What it Would Take to Tap the Gulf’s Frozen Methane

According to University of Texas researchers, trillions of cubic feet of methane are trapped under the Gulf of Mexico, frozen.

The U.S. Department of Energy gave Texas over $40 million to research this frozen gas – methane hydrate. As part of a four-year program, researchers will study methane hydrate and evaluate its potential as a new energy source. Combined with funds from other donors, the program has a total value of $58 million.

Dr. Peter Flemings, the program’s lead investigator and a UT geophysics professor, says methane hydrate is one of the most fascinating materials on the planet. Continue Reading

Does Drop In Oil Prices Make Texas Crude Too Expensive?

A Permian Basin oil rig.

Photo by Mose Buchele

A Permian Basin oil rig.

Recent financial news headlines have warned about:

  • The dangers of “falling oil.”
  • Or enduring the “Oil Crash of 2014.”
  • Or having oil producers headed for “oblivion.”

Could it really get that bad? Maybe, if it’s like it was a few decades ago.

“There were bankruptcies everywhere,” said Ed Hirs, a Houston oil man and energy economist. “Exxon laid off 50,000 employees in 1986.”

But to mimic the great oil bust of the 1980’s, prices today have a long, long way to drop. Continue Reading

Texas PUC Leaves CenterPoint’s ‘Excess Revenue’ Untouched

CenterPoint says it will actually ask for a rate increase next year.

Photo by KUT News.

CenterPoint says it will actually ask for a rate increase next year.

CenterPoint Energy, a state-regulated utility that maintains poles and wires for over two million electricity customers, had millions of dollars in “excess revenue” last year. At its meeting Friday morning, the Texas Public Utilities Commission considered whether something should be done about that.

A report from the PUC’s staff said that last year alone CenterPoint had “excess revenue” of almost $47 million. News 88.7 reported earlier how company executives this summer bragged to investors that for the last three years, the utility had been earning “well in excess” of the amount authorized by the PUC.

But at the meeting, PUC staff member Darryl Tietjen told the commissioners: “We have recommended the commission take no action for any of the companies we have reviewed.”

The commissioners agreed. Continue Reading

How Much ‘Excess Revenue’ Did CenterPoint Energy Make?

CenterPoint's power station in downtown Houston.

Photo by Dave Fehling

CenterPoint's power station in downtown Houston.

The Texas Public Utility Commission meets Friday and will consider a report that says the Houston utility company, CenterPoint Energy, made almost $47 million in “excess revenue” last year. According to one utility watch-dog group, that’s too much.

CenterPoint Energy doesn’t sell electricity. It delivers it through thousands of miles of power lines. A charge is added to electric bills to pay CenterPoint.

“This is a regulated monopoly. They do not face competition,” said Thomas Brocato, a lawyer who works with the group Texas Coalition for Affordable Power.

Brocato is an expert on utility regulation and is a watchdog on utility companies. He said CenterPoint is, in essence, being allowed to make too much money. Continue Reading

Will Low Oil Prices Rattle The Texas Economy?

The lead oil and gas regulator in Texas passed new rules for fracking and drilling wells today. (Photo of a Cabot natural gas drill at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.)

Photo by MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The benchmark price of oil is lower than it has been in four years.

The benchmark price of U.S. crude hovers around $85 a barrel. That’s lower than it’s been in four years and $15 below where it was a year ago. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Economic growth has stalled internationally – This has slowing the demand for oil, but oil supplies are increasing thanks to the shale boom in the U.S. and the fact that OPEC – the cartel that sets prices internationally – has not cut production.
  •  The dollar is strong – The higher valuation of U.S. currency means that oil prices are down but –because the dollar’s also at a four-year high – the oil is still pricey, driving down demand.
  • Speculators are betting on prices to drop – Weekly production of oil is expected to reach a 45-year high next year, the market’s going bearish, driving the prices down.

IFrame<--break->Dropping prices have already things shaken up in the business world. Mergers and acquisitions of oil companies are slowing because of the uncertainty.  Companies in the oil-rich city of Houston are expecting to take a financial hit, and Mexico’s massive oil-hedging program has been thrown into disarray.

