Houston-area residents protest tax break for oil refineries at schools’ expense
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is still sitting on a handful of oil companies’ requests for tax refunds on new pollution control equipment — money that would come straight out of the budgets of school districts near the refineries — but on Wednesday, some residents told TCEQ they don’t want to foot the bill.
As the San Antonio Express-News reported, about 200 protesters came mostly from the Houston area, to march around Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign office in Austin, along with the headquarters of TCEQ, whose members Perry appointed:
“Dear Governor Perry, Please choose children over Big Oil,” said posters signed by tax-break opponents.
Demonstrators also chanted in the lobby in front of Perry’s locked campaign office. The entrance to the building itself also was locked, but a protester said an exiting man allowed many to enter the lobby.
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman in Perry’s state office, said, “Gov. Perry expects TCEQ (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) will consider all of the facts and make the appropriate decision.”She said the constitutional provision allowing the break was approved by lawmakers and voters under the administration of the late Gov. Ann Richards.
A state program allows for the companies to claim a rebate on the pollution control equipment, but TCEQ staff initially shot down the companies’ requests. Commissioners decided to reconsider the tax breaks, but haven’t set a date to discuss them.
Rather than wait, the angry residents took their concerns straight to a TCEQ meeting Wednesday. Approving a request from San Antonio-based Valero Corp., for instance, would put an even tighter squeeze on a cash-strapped school district in Pasadena, they argued.
“Even the staff said it was against the rules,” Texas Campaign for the Environment director Robin Schneider told NPR’s State Impact Texas. “And this has happened to me before, where the rules say very clearly what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, but the bigwigs, the commissioners, just say, ‘let’s allow it in this case.’”
Three years ago, TCEQ leadership approved permits for a nuclear waste dump run by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a generous Perry donor, over the objections of the commission’s own scientists.
Others demonstrators pointed out that the equipment Valero was seeking credit for installing was already required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
According to State Impact Texas, Valero spokesman Bill Day argued that they shouldn’t be demonized for seeking money the state says is theirs:
“It’s true that we’re required to have this equipment,” Day said. “We’re required by the EPA under their Tier 2 regulations, which call for basically the removal of sulfur from gasoline and diesel. Otherwise we never would have installed this equipment. It cost us tens of millions of dollars to put in.”
Day added the estimates that communities could lose tens of millions of dollars are exaggerated. And he said what Valero is trying to do is what you’d expect any company to do: not leave money on the table.
“It’s pretty much the same as any other property owner getting a homestead exemption, or a senior citizens exemption or an ag exemption,” Day said. “This is a process that’s allowed under state law, and we’re using the process that’s called for.”