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Air raid: Legislature repurposes clean air funds for roads

Setback for air quality a lowlight in session where environmental advocates otherwise largely fended off threats
For Immediate Release:

AUSTIN - At least 35 percent of funds dedicated for air quality programs will now instead go to road-building, under legislation sent Tuesday to Gov. Greg Abbott. The raid on clean air funds was a lowlight in a legislative session where the environment otherwise fared well amid an onslaught of efforts to weaken protections. 

“Texas has a deadly air pollution problem, so it’s unconscionable that the legislature raided the clean air fund,” said Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger. “The legislature has largely refused to make industry and vehicle manufacturers reduce their pollution, choosing instead to provide grants to encourage companies to clean the air. But now they’ve gone another step further on the wrong path by defunding the state’s preferred air quality strategy.”  

A recent study from Harvard University found that 17,000 Texans die every year from air pollution. The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, or TERP, reduces air pollution by offering grants to replace old, dirty engines in cars, trucks and other vehicles. Vehicle transfer and other fees paid by Texans bring in about $270 million a year. That money is supposed to be dedicated to the TERP clean air fund. However, HB 4472 directs that “not less than 35 percent” go instead to the Texas Department of Transportation for “congestion mitigation,” which in Texas is primarily used to build or expand roads

Along with that bill, HB 17, which preempts cities from banning new homes from connecting to natural gas, and SB 13, which aims to block the state from doing business with “companies that boycott energy companies” were steps backward for climate action. However, neither bill would have a big immediate practical impact, according to Metzger. 

In contrast to those disappointments, other bills increasing costs for clean energy or making it harder for local governments to act on climate change were defeated. These included bills to preempt cities from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, enforcing federal laws on oil and gas or banning natural gas appliances. Efforts to increase fees on renewable energy and electric vehicles also failed. 

“I’ve never seen so many major efforts to hamstring clean energy as I did this session,” Metzger said. “Fossil fuel proponents falsely blamed wind and solar power for the February blackouts and tried a number of ways to bankrupt renewable energy projects. It’s a significant victory that those bills were defeated and clean energy can continue its enormous rise.”

In addition, modest pro-environment bills are on their way to the governor’s desk, including ones that promote battery storage, rooftop solar, bee-friendly solar farms and flows of water in our rivers and streams and to our bays and estuaries. SB 3, the legislature’s most comprehensive response to the deadly February blackouts, included weatherization requirements from power plants and some gas infrastructure. That bill also directed the Public Utility Commission to factor in “weather predictions produced by the office of the state climatologist” in planning for weather emergencies. 

Beyond that, the budget includes $3.5 million per year for state park land acquisition. While it’s a modest sum, the total marks the first time in recent memory that budget writers allocated general revenue for that purpose.  

Environment Texas is a non-profit advocate for clean air, clean water, parks and wildlife, and a livable climate.