Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Dave Fehling

Reporter

Dave Fehling is the Houston-based broadcast reporter for StateImpact. Before joining StateImpact Texas, Dave reported and anchored at KHOU-TV in Houston. He also worked as a staff correspondent for CBS News from 1994-1998. He now lectures on journalism at the University of Houston.

  • Email: dfehling@houstonpublicmedia.org
  • Twitter: @DaveFehling

Army Nuclear Reactor Barge Headed For Dismantling In Galveston

Aboard the Sturgis: US Army Corp of Engineers project managers Brenda Barber (flag safety hat) and Hans Honerlah (yellow jacket)

Dave Fehling

Aboard the Sturgis: US Army Corp of Engineers project managers Brenda Barber (flag safety hat) and Hans Honerlah (yellow jacket)

Sometime this winter, an historic sea vessel will float into Galveston. But you won’t be able to take a tour of it. In fact, you probably won’t be allowed to get close to it. Because the big barge is radioactive.

A half century ago, the U.S. Army came up with what sounded like a great idea: put a small, nuclear power plant on board an old military cargo ship. The Army called it the Sturgis after a three-star general.

“The Sturgis was fairly highly classified,” said Will Davis who used to operate nuclear reactors in the Navy and now has a blog on atomic power. He said the Sturgis had one mission: it was sent to the Panama Canal to generate electricity to operate the locks. But after about 7 years, it was no longer needed and was mothballed.

“Sturgis has been de-fueled since 1977. The nuclear fuel was taken out,” said Davis.

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Finding Land For Boom In Freight Trains

Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston

Dave Fehling

Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston

A growing Texas economy means thousands more rail cars are needed to keep up with the increasing flow of oil, petrochemicals and other goods. But the challenge is to find a suitable place to build huge rail yards that can cover hundreds of acres and handle thousands of rail cars a day.

Since 2009, one rail line reports a 35 percent increase in the number of rail cars “terminating” their trip in Texas.

“You’re talking a massive increase in movement that’s really poised to increase a lot in the next five years particularly with what’s happening in South Texas and West Texas,” said Ken Medlock, an energy economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

South and West Texas is where the oil is and tank cars by the thousands are moving it to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

But it’s not just oil. There’s also a big expansion of chemical and other manufacturing along the coast, plus more goods are moving through ports in Beaumont, Houston, and Corpus Christi.

Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston. She shows a reporter a map of Texas marked with a web of rail lines and highways that converge in clusters.

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Where Cotton Is King, Controversy Erupts Over Rail Yard

Railroad tracks into Mumford just northwest of Bryan-College Station. Photo by Dave Fehling

Railroad tracks into Mumford just northwest of Bryan-College Station. Photo by Dave Fehling

If it seems like you’re spending more time in Houston stuck waiting at railroad crossings, there’s a reason. Compared to just five years ago, there are hundreds of thousands more railcars crisscrossing Texas. Demand from the oil & gas industry is a big factor.

To keep up, railroad companies are building more tracks. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Just northwest of Bryan-College Station you can follow the railroad tracks to the tiny town of Mumford.

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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

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.

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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

Environmental Group Says Illegal Diesel Fracking Used in Texas

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

StateImpact Texas

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

An environmental group says it’s found over a hundred oil or gas wells being drilled in Texas using techniques that the group says are illegal. At issue is “fracking” which injects huge quantities of water and chemicals deep underground.

Fracking is what’s revolutionized drilling in Texas. The technique uses all sorts of chemicals including acids that are injected by the thousands of gallons down into wells to break up rock so gas and oil can escape.

There’ve always been concerns that the chemicals could risk contaminating groundwater, but state and federal regulators have allowed drillers to use dozens of different substances.

Except one: diesel fuel. Continue Reading

Are Companies at Risk when the CEO is in the Cockpit?

Houston had the third highest number of CEOs with pilot licenses according to a study assessing risk-taking among executives

Dave Fehling / StateImpact Texas

Houston has the third highest number of CEOs with pilot licenses according to a study assessing risk-taking among executives

It’s a sign of success: having your own plane and being your own pilot. In fact, Houston ranks third in the nation for the number of corporate chief executives who have pilot licenses. Dallas ranks sixth. But as highlighted by a tragedy earlier this spring in West Texas, there may be an added risk. But is that bad for the company’s bottom line?

On a Wednesday afternoon this past June, a turboprop plane took off from Aspen Colorado.

Destination: Brenham Texas, northwest of Houston.

As the plane headed southeast, crossing over the Texas panhandle, it encountered a big line of thunderstorms. The on-line tracking service FlightAware shows the plane turned sharply to the south. It was sometime later that afternoon that a rancher would find the crumpled wreckage in an open field just west of Lubbock.

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Residents Tell EPA: We’re Not Secondary To Refinery Profits

Luke Metzger, Environment Texas, who testified at EPA hearing, passing by a photo of a refinery explosion in California.

Luke Metzger, Environment Texas, who testified at EPA hearing, passing by a photo of a refinery explosion in California.

People who live near refineries along the Gulf Coast are calling for tougher, federal rules to curb air pollution. The pleas were made at a Federal Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), public hearing held Tuesday in Galena Park. The community is on Houston’s east side is in the heart of the oil-refining complex along the Ship Channel.

The industry says the new EPA rules would be a waste of money. But residents like Yudith Nieto say they are desperately needed.

“I’m from a community in Houston called Manchester which is surrounded on all fours by industry,” Nieto testified. She and other residents told a panel of federal EPA officials how childhood leukemia, asthma and bronchitis are unusually common here, citing health studies to back up their claims.

“This is something that is a disparity, an obvious disparity because other parts of the city, other parts of the area don’t bear that same burden,” said John Sullivan with the Sealy Center for Environmental Health in Galveston. He was talking about the burden of breathing what may be coming from refineries. Continue Reading

EPA Showdown: Who in Texas Wants Tighter Refinery Regulation?

Do Hydrogen Cyanide Leaks Show Weakness of Current Regs?

Houston's Ship Channel: home to refineries and petrochemical complex and site of EPA hearing

Dave Fehling

Houston's Ship Channel is home to one of the nation's biggest oil refining and petrochemical complexes and is the site of the EPA hearing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will set up its microphones for an all day hearing Tuesday in Galena Park, a community on Houston’s east side in the heart of the enormous Houston Ship Channel refinery complex. It’s the second of two such hearings with the first held last month in a similar community in Los Angeles.

At issue: new EPA rules that would make oil refineries invest in better equipment to reduce pollution emissions from storage tanks and to improve the efficiency of flares that burn emissions during plant “upsets”. Refineries would also have to increase fence-line monitoring to track exactly what pollution is blowing into adjacent communities.


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