Can the Private Space Industry Stabilize a Boom-and-Bust Economy?

From KXWT News: 

Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, says the company’s not marketing flights to “tourists.”

(Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, says the company’s not marketing flights to “tourists.”

By early next year, alongside the sound of jets landing at the Midland International Airport, you might also hear sonic booms from space flights re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

This month, the private space company XCOR broke ground at the airport, where it plans to launch commercial space flights next year. Some hope this new industry will stabilize the region’s traditionally oil and gas-based boom and bust economy.

The airport is still waiting to get the go-ahead from the FAA to launch those flights, but XCOR says despite some delays, it’s likely that will happen before a September 15th deadline.

XCOR President Andrew Nelson says the groundbreaking ceremony the company held recently for its new research and development hangar is proof of just how confident XCOR is that the spaceport license will be approved. Continue Reading

Texas Lawmakers Hear Proposals for Confronting Man-Made Quakes

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

Photo: OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

After a surge in earthquakes across Texas over the last several years, state regulators are considering their options.

After a surge in earthquakes across Texas over the last several years, state regulators are considering their options. On Monday, the House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity heard some of them.

Many of the quakes are likely caused by wastewater disposal wells, where the liquid waste from oil and gas drilling is pumped back into the ground. The Railroad Commission of Texas is the agency that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, and it’s proposing new rules for those wells.

David Craig Pearson, the Railroad Commission’s staff seismologist, told lawmakers that under the new rules, companies applying for a disposal well permit would need to report whether there was a history of earthquakes in the area.

The company would also need to estimate how much pressure the wells would be putting on nearby fault lines after a 10-year time span.

The proposed rules also give Railroad Commission staff the power to limit how waste is injected into a well that could be causing earthquakes, or shut the well down completely. Pearson said that would be an option of last resort, however.

Continue Reading

Who’s Getting The Best Deals On Electricity In Texas?

Climate Change And Global Pollution To Be Discussed At Copenhagen Summit

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

During a meeting of the Texas Public Utility Commission, its former chairman, Barry Smitherman, gave Texans one more reason to love their state and for others to envy it: low, low prices for electricity.

“If you use the best available price in the market place from a retail electric provider Houston and Dallas have the lowest prices of any big city in America. I think we have to be very mindful of the competitive advantage this gives us here in Texas,” Smitherman said at the PUC meeting.

Strictly speaking, Smitherman might be right: the price of electricity is relatively low. But if you think that means people in Houston and Dallas have the lowest electricity bills, you’d be wrong. The reality is exactly the opposite because Texans use so much electricity.

For several years now, national comparisons using data reported to the federal government and from other sources show people in Houston and Dallas — and in Texas overall — pay some of the highest electricity bills in the country. According to the U.S. Energy Department, “The average annual electricity cost per Texas household is $1,801, among the highest in the nation; the cost is similar to other warm weather states like Florida, according to EIA’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey.”

But drilling deeper into the data, what you pay depends on where you live in Texas. Continue Reading

Echoes Of The Past In Today’s Petrochemical Building Boom

From Houston Public Media: 

ExxonMobil's refinery in Baytown is one of the nation's biggest

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

ExxonMobil's refinery in Baytown is one of the nation's biggest

The Texas petrochemical industry is in the midst of its biggest expansion in decades. That’s thanks largely to the availability of cheap natural gas, used both for fuel and as a raw material. It’s hardly the first time the region has seen this scenario.

Barbara Shook is senior reporter-at-large for Energy Intelligence Group. She spends much of her time these days covering the construction boom in the petrochemical industry. Last week, she was on hand at a ceremony at ExxonMobil Chemical’s Baytown plant, where a multi-billion dollar expansion is already under way.

“This is my second petrochemical boom,” Shook says. “I watched the first one in the early 1950s from my father’s ’48 Ford pickup truck. He was the construction superintendent on a power plant for a big petrochemical plant in East Texas. That one was also fueled by natural gas and natural gas liquids, just like this one is.”

Texas had just passed a ban on flaring, which forced producers to find new markets for gas.

There are currently two multi-billion dollar projects underway in Greater Houston besides ExxonMobil’s. They include expansions of ChevronPhillips’ Baytown facility, as well as the Dow Chemical complex in Freeport.

Big Bend National Park Bans Drones

From Marfa Public Radio:

Big Bend National Park, Texas.

ALLEN HOLDER/THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Big Bend National Park has placed an “interim” ban on unmanned aircraft on any lands or waters within the park’s boundaries, as part of a nationwide directive from the National Park Service (NPS.)

The ordinance went into effect August 20th – it specifically prohibits the “launching, landing or operation” of unmanned aircraft in the park, and also anywhere on stretches of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, which is also managed by NPS.

A press release from the park says there have been rising concerns among national park visitors across the country about “noise and nuisance” from drones, and that the aircraft have in some cases disrupted wildlife behaviors.

Allen Etheridge, Chief Ranger at Big Bend National Park, says those concerns haven’t yet been an issue in the Big Bend, but he has heard about specific threats posed to wildlife and visitor experiences from other national parks.

“Some visitors had brought quad copters to Yellowstone National Park, and they had crashed them – not on purposefully of course – into the hot springs,” he says. Continue Reading

Solar Power Shedding ‘Ugly’ Image in Houston

Jennifer Ronk with the Houston Advanced Research Center

KUHF

Jennifer Ronk with the Houston Advanced Research Center

Global demand for solar panels could soon create shortages according to Bloomberg News.

