84th Legislative Session Recap

With Sine Die (“the last day”) on June 1, another Texas Legislative Session draws to a close. Texas holds a single 140-day session every two years (although small government advocates joke that this was a mistake–Texas intended to hold one two-day session every one hundred forty years). All in all, it was a disappointing session, with plenty of good ideas dying and several very bad ones becoming law. As environmental and public health advocates in Texas, sometimes all we can do is watch as our legislature makes bad law. This session was certainly no exception. Below is a recap of some highlights–and lowlights–from the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature.

The Good

Four bills were introduced that spoke to specific public health and safety issues in Houston. Although none of these bills became law, the mere fact that they were introduced is a good step. Air Alliance Houston had a hand in all of these bills, and we will continue to advocate for the good ideas behind them.

SB 1701/HB 3760 – Requiring scrap metal recycling facilities to install best available control technology. This bill had an excellent hearing in the House Environmental Regulations Committee. Several people, including representatives from Air Alliance Houston, testified in favor. Only one person, a seeming outlier from the metal recycling industry, was opposed. Unfortunately, this bill was not voted out of committee.

SB 1786/HB 3809 – Enabling local governments to control fugitive dust emissions from petroleum coke storage facilities. This bill did not get a hearing in either the House or Senate, but it is evidence that the issue of particulate matter emissions from coal and petcoke export facilities is a growing concern.

SB 1894 – As originally drafted, this bill would have required the Port of Houston Authority to take all reasonable measures to “promote the health, safety, and general welfare of persons using other [navigation] district property.” The bill was amended to grant this power, rather than making it a requirement, but its scope was also expanded to include people “living or working near the property.” The bill passed out of the Senate but died in the House.

SB 1787/HB 3810 – Creating a modern “amber alert style” system for notification of the release of toxic chemicals by a manufacturing facility. This bill had a good hearing in House Environmental Regulations but was not passed out of that committee.

The Bad

You probably heard about two particularly bad bills that became law this session: HB 40 and SB 709. It is unfortunate that our state lawmakers choose to limit local government’s authority to protect public health and the public’s ability to participate in the regulatory process, but such is life in Texas.

HB 40 – This bill prevents local governments from enacting any ordinances to regulate oil and gas drilling. It was a heavy-handed response to Denton’s fracking ban. The resulting law goes too far and explicitly places economic interests above public health and safety. The people of Denton, for their part, have vowed to enforce their ban anyway and are daring the state government to intervene. Stay tuned to this one.

SB 709 – This bill weakens the contested case hearing process, which allows citizens to participate in the permitting process in Texas. This was a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Contested case hearings are not all that common in Texas. When they do happen, they almost always result in a permit that is more protective of public health. Nevertheless, the state legislature altered the process by imposing a 180-day time limit, shifting the burden of proof onto the citizens bringing the contested case, and limiting who can bring cases. All in all, this was a disappointing blow to public participation in Texas.

The Rest

HB 14 – This bill would have continued a rebate program for purchase of electric cars in Texas. Unfortunately, it died at the last minute.

HB 942 – In the wake of the West, Texas disaster, this bill provides stronger protections at facilities which handle ammonium nitrate.

HB 1794 – This bill caps the penalties a city can collect when it enforces a violation of environmental law. Limiting financial penalties is no way to induce good behavior from billion-dollar companies that only care about their bottom line.

SB 931 – On the bright side, this bad bill which would have repealed our Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) died. Under the RPS, Texas must gradually increase the amount of renewable energy it produces, reaching 10,000 megawatts by 2025. With the death of this bill, that goal remains in place.

SB 1806 – The “plastic-bag-ban ban” died again this year, leaving cities free to ban the bag if they choose.