A Day in the Life: What it Means to Advocate for the Environment

Being an environmental advocate in Texas may seem like an uphill battle, and I make no bones about the fact it most certainly is.

The current political climate nationwide makes it a challenge wherever you are, but Texas is a special case. Texans pride ourselves on our uniqueness; we do everything bigger. Unfortunately, we have unique and big environmental problems, and many of our related policies and regulations are perverse in an equally big way.

While my Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) colleagues may be able to make impressive strides in protecting their respective states against climate change, we in Texas must take pride in all of our achievements, both big and not so much. It’s these small steps that add up to change in the right direction, and the optimism that goes along with each incremental step that sustains us in the face of the many obstacles encountered every day.

So, what are all these little things that make up a “normal” day for an environmental advocate in Texas?

That’s a really good question.

Advocating in “The Lege”

As a state legislative year, the first half of 2015 was different than usual. The Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, so the frenzy of activity during the Legislative Session (in local parlance, “The Lege”) is intense. Regardless, there is much to be done leading up to the Session, as well as afterwards, with a year and a half to get all the work done until the next cycle begins.

In the months before the 2015 Session, I met with our lobbyists (I am also registered as a lobbyist), as well as my EDF Texas Clean Energy team, to determine priorities and discuss which clean energy goals needed legislative support. And, because the majority of my advocacy efforts center around the energy-water nexus—the idea that energy is used to secure, deliver, treat and distribute water, while water is used (and often degraded) to develop, process, and deliver energy—I decided to focus on creating two pieces of legislation:

1) one to have the state study the potential of solar and wind energy to desalinate brackish groundwater, and

(2) one to authorize electric utilities in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) region to partner with a water provider to study the embedded energy of water programs.

These bills are important to Texas because, despite the inherent connection between the two sectors, energy and water planners routinely make decisions that impact one another without adequately understanding the scientific or policy complexities of the other sector.

This lack of collaboration is especially dire considering Texas is in the midst of an energy shortage, exacerbated by what appears to be an increasingly intense drought-flood cycle.  Without adequate planning, Texans could someday be faced with the choice of keeping lights on or turning on the faucet.

Focusing on the energy-water nexus, in some ways, makes my work easier. As a key advocacy point, I look at the water-saving benefits of clean energy, and the discussion instantly becomes more inclusive and personal. While energy and electricity can sometimes be difficult to picture, water is a tangible, visible part of everyone’s daily life.

My role in the legislative process

Once the idea for a bill is hatched, it has to be written, and a legislative member must agree to file it.

I supervised two legal students from the University of Texas Law School to draft the embedded energy legislation, and worked with one of our lobbyists to draft the renewable energy desalination bill. Then, we strategized which members would be interested in filing the legislation—without a sponsor, a bill won’t get out of the gate.

Months earlier, I had spoken with a representative of El Paso Water Utilities who enthusiastically received these ideas. I thought it would be great for a Senator from a city that knows the importance of finding water savings to tie these two pieces together. Fortunately, El Paso Senator Jose Rodriguez understood the bills’ importance, and was willing to file both.

Sadly, the embedded energy bill never got a hearing, however, the renewable energy desalination legislation marched on. The bill requires the General Land Office and the Texas Water Development Board to study the economic and geophysical potential of using solar and wind energy to desalinate brackish groundwater.

Throughout the Session, I worked with Senator Rodriguez’s staff on the bill—communicating with committee members to arrange a hearing, working through concerns from stakeholders, circulating talking points, preparing and presenting testimony, and helping foster it through both chambers. Fortunately, Representative Lyle Larson from San Antonio picked up the bill when it got to the House and, on June 17, Governor Greg Abbott signed it into law.

As always, finalizing one process means starting a new one. Now the work will begin to get the desalination study done, and figure out what the potential next steps are to making this clean energy-water solution a reality.

There’s a lot of ongoing activity during the Session, mostly involving various means of working for or against other bills: testifying, talking to members and their staff, and regular check-ins with other advocates. It’s a constant dance that requires patience and perseverance, and most sessions, we’re not so lucky to get a bill through.

Unfortunately, very few forward-thinking environmental-related bills made it into law during the session. In fact, this session, like most others, was mainly spent fighting a lot of bad environmental bills.

Year-round advocating and the Clean Power Plan

Now the session’s over and life returns to business as usual (after a vacation to regroup). So, what does “normal” look like?

Of course, there is the minutiae of everyday work like emails and internal conference calls, but being an advocate carries a responsibility of always being aware of opportunities to advocate for certain policies and positions. That means tweeting, blogging, and talking with journalists about what issues we are working on and, importantly, why. Year-round activities also entail constant contact and collaboration with other groups and stakeholders working on related issues.

A large focus for EDF is the imminent finalization of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which will place limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants for the first time in history. Multiple teams across the organization are working to demonstrate the legal soundness and benefits of the plan, while highlighting the economic opportunities it affords each state.

Much of what I do affects a larger team. As a member of the Texas Clean Energy team, we are trying to build the case for Texas to comply with the proposed CPP. Two team members are undertaking heavy analysis to understand what it would take for Texas to meet our carbon-reduction targets (turns out, it’s not much more than what we’re already doing), and I am focusing on the water savings that would result from compliance (turns out, it’s a lot).

Beyond that, our Texas team lead (EDF's Vice President for Clean Energy), and I are pounding the pavement talking to reporters, regulators, and myriad stakeholders to share our analysis and make the case that the state of Texas has nothing to fear from the CPP. Moreover, it represents a fantastic opportunity to amplify our current energy trends—like greater deployment of solar and wind energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas instead of coal—while at the same time, proving that saving water saves energy.

The energy-water work I do is exhilarating and rewarding—there are so many opportunities to make a difference in the world by finding new and exciting ways to address the nexus. Traditionally, conservation is conservative, and in Texas, it’s my job to keep reminding our decision makers of that fact.


Kate Zerrenner is project manager, US climate and energy program, Environmental Defense Fund. She received her B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and master's degrees from the University of Glasgow in Comparative Politics and Johns Hopkins University in International Energy and Environmental Policy and Economics. For more information, follow Kate on Twitter @KateZerrenner or visit www.EDF.org.


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 





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