In Texas, costs for solar are dropping and the amount of power Texans now get from the sun is up over 30-percent in the past year. But while some housing developments are banning the roof-top solar panels, saying they’re unsightly, some homeowners in one Houston neighborhood can’t imagine life without solar power.

It’s the hottest part of the day in a subdivision on Houston’s northwest side. The neatly-kept streets and lawns border several rows of recently-built, two-story homes made of brick and stone. They all look similar but a few of them have one difference: solar panels.

“They don’t even notice them till we tell (visitors) we have solar panels, they’re like where,” said Velia Uballe, a stay-at-home mom.

They bought their new, solar-panel equipped house three years ago.  But while Uballe said the panels hardly stand out, what they’re saving on electricity definitely does.

Continue Reading

Despite Delay in Vote, Little Change Expected in Proposed LCRA Water Plan

The LCRA operates the six dams on the Colorado River that form the scenic Highland Lakes of Central Texas. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News and Reporting Texas

The LCRA operates the six dams on the Colorado River that form the scenic Highland Lakes of Central Texas. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News and Reporting Texas

Water from the Highland Lakes is important to everyone in Central Texas — from urban Austinites to rural rice farmers downstream. Wednesday, the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) was set to vote on a much-delayed plan to manage that water, but the authority’s board postponed that vote to gather more public input.

The proposed plan, which would ensure that more water stays in the lakes in times of drought, is widely supported by upstream stakeholders, namely the City of Austin.  But it’s unpopular downstream with agricultural interests that would likely see themselves cut off from water more often. The plan must ultimately be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

The LCRA board postponed the vote on the plan for thirty days until Sept. 17 to get more public input. But the board made it clear it doesn’t want to change the “framework of the plan” — including a provision to maintain ”above 600,000 acre-feet of water” in the lakes. Under previous water plans, water could be sent to agricultural users even if storage dropped below that level.

Continue Reading

How Illegal Fishing Costs Texas And Mexico Millions Each Year

From Houston Public Media: 

The sun sets waves wash up from the Gulf of Mexico onto the beach April 13, 2011 in Isla Grand Terre, Louisiana. T

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The sun sets waves wash up from the Gulf of Mexico onto the beach April 13, 2011 in Isla Grand Terre, Louisiana. T

Most of the fisheries are managed in federal waters and represent a $14 billion dollar industry.

But pirate fishing hurts commercial fishers, like Scott Hickman of the Charter Fisherman’s Association.

He told the Gulf Coast Leadership conference that it’s getting hard to make a living competing with those who skirt around the law. He says it’s a real problem.

“They’re flooding our markets with illegal fish on the commercial side, and they’re taking the ability for the charter boat fleet to be able to go out and make a living, because they’re pulling fish away from the same pool of fish that I need, to take the people that are coming down here to the coast on vacation, to go catch these fish,” said Hickman. Continue Reading

Oil And Gas Industry Added 10,500 Jobs In Second Quarter

From Houston Public Media:

A Chesapeake Energy Corp. worker stands beside a Chesapeake oil drilling rig on the Eagle Ford shale near Crystal City, Texas, June 6, 2011.

REUTERS /Anna Driver/LANDOV

A Chesapeake Energy Corp. worker stands beside a Chesapeake oil drilling rig on the Eagle Ford shale near Crystal City, Texas, June 6, 2011.

The oil and gas industry added 10,500 new jobs over the second quarter, according to industry news service Rigzone. That’s a two-thirds increase over the same period in 2013.

Between April and June, companies in the oil and gas sector added more than 4,000 new positions in Texas. That gave the Lone Star State a commanding lead in job creation for the industry. Louisiana came in second, with about 600 new oil and gas jobs. Alaska took third with 500.

“In total, looking at the first half of the year, over 20,000 positions in the U.S. were created,” says Paul Caplan, president of Rigzone. “Last year at this time, the halfway mark of the year was about 12,600, so we’re talking about a substantial increase in the number of, especially, production jobs.”

Turnover in the oil and gas industry is running on the high side. In the second quarter, nearly 17,000 professionals a month voluntarily left jobs in the mining and logging industry, which Rigzone uses as a proxy for the U.S. oil and gas sector. That compares to an average of roughly 12,000 workers a month over the past ten years.

Texas Officials Blast New Pollution Rules For Power Plants

A stream of workers leave the TXU Monticello power plant near Mt. Pleasant, Texas February 26, 2007.

Photo by REUTERS/Mike Stone /Landov

A stream of workers leave the TXU Monticello power plant near Mt. Pleasant, Texas February 26, 2007.

In Austin, business leaders and politicians blasted new federal rules aimed at reducing air pollution from power plants. At a hearing held by the Texas Public Utility Commission, there were dire predictions of a ruined Texas economy and higher electricity costs for residents.

Hour-after-hour, the three members of the Texas Public Utility Commission heard why the state’s roaring economy, some call it the Texas Miracle, could be brought to its knees

“I fear were going be on the road again to try to persuade people why this is the potential — if it were to come to pass in this form — death knell to the Texas Miracle and frankly the kind of economic destruction this would create nationally is a little hard to overstate, “said Phillip Oldham, a lobbyist for the big business group, the Texas Association of Manufacturers.

The chairman of the PUC, Donna Nelson, predicted an end to the Texas deregulated electricity market. Continue Reading

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