We're liveblogging this weekend from The Texas Tribune Festival's Environment track, which features panel discussions on the West fertilizer plant explosion, water, the future of parks and the fight over climate change.
Featured speakers include Environmental Defense Fund scientist Elena Craft, Texas State Chemist Tim Herrman, West Mayor Tommy Muska, Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, Nature Conservancy State Director Laura Huffman, Texas Water Development Board Chairman Carlos Rubinstein, Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman Bryan Shaw, state Rep. Lyle Larson and state Sen. Glenn Hegar.
Follow us here for updates from the University of Texas at Austin campus.
With: Chris Connealy, Elena Craft, Bill Flores, Tim Herrman, Kyle Kacal, Tommy Muska and Alana Rocha (mod.)
Alana Rocha is asking what is under way to have coordination for relief efforts in West.
Chris Connealy is saying that they are making efforts to track ammonium nitrate, strengthen volunteer firefighting, streamlining databases and learning best practices to handle these situations.
Connealy is emphasizing that they have identified the blast zones around ammonium nitrate facilities in areas and they plan on sharing the information with citizens.
Rocha asked if they took any of these measures before the April explosions.
Dr. Tim Herrman said that they didn't take these steps. Now they are requiring every facility that is engaged in commerce dealing with these chemicals to have to follow the same set of rules and adhere to labels. His agency is also working on researching fertilizer and developing better safety standards. He says that all ammonium nitrate firms must file a tier 2 report before and they are requiring more documents.
Alana Rocha asked Craft what can be done to prevent these explosions.
Craft said that Texas is in "Groundhog's Day" because we keep seeing the same incidents happen over and over again. She thinks that this facility where the incident occurred had a history of violations. She feels that there needs to be siting requirements. Craft asked if there should be ammonium nitrate facilities next to schools
Muska thinks the plant should of had a sprinkler system. If there was a sprinkler system, the building wouldn't be inflamed. He believes this is a very easy fix.
Alana Rocha asked Herrman there aren't any sprinklers installed.
Herrman said that Ammonium nitrate would cause the sprinklers to rust. The sprinklers might also go off and destroy the facility. Herrman said that adding water would cause the ammonium nitrate to heat up
Herrman believes that ammonium nitrate needs to be stored away from combustable materials. Muska pointed out that the material was stored in a wooden bin. Muska said that if they had proper storage, there would have been less damage.
Rocha asked who is inspecting ammonium nitrate facilities.
Mayor Allen Carnes said that it is a combination of inspections. Texas doesn't have a state fire code. It depends on counties policies to adopt fire codes. Texas and Missouri are the only two states with no implemented fire codes.
Rocha asked Craft how Texas safety standards compare with other places
Craft said that Texas has the highest number of workplace fatalities. Texas is an industrial state and believes we should be forward thinking to adopt technologies to protect workers but noted that we don't see that in our state.
Rocha asked how farmers are doing in the area.
Muska said that aid has been incredible but it happened right in the heart of growing season. Larger farmers in the area can afford to have fertilizers shipped in to them but it hurts small farmers.
Rocha asked the fire marshal how fire fighters are being trained to handle these situations.
He replied by saying that property is less emphasized, fire service is going to have to continually evolve. Ammonium nitrate should be included in firefighters decision' on whether they should take an offensive or defensive approach.
Muska said that the West incident was very emotional for him. He lost five fire fighters that he knew personally. He said the plant blew up around 20 minutes after the 911 call came in. He said the firefighters were in the process of backing out when they realized how serious the situation was.
An audience member asked if there has been any research done to substitute ammonium nitrate.
Herrman replied by saying that liquid fertilizer is the first choice. Ammonium nitrate is charged at a premium because of its harsh qualities. Continued use of ammonium nitrate is because of its superior quality. He said that 40 percent of bermuda grass is fertilized with ammonium nitrate.
Rocha asked if other states have safer fertilizers.
Craft said that it isn't a materials issue, but it's a handling issue.
Robin Schneider with Texas Campaign for the Environment is asking why there aren't stricter standards with chemicals and waste facilities. What are the top policy things we should be looking at?
The fire marshal said that implementing a state fire code is imperative. We also need people to enforce the fire code once it's created. He said that data is being gathered to start creating it.
Schneider asked why there is so much secrecy with policies.
The fire marshal said that ammonium nitrate has harsh properties and has been used for explosives in the past. They are trying to serve two entities and they are attempting to collaborate with the Legislature to figure out how to better walk that line.
Muska said that if anything positive came out of the accident, it is that places with fertilizer plants have probably inspected the plants. It has highlighted the dangers of relaxed safety standards. Muska said that now the world is aware of what these fertilizer plants can do. He believes that their deaths aren't in vain.
