Texes Lege Preview: Will the Sun Set on Texas Commission on Environmental Quality?
Lege, advocates push embattled environmental agency to try harder
The embattled Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will have its moment in the sun (or under the gun) this session as it goes through Sunset review. Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and other advocates are pushing the 88th Lege to expand on the Sunset Advisory Commission's recommendations – increasing the maximum penalty for violators as well as revising TCEQ's concrete batch plant permitting process, which is currently under federal investigation for environmental racism. Bills have been filed to expand who can call for a contested case hearing and how far away they can be from the plant; one bill expressly advocates for acknowledging environmental injustice.
Energy and water resilience will be top of mind for both parties this session. Republicans have filed bills to advance clean energy and co-sponsored ones to shore up the electric grid; House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has even indicated support for carbon sequestration initiatives. Strengthening emergency response, like "boil water" alert systems, will accompany the key priority of strengthening water infrastructure, as rural systems have become accustomed to boil water notices (Texas averaged seven per day in 2022). Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, says the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act "has created a lot of resources for investments in innovative technology. Texas is ready to take advantage of those."
Other environmental issues that have gained traction include plugging abandoned oil wells that poison aquifers and expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure (also funded by the IIJA). However, acknowledging climate change is still an uphill battle. The Texas Water Development Board's water plan, released this past year, doesn't include the term and only plans according to the "drought of record," increasing mostly surface water supply such as reservoirs, which are vulnerable to drought, as opposed to aquifer storage, efficient reuse projects, or seawater/groundwater desalination.
Zwiener's House Bill 973 would create a critical infrastructure resiliency fund with state assistance for such water-related projects, and her HB 57 would create a group within TCEQ, along with the state climatologist (yes, there is one), to help Texas measure greenhouse gas emissions and create strategies to reduce them. She says, "It's trying to just get the information together that we need to take action."