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.
ExxonMobil's refinery in Baytown is one of the nation's biggest
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has begun the process to begin issuing air pollution permits for industrial plants that emit greenhouse gases linked to climate change. The permits will be based on new rules put in effect in 2011 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in response to research on global warming.
It’s probably not a result Texas Governor Rick Perry had in mind back in 2010 when he and the Texas attorney general held a news conference. They said the new rules would be so costly to industry that they would be disastrous for the Texas economy.
“My office has worked closely with Attorney General Abbott to consider all options to challenge this seriously flawed EPA finding…to head off an economic calamity…We are challenging the EPA’s findings for CO2 and other greenhouse gases,” Perry said in February 2010. Continue Reading →
These days in Texas, you can’t go far without running into a billion-dollar industrial plant or drilling operation backed by some very non-Texan investors.
Dave Fehling / StateImpact
OCI's Omar Darwazah
“We’re very big fans of Texas,” said Omar Darwazah, a corporate development executive with OCI.
OCI is a fertilizer chemical company now based in the Netherlands but with roots in Egypt. A couple years ago it bought and rejuvenated an ammonia-methanol plant in Beaumont. A few weeks ago it announced it was building a new methanol plant next door that will cost at least $1 billion.
“And that’s the largest in the United States and arguably the largest in the world,” Darwazah told StateImpact.
NRG Limestone Electric Generating Station in Limestone County
When it comes to spectator sports, it might not rank with college football in Texas. But when a state senate committee held a hearing last week to figure out if something is wrong with the state’s deregulated market for electricity, people far from Texas were glued to their computers, watching the hearing live over the internet.
“In all my experience, I’ve never really seen anything in which the Texas Public Utility Commission’s officials have been taken to task in such an aggressive manner by a state legislative hearing,” said Paul Patterson, a New York-based investment analyst who watched the hearing.
Patterson and others who keep close tabs on the nation’s electricity industry are eager to see how Texas handles a problem also facing other states: is there a risk of power shortages if more power plants aren’t built? And if the risk is real, who will foot the gigantic bill? Continue Reading →
Domes at fertilizer facility near Bryan where fire in 2009 destroyed a wooden structure
In response to the deadly explosion six months ago in West, Federal agencies will soon be making recommendations to Congress on how to reduce the risk at fertilizer storage facilities. Should igloos be among the ideas?
“There’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if the West (fertilizer) had been in a dome it would have lost the top, you would have heard a lot of noise, but it would not have damaged the buildings around it,” said David South, president of Monolithic, a company in Italy, Texas that designs concrete dome structures.
Crew installing geothermal power generator at well site near Laurel, Mississippi.
There are thousands of oil & gas wells in Texas that tap into the earth’s supply of hot water, some of it a boiling hot 250 F. There are modern, high tech steam engines that could use the water to make electricity. There was a federally-funded experimental power plant that proved the technology could work in Texas.
“They made (the power plant) work, they proved it was successful, and then they dismantled it because they didn’t have funding to keep the project going,” said Maria Richards, a researcher at Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory.
Vented methane gas burns at processing facility in DeWitt County
When the Environmental Defense Fund and researchers from the University of Texas wanted to find out just how much methane gas was coming from natural gas production sites, they ended up getting “unprecedented” access. The researchers had approached nine, big oil & gas exploration companies, gaining permission to do testing on 190 production sites nationwide.
“It definitely took some conversations with these companies to build a comfort and a trust level that this wasn’t a ‘gotcha’ exercise but rather an exercise to improve the science,” said Drew Nelson, manager of the Environmental Defense Fund ‘s climate and energy program.
Hurricane Ike in 2008 buckled this petroleum storage tank south of Beaumont
Research engineers say they’re finding that giant storage tanks for petrochemicals and petroleum are vulnerable to damage from tropical storms despite the tanks’ massive size and steel construction. The researchers found multiple cases of flood waters and high winds causing the tanks to float, buckle and rupture.
What the scientists say they didn’t find were regulations to minimize the risk in areas where “storm surge” waters are a threat.
“Overall we don’t see a wealth of any mandated provisions for considering surge or wave loads or external pressures from hurricane events,” said Jamie Padgett speaking at conference held recently in Houston by Rice University’s hurricane research center.
As oil and gas production and processing increases, who wins and who loses in Texas?
Texas Land Commission Jerry Patterson told a political luncheon in Houston that “oppressive federal government regulation” was a big threat to the Texas energy economy. Especially pollution regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“And more specifically, (by) the U.S. Wildlife Service and their Endangered Species designations for critters that probably ought to die anyway,” Patterson said, referring to federal efforts to protect species including salamanders, lizards and prairie chickens. The designations could restrict oil & gas drilling in West Texas.
Come to Texas
It’s an anti-regulation stance repeated by the state’s top officials including Governor Rick Perry. Perry has used radio ads to try to lure businesses from other states to Texas where he said there is “limited government” and a “pro-business environment.”
Power pole in Houston with antenna and equipment to allow remotely controlled switching
In the five years since Hurricane Ike knocked out power in most of metropolitan Houston, the city now has more high-tech power poles and fewer trees in power line rights-of-way. But there’s no real assurance of a better outcome the next time a big storm hits.
“If you get another direct hit from a large category hurricane such as Ike, you will probably still have the same amount of people impacted,” said David Baker, CenterPoint Energy’s Vice President in charge of 50,000 miles of wires and poles. “But we’ve tried to apply lessons learned from Ike to speed the recovery up and make that go faster.”
Hurricane Ike was a strong Category 2 storm when it made landfall in Galveston, leaving 95 percent of CenterPoint’s 2.26 million customers in the dark. Ten days later, 75 percent of them had power restored. It would take a week longer to get to everyone else.
Dominic Krus was among them. After two and a half weeks, the lights came back on in his home in Houston’s Sharpstown subdivision.
“My wife says the lights are on. I said, ‘Oh great, we can sleep with AC tonight.’ It was a pretty happy event,” said Krus.
As the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) considers changing the electricity market so there’s more money to build new power plants, a mystery has popped up: why aren’t Texans using as much electricity as predicted?
“There’s something that’s been going on recently with the forecasts, which affects a lot of things,” said PUC commissioner Kenneth Anderson at the commission’s open meeting last week.
Who Turned the Lights Out?
Anderson said forecasts from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had predicted electricity demand would increase in 2013 by 2.1 percent.
“It’s been barely one percent, if it’s even hit one percent,” Anderson said.