An audience member asked if there are any other sprinkler systems plants can use for protection since water isn't be best option.
Herrman replied by saying that water is preferred, but the water supply needs to be massive. Noncombustible storage is a better option.
Rocha has asked Herrman about his advisory committee meeting coming up.
Herrman said it will be happening in October. They will be discussing how local fire authority can be strengthened, how we can increase education and create more laws.
Herrman is emphasizing the importance of collaboration with local, state and federal governments.
With: J Allen Carnes, Glenn Hegar, Laura Huffman, Robert Puente, Carlos Rubinstein and Neena Satija (mod.)
Huge interest in the water panel — not an empty seat, and there's a line of people outside wanting to get in to hear the discussion. Introductions under way.
Sen. Glenn Hegar says he thinks that the Legislature doesn't need to mess with water next session. "We need to let the process work." That being Prop 6, constitutional amendment that would establish a State Water Implementation Fund for Texas if voters approve it come November.
Robert Puente, president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, disagrees. "You can't just throw money at the problem," he said. Carlos Rubinstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, says regional water planning groups are meeting ahead of the November vote. Laura Huffman, with the Nature Conservancy, seconds that, calling Prop 6 good policy. Lauds lawmakers for including an emphasis on conservation as well as two different levels of prioritization for projects.
Moderator Neena Satija poses the question of how expensive water could get for Texas customers. Puente responds saying that the increased rates are going to be there. SAWS has a five-year projection of of increased rates. "That's still [going to be] a value for what you're getting."
Hegar points out that to look at cost you can't look at Texas — 254 counties as a whole. It's different, depending on the needs and what's available. Emphasizes regionalization of water, conservation ensure that water is going to bays and estuaries.
On to the agricultural use. Hegar says 30 percent of water in future will come from agriculture conservation, but "we need incentives in place [for conservation]. How do we do that? Top down from the state or from the municipalities up. Goes back to emphasizing regional planning groups.
Huffman says you have to approach conservation by addressing three main groups: growing cities, agriculture and industry. Each will do something differently, says cities will go about conservation through regulatory means, limiting outdoor water use. "People are going to have to stop thinking about water the same old way." In agriculture, it's really about solving water losses. And we have to focus on industry, she says. "I think technology will be a friend there." Highlights that in hydraulic fracturing process (fracking), the industry has gone from using freshwater solely to some brackish water, and says soon "there's a lot of discussion about dry fracking."
Puente says the city of San Antonio incentivizes businesses — car washes, for example — to conserve. Rubinstein adds to that saying that cities can be part of the solution. He says if the investment is made in the Rio Grande Valley to just simply line the canals, "we would have enough water "to meet the water demands for the next 50 years. Cities must come to the table."
Discussion now centered on whether if it's realistic to not have to pick winners and losers when it comes to water needs. Panelists generally emphasize competing interests working together to avoid that. Hegar says it depends on how you define "winners" and "losers."
Panelists disagree on how surface water (owned/permitted by state) and groundwater (treated like private property) should be regulated. Hegar again says that we should let this process play out. Other panelists believe we need a new regulatory framework to address the two water sources.
Question from audience inquires about climate. Rubinstein says we know that water availability models will have to change. We're in a drought right now and says we'll have to see what the numbers look like. "That's why it's a good that we have to revisit the state water plan every five years."
So much to talk about. Panelists fed off of each other for much of the hour. With a few questions from the audience, Water: What Now? is a wrap.
People are starting to pack the room at the College of Liberal Arts building for the panel on the future of state parks, despite, I am told, the fact that a football game is going on right now!
With: George Bristol, Lyle Larson, Carter Smith, Joe Vega and Mose Buchele (mod.)
This marks the 50-year anniversary of state parks in Texas. Great timing for this panel. At least 60 people in the audience so far and others still trickling in.
First question directed at Bristol: Tell us about the situation with parks funding. Bristol: "There have been bright spots throughout the years." Notably in 2007, state park funding more than doubled. But in between, "there have been valleys just as deep." According to that legislation, parks were supposed to get 94 percent of "sporting goods tax," a portion of the sales tax. But it hasn't actually happened.
As state parks funding has dwindled, Smith says, the department has looked more to private funding. But as Bristol points out, "if we get these lands, and then they just sit there ... generous people are going to say, 'Maybe we should find someplace else to park our donations.'" Bristol says we need the Legislature's help to put money into the parks system.
Larson says parks exemplify some of the worst budgeting tactics in the Senate, because so much money meant for parks isn't going to them. One major issue in this legislative session that both parties agreed on is that money needs to go where it's allocated, rather than be "diverted"; the same problem exists for emissions reduction funding, electricity discounts and other programs.
