For fans of the HBO blockbuster "Game of Thrones," the familiar Stark family motto that "Winter is coming" is both a warning and a call for for constant vigilance. Even when things look good, the Wheel of Fortune is turning. And so it has turned a very large degree for environmentalists these past six months in Texas. It may look like Spring outside, but Winter isn't coming. It's already here. Happy Earth Day!
Fighting the good fight in Texas has almost always meant fighting behind enemy lines. There were never any illusions about what a steep climb it was to win even the most modest victories. But this latest state legislative session has stripped us of our last electoral defenses at the precise moment in history where our elected opponents have become their most numerous and shameless. The White Walkers are on the move.
Legislation preventing cities from carrying out basic zoning responsibilities when it comes to the operations of oil and gas facilities in their midst is only part of a much larger tsunami of misanthropic measures on their way to being passed by June. An already citizen-unfriendly process for awarding new pollution permits will be made even more restrictive, the power of cities to sue polluters will be clipped, incentives for cleaner energy that have made Texas a national leader in wind power will be wiped away, ethical watchdogs will be neutered.
This moment was years in the making, beginning with Tom Delay's unprecedented off-Census stacking-the-deck redistricting of the Statehouse in 2003, to last year's resignation of Wendy Davis from the State Senate and any hope of holding back the flood with that body's "two-thirds rule" that had been the stop-gap of last resort since at least the beginning of this decade.
It is instructive, if not comforting, to insert the maxim here that you should never try to fight your battles on the opponent's turf. And these days the Texas Capitol is the capital of our enemies' turf. It is HQ, Mission Control, the Home Office of every large polluting industry that citizens are fighting. What lobbyists cannot persude millions of citizens or whole cities to do, they can tell 181 legislators to do because they bought and paid for them.
Nothing makes this clearer than the recent Texans for Public Justice report on the percentage of Oil and Gas money collected by members of the Texas legislators in the 2013-14 cycle. State Senator Troy Frazer, the sponsor of the HB 40's Senate twin, received almost 20% of his entire campaign chests from the industry. Cause and effect.
Some of our supporters might have wondered why we haven't joined the chorus of those urging you to send letters or e-mails or make phone calls to Austin about this or that horrible bill, particularly the anti-local control ones. There are at least a couple of reasons. One is that most of you are already getting that chorus of requests and one more from us will likely not be read or headed. Another is that we're a relatively small group with no Austin presence and can't really add anything to the fight being headed up by the usual suspects.
But to be honest there's another reason, and that is it was clear the "no local control" train was going to run over anything and anyone who got in front of it. From the fast-tracking it got from both House and Senate leaders, and the bi-partisan support it got in committee, the signs were unmistakable that no amount of citizen protest in Austin was going to stop it. For us, it just isn't a very strategic expenditure of our limited resources. We do more good by staying in DFW and concentrating on the things we can change than shuttling back and forth to Austin to try and stop the things we can't. Weeks ago we did put out feelers to try and organize protests at the district offices of HB 40's DFW sponsors – but could find no willing partners.
And that lack of holding the sponsors accountable underscores the weakness of not just fracking opponents, but Texas environmentalists in general. A lot of us may feel uncomfortable talking about what this Lege session reveals, but we're going to have to face up and work through our feebleness in order to do better the next time, and the time after that. For just as this moment was years in the making, so it will be years in the undoing.
First, we are alone. There is no party that represents our interests when push comes to shove. Only individuals. There are 55 Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives. The vote in favor of HB 40 was 118 to 22. Most Democrats in Austin are unable or unwilling to make principled stands on behalf of environmental causes. There was, and will be, no inspiring filibuster against HB 40 as there was last session for abortion rights.
Likewise in past decades, less cynical Republicans might have thought twice before taking away local zoning. This year only Tam Parker of Flower Mound, a city which went through its own fracking fight and ended up with one of the most protective ordinances in the state, was the lone Representative that bolted from his GOP peers.
For all practical purposes, Texas is a a one-party state. Redistricting will keep it that way for at least the rest of this decade. If you want a different legislature, you should be voting for different Republicans. That means a lot of people who never thought about voting in the Republican Party primary should be doing so from here on out. Only people power can defeat the millions being poured by industry into Texas state races. If you don't want to fail after-the-fact in April in Austin, you need to be showing up in May primary elections out in the hinterlands.
