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Keeping the Lights on in Texas

Of crucifixions, sagebrush lizards, political primaries and brownouts.

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Candidates for the Railroad Commission are traversing the state, vying to fill the slot that Gov. Rick Perry recently plugged with the appointment of Buddy Garcia, formerly of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who's not on the ballot, but will serve through the end of the year. And there's also Barry Smitherman's defense of his appointment to that commission. 

But environmentalists are watching many races lower on the ballot. Among them: Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who has recently been outspoken about the nuclear waste dump being built in West Texas and who faces a serious challenger in Carlos Vasquez; state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who faces a fierce challenge from former Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones; and Dr. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels.

• On the policy front, the perpetual question of "resource adequacy" — how to make sure the Texas electric grid has enough juice to keep the lights on in the future — is high on the agenda. The Public Utility Commission is working on two relevant rule-makings. One would raise the cap on wholesale electricity prices from $2,000 a megawatt-hour to $4,500 a megawatt-hour, starting in August. The idea is to funnel more money to power generators, so they have more incentive to build new plants to meet the state's growing electrical demand. Public comments are being accepted now and a hearing, if there is one, would be held May 29. Another proposed rule looks further into the future and would raise the cap higher — to $5,000 per megawatt-hour in June 2013, gradually increasing to $9,000 per megawatt-hour in June 2015. 

Other groups are also studying the same issue. The Gulf Coast Power Association is holding an all-day session on resource adequacy on May 4th at the University of Texas. Donna Nelson, chair of the Public Utility Commission, is among the speakers. On May 8, the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association will host another forum on grid reliability, which will include a keynote from Rolando Pablos, the newest commissioner at the Texas Public Utility Commission. 

Meanwhile, ERCOT, the grid operator, will publish its "seasonal assessment of resource adequacy" — i.e., its predictions of how the Texas grid will fare this summer, plus an early look at the fall.

• Oil and gas will be focused on the sagebrush lizard: a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on April 30 in Odessa will look at the impact of a possible endangered-species listing of the lizard on oil and gas production. Look out for other endangered-species battles ahead, too.

• Another Texas-EPA skirmish could loom. By May 15, the EPA will decide whether to accept a state plan to reduce haze in national parks. The plan was approved in 2009 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Oklahoma sued the EPA last year after its haze plan got rejected; does the same lie in store for Texas? Other Texas-EPA battles are quiet for now; some are awaiting the court's ruling, which could come at anytime.

• Last but not least: Texas officials are lining up to denounce comments from Al Armendariz, the top official in the EPA's Region 6 (which includes Texas), who likened the way Romans tamed Turkish towns to the way the EPA could carry out enforcement actions. "They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they'd crucify them," Armendariz said, in a taped video from 2010 that's going viral. The idea, he said, was to hit non-compliant companies hard, to make everyone fall in line. The remarks appeared to particularly focused on oil and gas.

Armendariz has apologized, but on Thursday Gov. Rick Perry tweeted: "Another reason to all-but-eliminate EPA. Armendariz equating EPA philosophy to 'crucifixion' unacceptable & offensive." The TCEQ has also issued a statement, and Texas officials are unlikely to let the issue drop.

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