Why proposed state energy panel is a great starting place

April 20th, 2011

Texas lacks a true energy policy, one that recognizes our state’s rapid population growth and Texans’ strong desire for a clean environment.

The Lone Star State’s energy prowess is the stuff of legend. From Spindletop to the modern-day wind farms that dot the landscape, Texas enjoys a rich mix of available energy resources. With an abundance of our own natural resources to power the state, isn’t it time we had a strategic, comprehensive blueprint for our path forward?

A bill introduced by Senate Natural Resources Chair Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and endorsed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, shows considerable potential for putting the state on a path toward a policy that encourages production of safe, reliable sources of energy, while better preserving our environment and protecting public health. The Senate approved the bill Tuesday, moving it a step closer to becoming law. The House and Governor Perry should show strong support for this measure, too.

As proposed, the legislation, SB 15, would create the Texas Energy Policy Council, which would bring balance and thoughtful perspective to Texas’ energy planning and related environmental concerns. The bill also requires a study of the current power generation landscape in Texas, along with the development of a plan for the reduction of air pollution and a decrease in water consumption for power generation. This could translate into cleaner air and water — two significant wins for the Texas environment.

With its emphasis on energy-efficient technologies, SB 15 also should help reduce energy consumption and save money. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy shows that Texas ranks 32nd among states in cost-saving energy-efficiency policies.

We would be well-served to look for ways to put more alternative fuel vehicles on Texas’ roads, another key component of this legislation. While an increase in alternative fuel vehicles, particularly electric cars, must be met with a greater commitment to renewables and conservation, this is a positive step forward for cleaner transportation infrastructure and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

The bill also presents an opportunity for the first time to take a hard look at Texas’s dirtiest coal plants and the possible retirement of these public-health-harming power generators.

According to the Sierra Club, three coal plants, Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake, account for more than 25 percent of all industrial factory air pollution in Texas — out of nearly 2,000 industrial plants — and about 50 percent of all coal plant pollution in the state. These three coal plants alone emit almost 4,000 pounds of mercury, over 180,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, over 30,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, and millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Any serious energy policy must take a hard look at retiring or converting these plants, and it is right to include this issue in the scope of any statewide energy policy framework.

For all of these reasons, environmental organizations, including the Texas League of Conservation Voters, and public health organizations, including the American Lung Association, are supporting SB 15.

There’s a great opportunity to bridge the traditional partisan divide on this issue. To have Republicans and Democrats come together to advance a positive, safe and responsible energy policy for our state is significant. It signals the ability to do right by Texas, to ensure energy demands don’t also endanger our public health.

The proposed legislation is a solid foundation, but there’s room for improvement. Environment and public health organizations must be represented on the Energy Policy Council, and Texas cannot afford to weaken its Renewable Portfolio Standard. Clean energy jobs and a cleaner environment hinges on expanding the state’s commitment to wind and solar.

Texas is proud of its reputation as an energy leader. Isn’t it time to reaffirm that commitment and enhance our image as a cleaner energy leader at the same time?

David Weinberg is executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

This op-ed on Senate Bill 15 has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and online in the Austin American-Statesman.