Second, we still can't bring ourselves to express appropriate outrage when we're getting screwed. There will be no noisy, rowdy rotunda-filling demonstrations against HB 40. Instead, the best the movement could manage was a vigil the night before the overwhelming defeat in the House. A vigil in this circumstance is more like a wake. Where are the sit-ins, the angry interruptions from the Gallery, or even the pie-throwing – the peaceful but forceful expressions of outrage that occur when you have nothing left to lose? Yes, there were hundreds of citizens who made the trip down to Austin to testify against HB 40, but then most turned around and left even before hearings began on its Senate counterpart the very next day, as that version of the bill sailed out of committee.
Until sponsors of HB 40 and other nefarious bills are held directly accountable, until there is a personal price to be paid for supporting such legislation, there is no disincentive to stop voting for such bills. The ultimate accountability is at the voting booth, but you can help that process along by isolating the bad guys. There was hardly any of that save some valiant efforts to confront Phil King, whose own piece of local control legislation now looks like a great bargain.
We're fragmented. This is especially true of the fracking opponents, but it's also true of the environmental movement of Texas as a whole. Decentralization is sometimes great, especially at the local level, but when you're confronting a well-organized, well-funded coordinated opposition with a script, it has its limitations. And we're seeing them this session. There is no Statewide or even regional organization of fracking opponents. There is no full time staff presence in Austin representing those getting shat-on in the Eagle Ford or the Barnett Shale. There is only a small cabal of overwhelmed Austin-based staffers who have to take on the task of defeating all the bad bills as well as wrangling the good ones through. They do an admirable job of improvising once the threat becomes clear, but their bi-annual make-shift triage makes a MASH field unit look like a choreographed ballet in comparison.
In years past, this process could exploit the two-thirds rule in the Senate, or find enough moderates from each side in the House to keep the really bad stuff from happening. There is no such backstop anymore. We have to find better ways to anticipate, plan and lead during a crisis.
What to do before the promised demographic calvary arrives and Red Texas magically tranforms into Blue California?
Exploit the loopholes the new laws give you or remain silent on. What is state of the art noise, dust and traffic control for fracking sites? Don't those RRC maps show horizontal drilling up to half a mile or more away from the rig itself? Isn't that a "commercially reasonable distance?" Can't both rigs and compressors be electric? Despite not changing its setbacks, Mansfield just passed a provision that says developers have to warn potential homeowners about the proximity of nearby wells. Let's make that a bigger and better Right-to-Know rule that applies everywhere in the Barnett.
It will take years for legislation as intentioanlly vague as HB 40 to work itself out in the courts. Meanwhile, like a river flows around a boulder, so must citizens find ways to work around the new restrictions and keep moving.
Take a more regional perspective. In a state as large as Texas, it's practically impossible for grassroots groups to coordinate themselves statewide. But we're not even coordinated in the same region, represented by some of the same elected officials. As an example, fracking opponents never came together to focus on the DFW air quality process this last year the way they could have to force a regional perspective on the air pollution issues caused by their separate bad actors. Fracking will never impact the majority of Texans, but in a place like DFW, you can show how it keeps the area in its smoggy status quo. You increase your constituency for change and make policy respond across whole metropolitan areas rather than city-by-city. The same thing is playing out in San Antonio and Austin. What you can't get directly by talking about the local toxic threat, maybe you can get by talking about the contribution to county line-crossing smog.
Come together to pressure EPA. It's time the Agency did its job better in the places where it's clear state government is trying its best to avoid following both the letter and spirit of the nation's environmental laws. There is not much hope of turning Austin around in the short-term, but the national EPA is supposed to be meeting a higher standard and Texas environmentalists should be using the Agency's own regulations and rhetoric as cudgels. Just like Civil Rights have had to be enforced in a enhanced and robust way south of the Mason-Dixon line, so will the Clean Air Act have to be administered differently in places like Texas.
Too often, the EPA has to be sued by citizens to get it to follow its own dictates. Too often the decision is made in DC to get along with a rebellious state agency that doesn't even believe smog is bad for you. We have to show that is no longer an acceptable option. EPA Region 6 headquarters should be a staging ground for protests by Texas residents who have no place else to turn. We need to lean on the feds in direct proportion to the state's leaning on us.
As it's done for most of its 20 years, Downwinders will do its best to advance the cause in DFW despite a hostile state government. We promise to push the envelope and be opportunistic. We promise to work in ways that try to outflank, outsmart, and outlive our opponents in government and industry. We promise to keep lighting fires under the feet of those who need to do more, but don't or won't. And if you want, feel free to come over and warm yourself or even add some kindling. Winter is here, and it's staying cold for a long time.