Larson says the Legislature will hopefully stop the diversions in all parts of the Texas state budget over the next two sessions — roads funding, trauma programs, etc. Why couldn't they do it this year for parks? "We were coming off a $15 billion budget shortfall," says Larson. Parks was left for future sessions.
Bristol: "People like their parks. ... They're willing to pay for them. They're even willing to have higher fees and taxes," if they know where the money's going. $2 billion has been raised by sporting goods tax since it began in 1993, Bristol says. Only $661 million of that has gone to parks.
Larson: Everyone needs to be on board with ending diversion for parks and other programs. Texas House speaker is on board; Larson urges audience to push candidates for lieutenant governor and governor to advocate for the issue as well.
Larson: The condition of parks — old buildings and infrastructure, inadequate hours, etc. — is not their fault. The Legislature did that with budget cuts and diversions. "A lot of folks don't own land. Their only outlet is to go to the parks."
Vega: Many of the parks he manages are in poor, rural areas in the colonias. So kids that would have been out playing on the streets, and opportunities to get in trouble, have a place to go. "Now you have a place to have family gatherings ... a place to walk and exercise." Those local parks rely on funding from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Bristol: Local parks are "the first line of defense." But it's unfair for local parks money to be earmarked by the legislature at the last minute, catching park directors by surprise all over the state, whether they're recipients of those earmarks or not. Smith: "We did not have those earmarks" during this legislative session.
Smith: There was an 11 percent bump in hunters last year, though in general, hunting and fishing participation has stayed relatively flat for the last three decades even during an explosion in population. Yet the sporting goods tax is growing. So there needs to be a place for those consumers to go.
First question goes to Andrew Dobbs, of Texas Campaign for the Environment: "Why are parks so important?" Bristol: "We ought to have a reverence for what nature put here and what people died for on battlefields." Larson: People want to live near parks. Local referendums for parks are always successful. Vega: "Just drive by our parks any given day. ... You'll know what the value is." Smith: "Parks tell the life history and story of our state," and they're important for public health.
Question from a parks enthusiast who has trouble getting reservations for camping spots. "Y'all are very very popular." Can the department increase camping capacity? Smith: We need more funding. He is looking at opportunities to create more "primitive" campsites that don't have to be on parks that were established in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the department is working with private landowners looking at opportunities to allow camping on their land as a new revenue stream.
Question from another park lover who has wanted to work for the parks system, and now finds that departments often expect prospective employees to be able to use a gun — more so than in the past. Why? Is there a security issue? Smith's answer: "They're safe." But "we have an obligation to make sure that you're safe when you're there."
UT graduate student asks about the consequences of relatively high fees for state parks, compared with other places in the U.S. Smith: Fees average as much as $5/person/day. Annual pass for $68 gives unfettered access to all state parks. "Candidly, we're criticized more frequently for not charging more." The department gets half of its funding from fees.
Question from UT senior: Does it make sense to privatize the parks? Bristol: An emphatic "no." Larson: It can happen it certain circumstances, but the fees will go up. The problem in Texas is not that the funding isn't there; it's not being used for its intended purpose.
In response to a question about aging infrastructure in Texas Parks, Smith points out lack of funding and that every year maintenance is deferred, fixing problems becomes even more costly.
Vega: On the local level, communities should encourage their local governments to pass resolutions supporting parks and opposing diversion of sporting goods tax. "That's power right there. That's a big voice."
With: Ramón Alvarez, David Sassoon, Bryan Shaw, Lamar Smith, Kathleen Hartnett White and Kate Galbraith (mod.)
Climate change panel about to start. Room filling up. Great group of panelists moderated by former Trib reporter Kate Galbraith!
Kate reads from the latest report on climate change from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Quotes say that further global warming is likely and significant action required to prevent further consequences.
Shaw: "What we see is greater and greater uncertainty" in the climate models. We don't yet have a good understanding of what's happening with glaciers and in the ocean, Shaw says, and we need a better understanding of those before we figure out what's happening with global temperatures. "There's huge opportunities for research," and it is necessary "to make sure we actually do the right thing." In fact, CO2 may not be as much of a culprit as a helper in the process, Shaw says.
Kate asks: Do you believe climate change is happening and that it's human-caused? Shaw: Yes, climate change is happening. But, he asks, will it continue or are we entering a period of cooling? And is CO2 making it worse? That is not yet clear, Shaw says.
White: IPCC report acknowledges that they cannot explain sudden temperature drops in the data. "It's hard to imagine that the science is settled" with the conclusion that humans induce global warming via carbon dioxide emissions.
Sassoon: "The report said that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. That's what the report said ... and it is an impressive piece of science." He adds that IPCC report created a carbon budget for the earth "that any fifth grader could understand." Going beyond that budget means "all hell could break loose."
