How Underground Sensors In Texas Will Help NASA Predict Drought and Floods

Todd Caldwell works on a soil moisture monitoring station in Central Texas.

Credit Photo courtesy of Richard Casteel

Todd Caldwell works on a soil moisture monitoring station in Central Texas.

Stanley Rabke’s family has lived and worked on their Hill Country ranch since 1889. Generations of Rabkes have struggled with the extremes of Texas weather, but one storm sticks out in Stanley’s memory: it came after the drought of the 1950s.

“It rained and rained and rained,” he says. “Back then we raised turkeys, we lost thousands of turkeys that washed away in the creek.”

The disaster underscores an irony of life in Texas. “You hope and pray that you’re going to get a good rain, [but] on the other side of it, you hope you don’t get a flood,” says Rabke.

A quick walk from where the turkeys met their fate, some new technology that will help manage that risk is being installed — soil monitoring sensors in the ground.

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Listening For The Call Of The Quail

Jim Willis restored his land in Colorado County with native grasses

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Jim Willis restored his land in Colorado County with native grasses

Helped by $6 million from the State of Texas, prairies west of Houston are being restored with native grasses to increase the population of Bob White Quail.

There’s something missing these days around ranches and farms just west of Houston: the unmistakable call of the Bob White Quail.

“Everybody knows that sound, “said Robert Perez, a game bird specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

He does a great imitation of the Bob White Quail whistle which you can hear by clicking below.

“That sound has become something folks don’t hear as much. We’ve seen massive declines,” Perez told StateImpact Texas.

Why are there fewer quail these days? Continue Reading

Keystone XL or Not, Canadian Crude Already Shipping Out From U.S.

The Keystone XL pipeline under construction in East Texas in the Spring of 2013.

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

The Keystone XL pipeline under construction in East Texas in the Spring of 2013.

Congress’ attempts to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline have re-ignited debate over the project, which would allow more crude oil to flow from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  It’s also re-ignited debate over what could happen to that oil once it gets to Texas.

President Obama and opponents of the pipeline say it will be used as a funnel to export Canadian crude to international markets. TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, has been unequivocal when asked about that.

“It makes no sense to see anything getting shipped offshore,” CEO Russ Girling said about a year ago when the southern leg of the pipeline opened in Texas. “And those that continue to make those kind of comments, there’s no factual underpinning, no evidence, no basis for those kind of claims.”

Except there is. Continue Reading

Oil & Gas Executives Bullish On Future

Survey says: energy executives see U.S. oil & gas outlook bright and getting brighter but worry about new EPA regulation.

John England, Deloitte’s Vice Chairman Oil & Gas Sector, at the company’s conference in Houston

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

John England, Deloitte’s Vice Chairman Oil & Gas Sector, at the company’s conference in Houston

It’s been a big week already for Houston’s oil & gas industry with the proposed takeover by Halliburton of Baker Hughes. Economists say it’s one sign the industry is optimistic about the future.

Some other signs are what you’ll find in a new survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, which took the pulse of energy executives earlier this fall. The share — who felt the U.S. has already achieved energy security because it’s producing so much oil & gas — shot up to 40 percent of them from just 12 percent two years ago.

Eighty percent of them said the U.S. energy business is doing better now than it was five years ago.

Not that there weren’t any worriers. Over half the executives said they were concerned that oil prices might collapse — and this was what they said back in September, before prices dropped some 15 percent in recent weeks. Continue Reading

Texas Grid Operator Says Clean Energy Plan Could Raise Bills and Lead to Blackouts

The agency in charge of running the state's energy grid says the EPA's plan to reduce carbon emissions could put strain on the grid and raise rates for consumers.

Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

The agency in charge of running the state's energy grid says the EPA's plan to reduce carbon emissions could put strain on the grid and raise rates for consumers.

The clean energy plan put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency aims to combat climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants.  But it may come at a price, according to a report released Monday by theElectric Reliability Council of Texas, the group that manages much of Texas electric grid.

The report says electricity bills could rise as much as 20 percent because of the carbon reduction goals, adding that the goals could also endanger electric reliability. Part of that is due to the way the plan would change Texas’ energy mix.

