Guest Column | April 18, 2017

Rounding Up The Water, Clean Energy, And Climate Bills In The 85th Texas Legislative Session

Rounding Up The Water, Clean Energy, And Climate Bills In The 85th Texas Legislative Session

By Kate Zerrenner, Project Manager, Environmental Defense Fund

We’re entering the home stretch of the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature.

Now past the Session’s midway point, legislators and advocates are working hard to ensure their bills cross the finish line. Here’s a look at which water, clean energy, and climate bills have been filed, including those we hope will rise to the top.

Water bills

In the 1930s, Texas meteorologist Isaac Klein reportedly said Texas is a land of eternal drought, interrupted occasionally by biblical floods. Luckily the state is in a relatively wet period: The majority of Texas is drought-free and just under half the state is in the lowest bracket of drought.

But Texans understand water should always be on our minds, so it’s no surprise there are dozens of water bills this Session.

Water planning

— Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has for many Sessions led on water legislation. He filed several bills including House Bill (HB) 2948, which is an omnibus water bill – that is, it includes several related issues. For example, it would create a water planning council to coordinate interregional water issues, and require regional water planning groups to set specific water-use goals for each decade in the State Water Plan. The bill was voted out of committee in mid-April. EDF submitted written testimony, supporting the bill but recommending that water planning includes available climate data from the State Climatologist.

— Representative Larson’s counterpart in the Senate, Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, & Rural Affairs, filed Senate Bill (SB) 1511, which requires more hearings to get public input on water planning, among other things. SB 1511 was voted out of committee in mid-April.

Desalination

Desalination is often put forward as a supply option in water planning. However, traditional desalination is highly energy-intensive. Since 73 percent of Texas’ electricity comes from fossil-fueled power plants that consume vast amounts of water, desalination in Texas is highly water-intensive.

— Sen. Perry also introduced SB 1525, which requires the state to study the costs and opportunities associated with new water supplies, in particular brackish groundwater and seawater desalination. SB 1525 was voted out of committee in mid-April, and EDF submitted testimony recommending that any plans for future water supplies should factor in energy costs and impacts.

— Last Session Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) introduced and passed SB 991, which required the General Land Office (GLO) and the TWDB to study the economic and geophysical potential of using wind and solar PV energy to desalinate brackish groundwater, with a plan to add additional renewable technologies for seawater desalination in the study. Released in early March 2017, the study found nearly 200 sites on state-owned land are cost-effective for using solar or wind energy to desal brackish groundwater.

This Session, Senator Rodriguez has filed a follow-up bill, SB 1597, which requires the GLO to use the study (and any other available data) to develop a plan to pilot renewable-energy-powered desal.

Other

— Further bills to watch include Chairman Larson’s HB 31, which creates procedures for adopting groundwater permit moratorium (voted out of committee in early April), and HB 2377, which establishes rules for brackish groundwater production zone permits and requires the establishment of a management plan for brackish groundwater desalination goals. Both bills are strong the way they are, but the captions are so broad that they could become “Christmas trees,” i.e. bills completely covered in amendments as decorations.

Anti-clean energy bills

Several anti-clean energy bills have cropped up this Session, many of them related to the repeal or limitation of Texas Tax Code, Chapter 313, also known as the Texas Economic Development Act. Although not specific to clean energy, Chapter 313 has incentivized wind and solar power development in Texas and it is now under fire.

— One bill aims to outright repeal the Act (SB 600 by Konni Burton (R-Colleyville)), scheduled for a hearing today, April 18th, and multiple bills put sections of Chapter 313 on the chopping block:

  • HB 445 by James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) – left pending in committee in early April,
  • HB 3086 by Jim Murphy (R-Houston) – referred to committee,
  • SB 277 by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) – voted out of committee in late March, but has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor, and
  • SB 1027 by Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) – referred to committee.

Wind energy has been incredibly successful in Texas, from an electricity reliability and economic development standpoint. For example, Texas is home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s wind power jobs, and the state ranks number one with the most capital investment for wind energy at over $32.7 billion. In addition, Texas is expected to see significant solar power growth over the coming years – the state’s main grid operator forecasts an approximately 70-fold increase by 2030. It’s also worth noting that natural gas and coal power have enjoyed state and federal incentives for a century, and continue to do so.

Withdrawing the incentive – which benefits wind and solar among other industries – does not make sense if we want to continue to grow the clean energy economy, and opposition to these anti-clean energy bills has proved so far to be widespread and effective.

Pro-clean energy bills

Texas Energy Plan

— Despite having more natural gas, wind, solar, and energy efficiency potential than any other state, Texas currently does not have a statewide energy plan. Identical companion bills introduced by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), SB 1999, and Representative Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), HB 4217, would remedy that. The Public Utility Commission, which is responsible for oversight of the state’s electricity resources, would consult with key stakeholders to develop a Texas Energy Plan that encourages the development of a diverse, reliable energy portfolio, promotes research and innovation, and considers water impacts of energy choices. Neither bill has received a hearing yet.

Energy efficiency

— HB 3399 by Mark Keough (R-The Woodlands) requires a two-year study to determine the technical and economic potential for energy efficiency in Texas. This follows up on a bill and study completed in December 2008 that found Texas could achieve nearly 7 percent energy savings by 2018 – if the recommended strategies were implemented. A few of those strategies were implemented, but several were not. Further, the past decade has seen significant changes in the energy makeup, as well as explosions in population growth and economic development in the state, so the time is ripe to revisit our energy (and water) saving potential.

Climate bills

Climate bills are pretty thin on the ground this Session.

— A refile from last session, HB 773 by Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) is a commonsense bill that would require state agencies to include projections about weather, water availability, and climate variability in their strategic plans. This is a responsible approach to ensuring that state agencies are more prepared and resilient in the face of a changing climate. This bill had a hearing in late March, but was left pending in committee. In the current environment, hopes are not high for HB 773.

— James White’s (R-Hillister) HB 420 creates a problem where there isn’t one. This bill would prohibit evidence of a defendant’s theories, beliefs, or statements on climate change from being admitted as proof of an offense, such as fraud, in a criminal court case. In order words, it would not allow climate change to be admitted as evidence. The intent of this bill seems to be to provide cover for an industry that may be harming public health – it is colloquially being referred to as the “Exxon bill,” referring to Exxon pursuing climate-disruptive activities, even though evidence suggests executives knew about the realities of climate change for years. The bill was referred early in the Session, and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

As with every legislative session, there is a mix of positive and negative, and most bills don’t cross the finish line. The bills highlighted here reflect the biggest opportunities for good and bad policy in the Texas’ climate and clean energy economy. EDF will be keeping a close eye on all of these bills.

Note: The statuses of these bills are correct as of publication, but at this stage in the Session, things move quickly, so use the links provided to check a changing status.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters blog

Image credit: "Texas Capitol"  Phil Roeder © 2012 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/