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Global Warming And The Texas Surge Of New Chemical Plants

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, billions is being spent to build or expand petrochemical plants.

Dave Fehling

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, billions is being spent to build or expand petrochemical plants.

A big, new expansion of a petrochemical plant is under construction in Clear Lake. It’ll make methanol, a key ingredient for producing other chemicals. But will it also make pollution that will add to global warming?

The expansion of an existing complex owned by Celanese is part of trend along the Texas Gulf Coast as low prices for natural gas have made making chemicals cheaper.

“There’ve been several methanol and ammonia plants proposed for the area. And those are very natural gas intensive,” said Katie Teller, an analyst with the Federal Department of Energy.

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Rolling Blackouts Highlight Troubles With Electric Grid In Rio Grande Valley

A map of projects to increase transmission capacity in the Rio Grande Valley.

Courtesy of ERCOT

A map of projects to increase transmission capacity in the Rio Grande Valley.

It had been about three years since Texas experienced major rolling blackouts, but they happened this week in the Rio Grande Valley. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the group that manages nearly all of the Texas grid, says the blackouts are related to longstanding problems with the transmission system in the region.

Trouble started on Wednesday afternoon when two power plants suffered breakdowns. Fearing that high demand and low supply of electricity could damage the regional grid and cause an uncontrolled blackout, ERCOT called for “rotating outages” (industry speak for rolling blackouts) to keep some power on the lines.

Grid managers have known for some time the valley runs a higher risk of rolling blackouts. The reason is that the transmission system in the Valley is more isolated than other parts of Texas. It cannot easily bring in electricity from the rest of the ERCOT grid when needed.  That can cause blackouts in the Valley even when the rest of the grid is stable, according to ERCOT.

“The valley area has some significant limitations as far as how much power it can import into that region,” says Robbie Searcy, an ERCOT spokesperson. “Right now when there is a hot early fall afternoon and we have these sort of generation outages there is a risk to the transmission system in that area.”

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KRTS: Public Access to Chinati Mountains State Natural Area Secured

Chinati Mountains in Presidio County

Charlie Llewellin via Creative Commons

Chinati Mountains in Presidio County

The Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in south Presidio County finally has public access, according to Corky Kulhmann, senior project manager for land conservation for Texas Parks and Wildlife. This is news given exclusively to KRTS.

For eight years, Kulhmann and his team have been working to gain public access to 39,000 acres donated to create a new state park.

“But that’s been blocked by either no funds or landowners changing their minds or just other priorities with state parks, as far as money could go when we had money,” Kulhmann explains. “It turned out a lot of the lands here are just a bowl of spaghetti.”

The four tracts of land needed to open a public road to the park were not straight-forward deals. There was the family that wouldn’t sell to the state and instead sold to a developer, who then sold back to the state; a landowner that had to be tracked down in Florida through Facebook; and a deal negotiated with Presidio County after a default on taxes gave them the land, says Kulhmann.

The last piece of the puzzle has Kulhmann’s surveyors working with the state of Texas General Land Office to purchase land from them.

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Energy Secretary Moniz Comments On Proposed Denton Fracking Ban (Sort Of)

Ernest Moniz was the keynote speaker of this year's SXSW Eco conference in Austin.


Ernest Moniz was the keynote speaker of this year's SXSW Eco conference in Austin.

It’s not every day that you get to talk to the US Secretary of Energy about how the oil and gas boom affected your hometown. So, when Alyssa Wolverton saw her chance, she took it.

After delivering the keynote speech at this year’s SXSW Eco conference, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz took some questions from the audience. That’s when Wolverton, a student at the University of North Texas in Denton, asked him about a proposal to ban hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) within city limits. The town will be voting on the ban this November.

“I was curious to know if you think that your really good idea of diversifying our energy (…) can mesh up with the integrity of our cities that don’t want more advances,” asked Wolverton, who supports the proposed ban.

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