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AG Ken Paxton Asks Court To Halt Haze Reduction Plan

Also, an audit report reveals contract management problems at the Department of Agriculture, and CHOMP — a feral hog eradication program — is launched.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton at a press conference in Austin on Jan. 13, 2016.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken follow up action on his suit filed last month against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its rejection of parts of a seven-year-old state proposal to reduce haze in wilderness areas.

Last Friday, Paxton asked the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay to stop the federal haze reduction plan from being implemented.

As the Tribune reported last month, “The Regional Haze Rule was proposed by the EPA to clean up the air at wilderness areas and national parks. Regulations for Texas include the Guadalupe Mountains National Park east of El Paso and Big Bend National Park on the Texas and Mexico border.”

In a statement accompanying his stay request, Paxton said, “The EPA admits this plan would cost billions, with no perceptible improvement in air quality. Much like its like-minded Clean Power Plan, this is a case of the EPA attempting to restructure the national electric grid, without the authority to do so.”

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The Texas Department of Agriculture has not properly maintained contracts and did not ensure that a vendor followed through with contract requirements, according to a state audit report released Tuesday.

After contracting Periscope Holdings, Inc. to develop a grant management, procurement and contracting system, the Austin-based company developed only a procurement system, the State Auditor’s Office found. The department paid Periscope $450,411 for those services between January 2013 and March 2015.

The SAO recommended that the department “pay for vendor services only after it has received, verified, and determined that the services met the specifications in its contracts.” Additionally, the audit found that the department had not consistently paid U.S. Bank for fuel card services and had no standardized process to review invoices for billing errors.

“I agree with the report recommendations, and appreciate the SAO making time in its schedule to answer our request for audit,” said current Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in response, adding that the department has initiated several changes since Senate Bill 20 passed in 2015, heightening the planning, reporting, and management requirements for state contracting. “The SAO recommendations will further strengthen contracting, IT and reporting processes.”

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In a recurring effort to decrease the feral hog population in Texas, the state’s Department of Agriculture set dates for the 2016 Coordinated Hog Out Management Program (CHOMP) on Tuesday. Participating counties will be scored on the number of feral hogs taken from May 1 to May 31, 2016, and the winners will receive grant assistance to continue local abatement activities after the challenge ends.

“Feral hogs cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage every year, but by working together, we can take steps to protect our farms, ranches and property from these dangerous and destructive animals,” Commissioner Miller said in a statement.

Counties can earn additional points by implementing educational initiatives to teach residents about abatement technologies. A total of $200,000 is available in project funding for the winners.

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Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to San Antonio on Wednesday to deliver his free enterprise pitch to the city’s Rotary Club, declaring that Texas is on the way to becoming known as a hotbed of innovation, not just as the home of the oil and gas industry.

“Yes, oil and gas will continue to be a part of who we are,” Abbott said. “But part of the reason why oil is so cheap today is because of innovation itself by a Texan who created the hydraulic fracking techniques that allow us to tap into energy that was previously unreachable.”

Abbott also recalled an ad he ran while running for governor, lamenting that “a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on some roads in Texas.” He claimed that the state is now on the way to improving traffic under his leadership.

While he was in San Antonio, the governor also met with the city’s Honorary Belgian Consul Robert Braubach to share his condolences over yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.

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On Thursday, Abbott made a slew of earthshaking appointments.

The Republican named nine men to the Technical Advisory Committee to the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology — a group that will advise the governor on issues related to earthquakes, no longer a rarity in Texas, and possible connections to oil and gas development.

The committee was created during the 2015 Legislative session under House Bill 2, which also authorized nearly $4.5 million for a seismic monitoring program led by the bureau. The initiative would create a statewide network of seismic monitors that would help research better understand the quakes, which have grown in frequency and alarmed some Texans.

The committee will include mostly men with expertise in  either petroleum production, seismic research or both. The appointments include:

•    Dan Hill, professor and head chair of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M;

•    Chris Hillman, city manager of Irving, the North Texas town where some of the shaking has taken place;

•    Dana Jurick, manager of Seismic Analysis for the Geoscience and Reservoir Engineering Organization at ConocoPhillips Company;

•    Hal Macartney, geoscience manager of Sustainable Development for Pioneer Natural Resources;

•    Kris Nygaard of Houston is senior stimulation consultant for ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company;

•    Craig Pierson, the state seismologist, who is housed at the Railroad Commission;

•    Brian Stump, a professor and well-regarded quake expert at Southern Methodist University;

•    Scott Tinker, the official state geologist and director of the Bureau of Economic Geology;

•    Robie Vaughn, owner of Dallas-based Vaughn Capital Partners. 

The idea for the program emerged after months of discussion between lawmakers and regulators about how to respond to the quakes that are shaking unsuspecting communities throughout the state, but particularly North Texas.

Experts suspect nearby disposal wells triggered some of the quakes. The number of those wells — deep resting places for liquid oil and gas waste — has surged amid Texas’ drilling bonanza. Drilling areas in South and West Texas have also seen more earthquakes.

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