Environmental group: Crossroads legislators need to improve

A sign is displayed in Nordheim expressing concern over a proposal by Pyote to build an open pit disposal site nearby.

An environmental advocacy group is recognizing Crossroads legislators for protecting the air but not for reforming how the oil and gas industry is regulated.

The Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter recently graded legislators.

If they didn't vote the way the group wanted them to, the legislators' grades slipped.

Specifically, state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, earned points for supporting the Low-Income Vehicle Repair and Replacement Program and for extending the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan beyond its original end date in 2019, respectively.

Despite that, neither measure passed, and Gov. Greg Abbott defunded the Low-Income Vehicle Replacement Program.

"We also gave Rep. Morrison credit for one of the bills that we opposed having to do with permitting for air permits," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter.

Reed was referring to how Morrison proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 1045 when it came up for a vote in the House.

SB 1045 consolidated the 30-day public notice periods for a company's notice of intent when applying for an air permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the TCEQ's preliminary decision on that air permit.

Morrison's spokesman, MacGregor Stephenson, said Morrison's amendment would have allowed the consolidation but made it a 60-day public notice period rather than a 30-day one.

Her amendment was tabled, and Morrison voted "nay" for SB 1045.

Reed said Morrison's amendment to SB 1045 was different from a measure she worked on in 2015, which he described as limiting the public's right to request a contested case hearing.

Stephenson said the 2015 measure had to do with the water code, not air permits. He said the 2015 measure, which required the State Office of Administrative Hearings to conduct most contested case hearings within 180 days, didn't limit the public's participation, but helped keep Texas competitive in attracting businesses.

Reed said the reason Morrison's amendment to SB 1045 was tabled during the last session was probably more about confusion than anything else.

"She had a good amendment that we worked on," he said, "but because she's a Republican, a lot of Democrats voted against it, probably thinking it was a bad amendment. That's the hyper-partisan world we live in now, unfortunately."

Overall, Reed said, Democrats earned higher grades than Republicans on the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter Legislative Scorecard, which it publishes after every session to inform voters.

Morrison earned a D, while Kolkhorst earned an F minus.

They sometimes lost points for being absent for what the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter deemed as key votes.

Both also lost points for resisting proposed reforms to the the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry.

Morrison voted to table amendments that would have required the agency to conduct public hearings for proposed injection wells within a city and to increase the maximum fine it can assess companies from $10,000 to $25,000.

Kolkhorst, meanwhile, opposed a proposal to require the Texas Railroad Commission to put its enforcement data online.

"Our region relies heavily on oil and gas exploration, so there is a balance I strive to strike in many of the votes I take," Kolkhorst wrote in an emailed statement.

She wrote that as a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, she filed three bills to help her constituents address environmental problems.

One bill she mentioned, SB 746, prohibited the land application of grit or grease trap waste.

Morrison filed an identical bill, which got farther than Kolkhorst's but ultimately missed the deadline to be voted on by the House.

Both women were responding to Victoria County's concern about a businessman who has applied grit and grease trap waste on his property adjacent to Arenosa Creek for years.

Victoria County has argued that the businessman's land application does not comply with TCEQ's rules and is a public health issue.

Victoria County Commissioner Clint Ives said Arenosa Creek ties into Garcitas Creek, which goes into the Lavaca Bay, where people fish.

"I think it would have passed had the clock not run out on us," Ives said. "I would say both legislators are environmentally friendly while keeping private property rights at heart."

Additionally, Paul Baumann recalled Morrison sticking up for him and other Nordheim residents who opposed Pyote Reclamation System building a commercial oil field waste facility a quarter-mile southeast of the town last year.

The Texas Railroad Commission granted the company a permit anyway.

It said it couldn't address the residents' concerns that the facility would increase traffic and affect water quality.

Morrison said afterward that the Texas Railroad Commission's inability to consider those concerns would be something the Legislature could work on in 2017.

It doesn't appear to have done so, though.

"Our focus (when it came to the Texas Railroad Commission) was we wanted to raise the stakes a little bit by allowing the agency to assess higher penalties and fines for when people break the law because those fines haven't been adjusted since 1983," Reed said, adding transparency was a hot topic, too. "We picked our battles and still lost."

Baumann said he hopes Morrison ultimately keeps her word to work on that issue.

"I'd hope so because it's a pretty important issue, the air and the water and what's under the ground and what's above the ground - none of that might affect me, but it will affect the generations that come after," he said.

Click here to read the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter's Legislative Scorecard for 2017.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

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