A Texas Senate environmental committee gets a name and scope change

As the legislative session gets underway, the previously named state Senate Natural Resources Committee is now operating under a new name: the state Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee.

The name change came out of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office. Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia told me that the move was made in the interest of efficiency, allowing senators more time to mull over important votes and be present for hearings, rather than jumping in and out of committees.

“Because of the consolidation of committees (reducing four), economic development bills will now be heard in Natural Resources,” Garcia said.

Sounds sensible — after all, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the committee chairman, has served as chairman of both the Natural Resources Committee and the Business and Commerce committees.

But the name change also put me in mind of a story I wrote a few years ago about the bifurcated mission of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with regulating polluters. That 2011 story noted that about a third of state environmental agencies take economic benefit into question while regulating air, water and waste pollution.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which “strives to protect our state’s human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development,” is among them.

The see-saw language about economics and the environment gets at broad questions about whether business and regulation can have congruent interests or are inherently crosswise. It also raises a fundamental question about the roles of regulatory bodies in a faltering economy: Should an environmental regulatory agency concern itself with problems like job creation in its decision-making, or should it think purely about the health of rivers and the cleanliness of air? And are these agencies even equipped to calculate the real economic consequences of their decision-making?

State environmental regulatory agencies should balance environmental and economic considerations “for good reason,” said Pete Geddes, a spokesman for the Property and Environment Research Center, a Montana nonprofit group that favors free-market approaches to environmental protection. “Ignoring the cost of regulation is not good public policy.”

But Victor Flatt, who teaches environmental law at the University of North Carolina, said federal laws emphasize environmental matters as the chief concern. And, he argued, stiffer environmental regulation, not lighter, makes for a better business climate.

“What they think is better for the environment seems to be to do as little as possible,” he said of the Texas environmental agency. “If you enforce the laws, you create good places to live, and that’s good for business.”