“What we found is that the likely impact of the clean power plan is going to be the retirement of a significant portion of the coal-fired capacity in ERCOT,” says ERCOT Director of System Planning Warren Lasher.

The goal of the EPA’s clean energy plan is to reduce Texas carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Continue Reading

Climate Deal Puts Spotlight on Carbon Capture Technology

New rules proposed by the Obama administration seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A new deal between the US and China would reduce carbon emissions from the two countries over the next several years.

The deal that the U.S. and China have struck to curb carbon emissions has been hailed as a breakthrough by many concerned with climate change, and panned by politicians opposed to President Obama. But it’s also captured the interest of a group of researchers — some in Texas — who specialize in carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The deal is short on specifics. But it commits the U.S. and China to continue investing in carbon capture, use and storage. That’s technology that filters CO2 from coal power plants and then pumps the carbon underground. Texas has been doing it for decades to get oil out of the ground in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

“It’s always poor form for Texas to do too much boasting, but the source of expertise for injecting CO2 for enhanced oil recovery lies mostly in Texas,” says Susan Hovorka, a senior researcher scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, who works on carbon sequestration.

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New Federal Regulation Coming For Oil and Gas Well Pollution

Oil & gas facilites in LaSalle County, part of the Eagle Ford Shale.

Photo by Dave Fehling.

Oil & gas facilites in LaSalle County, part of the Eagle Ford Shale.

The federal government says the oil & gas industry is the largest industrial source of pollution that creates smog. In coming months, Texas drillers could learn what the government plans to do about it.

New pollution rules could mean that thousands of oil & gas wells in Texas will have to have their leaks fixed.

“It’s an issue because we’re now drilling in heavily populated areas,” said Melanie Sattler, a researcher at the University of Texas in Arlington. Continue Reading

Denton Voted To Ban Fracking. So Now What?

Cathy McMullen was an organizer with Frack Free Denton, the group that pushed for the ban.

Mose Buchele

Cathy McMullen was an organizer with Frack Free Denton, the group that pushed for the ban.

This week Denton, Texas became the first city in the state to ban fracking within its city limits. The ban passed with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

Many in Denton worry about how fracking and associated activities impact their health and quality of life.  But opponents say the ban is bad for the economy. The drilling industry, which pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign against the ban, is concerned with the precedent Denton could set for other Texas towns.

Just hours after the vote, the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TxOGA) filed a legal challenge to the ban, as did the Texas General Land office with a suit.

There may be more legal challenges on the way.

The TxOGA lawsuit asserts that ”the public policy of Texas is to encourage the full and effective exploitation of our mineral resources,” says Tom Phillips, a lawyer with Baker Botts who is working on the challenge.

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Voters Pass First Local Fracking Ban in Texas

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Update, Nov. 5: Denton voters passed a local ban on “fracking,” an oil and gas production process. 59 percent of voters said “yes” to the ban, with 41 percent voting against. The Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) wasted no time in filing a request to overturn the vote, saying it violates state law.

Original story, Oct. 21: For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community. The site is, however, not very close to any houses.

“I’ll show you where this exact same thing was sitting by someone’s home,” she says.

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Amid Oil Boom, Texas Votes On Who Holds the Reins of Regulation

Steve Brown, left, and Ryan Sitton, right, are the two major party candidate for the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Graphic courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

Steve Brown, left, and Ryan Sitton, right, are the two major party candidate for the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Update: Ryan Sitton has won the race for the empty east on the Railroad Commission of Texas.

An empty seat on a strangely-named state regulatory agency usually flies under the radar of voters. But the race to serve on the Railroad Commission of Texas has gained additional attention and importance this election. That’s because whoever wins will not oversee railroads, as the name suggests, but will regulate the Texas oil and gas industry. It’s an industry in the midst of a boom that’s transforming global energy markets and pumping billions into the Texas economy.

The two major party candidates competing for the seat offer starkly different visions for what the job entails.

Democrat Steve Brown spent much of campaign highlighting issues of public health and landowner rights. He visited with workers in the Permian Basin of West Texas to talk about safety in the oilfields, and spent time with residents of a North Texas region dealing with an upsurge in earthquakes tied to oil and gas production.

If elected, Brown says he will ask the state for more funding for an agency whose growth has not kept pace with the industry it regulates. Continue Reading

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