Alvarez and Sassoon both emphatically say climate change is happening and human-caused. That's two out of four who say yes to those two questions. Remaining two panelists, Shaw and White, say it is not clear climate change is human-caused or that it is continuing to happen today.
Kate asks Shaw and White: How much more science do we need to be sure that climate change is happening and caused by humans? White responds, "For 16 years, though the models predicted it would warm, it has not warmed ... I just think that is significant." How can we use the word "unequivocal?" she asks. That's not usually a word used in science, she says.
Shaw: Models are never completely correct, but good models make predictions that generally come true. In science, he says, "you should invite continual testing." Models were flawed on when warming would occur, Shaw says, and were also incorrect on the exact effects of carbon emissions.
Shaw: As a regulator, "it's not my decision" to count votes on the science. The question for TCEQ is: Is it worth the regulations that could be "catastrophic" to the economy if the science isn't certain on climate change? Recently proposed rules for carbon capture on coal plants are one example, Shaw says, of a wrong-headed policy.
Alvarez: There's no absolute certainty. But scientists do say climate change that is human-caused is "extremely likely" to be happening. Sassoon adds: Climate change evidence is not based on models; it's based on paleo-climate record that goes far back into history. Holds up National Geographic cover on rising seas. "In the cost discussion, you do have to include the negative impacts of climate change."
Sassoon asks Shaw: Let's not "waste any more time" arguing about the science. He is responding to Shaw asking if the possibility inaccuracy of models should be looked at, especially some models that suggest warming may be less of an issue in the future. Alvarez jumps in: The cost of doing nothing is huge.
White: Let's distinguish between science and policy. If we just do what the scientists say, "well then we don't have democracy." She adds: There's not a lot of indication on what would be effective for reducing carbon emissions. European carbon trading system has not worked. Germany, a leader in renewable energy, has much higher energy prices than in U.S., White says, and Germans are returning to heating oil and wood chips as energy sources.
Kate mentions recent Yale poll in which 44 percent of Texans polled identified humans as the primary cause of climate change. Sassoon says, "I was actually pretty surprised." He thinks the public is responding to extreme weather events, and that "it doesn't take a scientist. ... The public will vote, will understand … maybe Texas is ready to start talking about it."
Alvarez points out that Germany just re-elected its prime minister for a third time. He was "encouraged" by the Yale poll. Thinks it indicates that Texas politicians and officials are "out of step" with the public.
White: Other polls don't reflect what the Yale poll indicated. Shaw: His agency needs to balance regulating greenhouse gases and protecting the public. And "if I don't use science to do that, I'm left with emotion." There are notable extreme weather events, but other trends on different types of extreme events may tell a different story, Shaw says. Wants to avoid what he calls "environmental opportunism."
Shaw: If you really want to make an impact on greenhouse gas emissions globally, don't do it by putting regulations on coal. Those proposed rules will harm the public, he says. Even wind reliance is a problem because it is "more volatile," Shaw says. "If you really want to have an impact globally, find ways to have greater energy efficiency."
Interesting question from the audience on why climate change is focused on, rather than other pressing environmental and other issues. Is it just put there as a divider? Let's address our environment "right here, right now." Not what might happen in the future.
Shaw: It's dominating the discussion because federal regulation is focusing on it. That's why no one's building coal plants.
Alvarez: That's not why coal plants are being built; they're not being built because natural gas prices are at historic lows. Texas can do things that are good for the environment AND good for the economy, like the state's wind energy standard.
Question on effects of methane, rather than the more well-known CO2, on climate change.
Alvarez: Methane is "much more potent" than CO2, because it increases the rate of warming. One way to address the problem is limit amount of methane leaked from the natural gas production pipeline. EDF has co-funded studies about this, but they have often come under fire because they are also funded by the oil and gas industry.
Question about what the inaccuracies in the model are. Shaw answers: Glaciers, oceans and temperatures have all not been acting the way the models suggested. Regulations must attack the right problem instead of just "making us feel good."
Interesting point from audience: If we price carbon, Texas might actually benefit because the state has a lot of renewable resources and our carbon efficiency is better relative to the rest of the world and country.
Two other questions: Doesn't Texas have a responsibility to act as one of the largest polluters and air polluters? And, reinsurers now accept that climate change is happening; what does that mean?
White: Texas produces the most CO2 because "we're the energy breadbasket of the country. ... We are providing those goods for all the country." Yet Clean Air Act punishes Texas, she says.
Alvarez: One opportunity for Texas is to do carbon capture not just for coal plants but other industries, and that's a money-making possibility. "We're leading the way in emissions; we need to take action." Responding to insurance question, reinsurers' action should be taken by policymakers as a kind of prudent insurance policy for the future.