impact on indigenous communities and people of color. She cited a recent United Nations report that found extinction patterns in ecosystems protected by indigenous communities were less severe. “The data is there that we have been protecting ecosystems and our Earth while everybody else is turning a blind eye,” she said.
Falcon said her group plans to challenge the law in court. “We’re going to fight this in the higher courts and we will make sure that we protect our constitutional rights,” she said.
The Texas Legislature has passed a bill that would support a fledgling industry that aims to reduce waste by returning plastic back to its original chemical components, which can then be reused for fuels and feedstocks of new plastic products.
The bill, supported by chemical makers such as Chevron Phillips Chemical of the Woodlands and the Texas oil major Exxon Mobil, is a response to the growing public outcry over plastic waste that is choking the world’s oceans, contaminating soil and threatening marine and wild life. Chemical recycling is not only viewed by chemical makers as a way to reduce plastic pollution, but also as a new and potentially $10 billion industry.
Unlike traditional mechanical recycling, chemical recycling uses chemical processes to convert plastic waste into fuels to use in cars or manufacturing feedstocks that can be turned into new plastics. Although chemical recycling itself isn’t new, more petrochemical companies are investing in improving the technology to make it work on a commercial scale.
The bill, which last week was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to be signed into law, would regulate chemical recycling operations as manufacturing plants, rather than solid waste disposal sites, a designation that would spare chemical recyclers from many regulations imposed on solid waste sites. The plants would still have to comply with state and federal air, water and other environmental laws.
The regulatory certainty provided by the legislation would make it easier for companies to invest in and obtain financing for chemical recycling agreements, said Craig Cookson, senior director of recycling and recovery at American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group.
“It takes a long time at the beginning stages of an industry to line up investment and secure offtake and feedstock agreements,” Cookson said. “What they don’t want is a shifting regulatory landscape”
The bill is part of a national push by the petrochemical industry to promote chemical recycling. Texas is the sixth state to pass such legislation — joining Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Iowa and Tennessee, and similar bills are proposed in Rhode Island, South Carolina and Illinois.
Turning waste into a $501 million industry in Texas
Cookson said the significance of the legislation is especially big in Texas, which as the nation’s largest chemical manufacturing industry. Converting just 25 percent of the state’s plastic waste into manufacturing feedstocks and transportation fuels could support 40 chemical recycling plants and generate $501 million in economic output annually, ACC estimates.
Nationally, the Amerian Chemistry Council estimates that chemical recycling could create $9.9 billion in economic output and generate 38,500 American jobs if adopted more broadly.
New plants likely to face opposition
The Texas legislation was opposed by environmental groups such as Texas Campaign for the Environment and Sierra Club, which argued that chemical recycling projects produce additional air pollution without significantly decreasing plastic waste.
Historically many of these chemical recycling plants have operationally underperformed, failing to produce as much fuel or feedstock as they original targeted due to technological and economic challenges, said Andrew Dobbs, program director at the nonprofit Texas Campaign for the Environment. That means many plants have struggled financially and turned to taxpayers for subsidies to survive, he said.
He pointed to a 2017 study by the advocacy group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives that found that chemical recycling plants have a similar emissions profiles to garbage incineration plants. Both can emit nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, heavy metals and greenhouse gases.
More fundamentally these chemical recycling plants don’t address what environmentalists say is the root of the problem – the nation’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels and the single-use plastics made from them.
“This is industry’s attempt to try to justify the dramatic ramp up of plastic production we’re seeing now by pretending like there is a solution on hand when there really isn’t,” Dobbs said.
He added that he appreciated the intent behind the bill to reduce plastic waste, but “this technology doesn’t work. It’s a huge waste of money and its bad for the environment.”
Plastic is deeply ingrained into the fabric of our society. While it’s been a game changer in terms of facilitating medical, technological and safety advances, plastic has also become a major problem for the planet as waste continues to accumulate.
Rachel Meidl, L.P.D., CHMM, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute and author of the issue brief, “Plastic Waste Management: Are We on the Right Path to Sustainability?”
Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director and legislative director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment
Jen Ronk, sustainability manager for Dow Chemical, a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste
Plastic is a pervasive part of everyday life, from bagging groceries and ordering takeout to buying hygiene or cosmetic products, toys for your kids, a soda from the vending machine, and on and on. An estimated 40 percent of plastic produced is packaging that’s discarded after just one use.
Only 9 percent of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste generated since the 1950s was recycled. The other 91 percent ended up in landfills, was abandoned in the natural environment or was incinerated.
Plastic’s ubiquitous presence in our lives is having detrimental effects on the environment. Eight million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy, affecting nearly 700 species. That’s on top of an estimated 150 million metric tons already in marine environments.
The U.S. ranks among the top 20 countries mismanaging its plastic waste. How is the plastic industry responding to these concerns? Is there a more sustainable solution?
What are the human health and environmental impacts of plastic? What are microplastics and how do they enter the human food chain?
How can we change the status quo for single-use plastics? Do plastic straw and bag bans have a sizable impact in limiting plastic waste?
Are you an environmentally conscious consumer? What else can be done to lessen the burden of plastic in our environment?