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Texas environmental leader says legislature took hard swings on the climate this session

Ryan Loyd

While existential threats to renewable energy were avoided, climate groups still faced significant losses in the past session, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas state director.

The Texas climate movement took some knocks at the 2023 Texas legislative session, explained Colin Leyden, the Texas state director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Leyden said some of the most harmful pieces of legislation for his organization’s priorities had been avoided or narrowed, but that it was still a challenging year to be advocating for climate-friendly policies in Austin.

“We heard rumors that there were some anti-renewable bills out there, so we were gearing up to confront that,” he said. “We didn’t think it would be as bad as it turned out to be.”

Leyden said one of those bills was House Bill 2127, a preemption bill that stripped local governments of the ability to pass certain ordinances related to the environment and other issues.

“It’s unfortunate because our local cities, and particularly our larger cities, are oftentimes incubators and innovators when it comes to environmental and climate policy,” he said. “In particular, protecting their citizens around air quality and things like that.”

He added that House Bill 5, a tax benefit bill for businesses in Texas, unfairly and explicitly excluded renewable energy projects.

But Leyden said the worst was prevented when an amendment was stripped from a permitting bill late in the session.

“It created a whole new permitting regime for renewable energy in Texas,” he said. “A permitting regime that all other energy sources would not have to be part of, creating a whole new bureaucracy within the Public Utility Commission for permitting renewable energy.”

He said if the amendment had stayed on the bill, it could have meant the near-death of wind and solar power in the state.

Ryan E. Poppe

“It also ended up setting parameters on where renewable energy couldn’t be developed within certain distances of natural protected lands and other things like that, to the point where it was getting hard to determine — if you really took the language of the bill at its word — even if there’s anywhere left to develop wind and solar power in the state.”

Leyden counted low-interest loans for natural gas plants, a failure to make meaningful progress on improving the grid, and a lack of meaningful reforms for concrete batch plants as other losses during the session.

He also decried Abbott’s wide-ranging vetoes in order to force lawmakers to pass his own priorities of property tax relief and a school voucher-like program. Senate Bill 2453 was one casualty.

“Gov. Abbott’s veto of SB 2453 — which would cut energy demand from new homes and state buildings and help stabilize our grid — was reckless and irresponsible,” Leyden said in a statement. “Of course, the last two weeks of dangerous, hot weather only further highlights the foolishness. This bill was an actual solution to fix our grid, save lives, and keep electricity costs down.”

But Leyden said there were some successes for EDF in the session, including support for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, $1 billion for state parks, and $2 billion in funds for water infrastructure. The funding for state parks and the water infrastructure will both require voter approval.

“A large water fund was created to fund new water projects as well as help fix leaking water infrastructure. And then some of that money also will go to the benefit of collecting some data on groundwater,” he said. “So we didn’t get everything we were hoping for on that, but we feel like there was big progress and good things were done for the state of Texas on the water front.”

Leyden said his team at EDF was preparing for the next legislative session around issues like the power grid and would be working to garner support from voters on the water infrastructure and state park funds before they reach the ballot in November.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Josh Peck