With Earth Day on horizon, climate change will be talk of Texas committee

By Edward Klump | 04/20/2015 08:11 AM EDT

The notice for one of today’s committee hearings in Austin, Texas, might seem a little disorienting at first.

"The committee will meet to hear invited testimony only on International and Intergovernmental Efforts to Mitigate Climate Change," reads the online posting for a meeting of the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs. It says public and invited testimony will be taken on several bills.

There’s H.B. 2078, which would create a commission on climate change. And H.B. 2080, which outlines how to move ahead on a possible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also H.B. 2571, which aims to include climate variability in planning at state agencies.


Is this still Texas, the proud epicenter of oil and gas, where goals on climate change often encounter skepticism?

It is, but state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat who chairs the committee responsible for today’s hearing, said he’s trying to raise consciousness about climate issues. He’s seeking to nudge the state to hedge against future hostility toward fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.

"My goal is to get the science and the facts out on climate change and let people know that being proactive on climate change is not antithetical to the state’s position as a global energy leader, but rather is complementary," Anchia said in an interview.

Two of the bills on today’s agenda are sponsored by Anchia. H.B. 2078 discusses potential issues such as drought and lower air quality as well as higher sea levels and global temperatures.

The bill says global warming could have effects on labor productivity and infrastructure, along with industries ranging from agriculture to tourism. It says conservation and renewable energy could aid economic development while helping air quality.

A global climate change commission could step in, according to the bill, and look at greenhouse gas emissions. It also could help design a regional way to trim emissions and energy demand.

A second bill on the program, H.B. 2080, looks at how the state would act to comply with potential federal carbon reduction goals.

U.S. EPA has proposed to reduce carbon emissions at existing power plants. The goal of the Clean Power Plan, which hasn’t yet been finalized, is to lower carbon emissions from plants 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, with various targets for states.

Carbon plan debate

Texas politicians and regulators have leveled a series of complaints about EPA’s proposal, including its possible effects on the state’s economy and power market.

Leigh Thompson, a policy analyst with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the plan would lead to "massive" closures of coal-fired power plants and drive up prices, while affecting grid stability without making a huge difference to temperatures.

"We do still want to get out there to really assure people that in fact this is going to be a terrible rule," she said.

Anchia said the push to lower emissions does present potential risk for Texas, so he’s calling for the state to come up with a "Texas plan" instead of having one imposed by the federal government.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said the state needs to start dealing with the implications of the coming carbon regulation. Smith has talked in the past about Texas’ ability to use options such as wind, solar and energy efficiency to its advantage in addressing climate change.

"How we respond is going to determine whether we’re the economic winners or losers," Smith said of carbon regulations, adding: "It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when."

But John Fainter, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said state legislation related to implementing EPA’s carbon plan seems premature, as the rule hasn’t been finalized and litigation may follow.

The third item on today’s agenda, H.B. 2571, is sponsored by Rep. Eric Johnson (D). It seeks an analysis of possible impacts at state agencies from changes in weather, availability of water and variations in the climate.

Today’s meeting isn’t Anchia’s first event on the climate. Earlier this session, he focused the committee on climate change testimony, with today’s hearing expected to center on particular bills.

Anchia has cited a need to discuss belief among many climate scientists that man-made activity is adversely affecting Earth’s climate.

While Anchia said lawmakers in the Texas House range from "climate change deniers to environmentalists," he said big organizations are contemplating the future.

"The military is modeling climate change," he said. "The oil and gas industry is modeling climate change. The insurance industry is modeling climate change. And if we are to be responsible in state government, we need to follow suit and make sure that … we take a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approach to this future challenge."

Looking to Earth Day

The 2015 Texas legislative session has been frustrating for environmental groups in recent weeks. They were disappointed further Friday as the Texas House advanced a bill that would limit cities’ ability to avoid hydraulic fracturing techniques (see related story).

Last week, Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) issued a blog post, complete with Old West-style "WANTED" images for lawmakers the group said weren’t protecting Texans.

EDF looked at proposed changes in how pollution is handled in Texas, as well as the possible end of a renewable energy standard and changes in how often building codes would be updated.

"There is an assault on public health and environmental integrity underway in the Texas Legislature right now that’s the worst I’ve seen in my twenty-something years as an environmental advocate," Marston wrote.

Not everyone would make that sort of assessment of how the session is going, though.

Will McAdams, legislative director for state Sen. Troy Fraser (R), disagreed with certain criticism from environmental groups. For example, McAdams said S.B. 709, which deals with environmental permit application procedures, is meant to strike a balance in getting resolutions on proposals.

"Let’s give business owners, large or small, certainty in the time that it will take to begin recouping their investment," McAdams said.

Meanwhile, Marston said, today’s planned hearing in Anchia’s committee shows that some "rational members" remain.

While the bills up for discussion are unlikely to be successful this session, Public Citizen’s Smith said he was grateful to Anchia for talking about climate. Both the House and Senate in Texas are controlled by Republicans.

Anchia said the bills in his committee could move at some point if it looks like the votes are there. But he said the hearing really is about having a conversation.

Texas has a growing solar portfolio, and the American Wind Energy Association has said the state leads the country in installed wind capacity, even as it remains synonymous with oil and gas.

Anchia, when asked about his involvement in climate issues, said he wants to protect the planet for his daughters. And the choice of today for the hearing wasn’t necessarily a coincidence, with Earth Day set for Wednesday.

"It is in Earth Day week, you know, and we thought it was symbolically important to have the hearing at that time," Anchia said.