Blowing Smoke

Could Valero empty the coffers of Texas schools?

Ultimately, Garcia says, Valero has never provided any documentation on how it arrived at the costs it listed on its applications, and that has kept all the appraisers in the dark.

"Valero has never submitted anything, either to TCEQ or to the appraisal district, to substantiate how they came up with that value. Zero. Zilcho. Zippo."

As difficult and mysterious as it may seem right now, finding a real value for the hydrotreaters is likely possible. What's more enigmatic is why TCEQ Commissioners Bryan Shaw and Buddy Garcia punted the appeal back to the executive director's office.

HCAD lawyer Bernardo Garcia says Valero's case could set a dangerous precedent.
Chris Curry
HCAD lawyer Bernardo Garcia says Valero's case could set a dangerous precedent.

Shaw and Garcia approved the "at the site" provision and its attendant flowchart in 2008, and have always issued decisions accordingly. So what's different about Valero? Why would two commissioners not trust the judgment of the agency's staff and executive director?

Apparently, the public does not deserve an answer to that question. We left messages for the commissioners with the TCEQ's communications office and never heard back. Of course, we weren't too surprised after what happened to KHOU reporter Jeremy Rogalski in March. When Rogalski tried to get into a public TCEQ hearing, security closed the door in his face. And according to Rogalski's report, "And when we later approached Chairman Shaw during a recess in the hearing, we were blocked again. Andrea Morrow, TCEQ spokesperson, grabbed this reporter's arm while Chairman Shaw slipped out a side door."

Shaw, an associate professor in Texas A&M's Biological & Agricultural Engineering Department, has an impressive résumé: He's a member of the EPA's Science Advisory Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Air Quality Task Force. Shaw, a global warming skeptic, is well aware of critics who accuse him, and the commissioners in general, of having a pro-industry bias. Shaw didn't miss out on a chance to launch the first volley when Southern Methodist University professor and environmental activist Al Armendariz took over the regional EPA office overseeing Texas. Shaw issued a statement congratulating Armendariz while at the same time saying, "I hope Dr. Armendariz recognizes that this position is too important to be used as a podium for environmental activism. I urge Dr. Ar­men­dariz to use sound science in his decisions."

To be sure, Shaw is all for exercising regulatory restraint. Governor Rick Perry not only appointed Shaw to the TCEQ in 2007, but to the Texas Environmental Flows Advisory Group. And in November 2008, he created something called the Texas Advisory Panel on Federal Environmental Regulations, appointed Shaw and told them to issue a report that same month on the "potential impacts to Texas of [the EPA's] proposed framework for regulating greenhouse gas emissions through the Federal Clean Air Act."

To the surprise of exactly no one, the panel concluded that such regulations would cause "extreme economic hardships" for Texas. And to the surprise of exactly no one, Perry approved the findings.

Meanwhile, TCEQ Commissioner Buddy Garcia, who also voted to remand the Valero tax exemption issue back to the executive director, found himself in the midst of a lawsuit filed by state Senator Eliot Shapleigh. The El Paso Democrat accused Garcia and senior TCEQ members of meeting secretly with a Baker Botts lobbyist working on behalf of a company seeking TCEQ approval to renew an air permit for its copper smelter. After Shapleigh raised suspicions, he obtained documents showing that, after the meetings, the lobbyist reported to Baker Botts attorney Pam Giblin, who was representing the copper smelting company. (The permit was ultimately renewed.)

Giblin, a former TCEQ employee, also represents Valero in the property tax exemption issue. According to Shapleigh, she and fellow Baker Botts attorneys co-hosted a reception for Shaw on the occasion of his appointment. Representatives of Baker Botts and TCEQ have denied any accusations of collusion.

Meanwhile, as TCEQ commissioners busy themselves by not explaining to the public why there might be a big property tax hike, TCEQ staff is waiting for Valero to submit more documents explaining its case; there's always the possibility that the staff could grant a partial exemption.

Bernardo Garcia would still see that as a dangerous precedent — especially for small districts that depend in large part on refinery ad valorem taxes. And he says it would be a real affront for people living in the immediate vicinity of any refinery that would be granted such a break.

"I see my tax bill getting bigger," he says, "but I'm not breathing any better air or drinking cleaner water."

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