Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Mose Buchele

Reporter

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for StateImpact. He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 in Austin since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.

Is the Oil Boom Helping Prices at the Pump?

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Photo courtesy of Tom Kloza and Gasbuddy.com

Texas is getting more oil out of the ground than it has since the great boom of the 1970s. And it’s not alone: the oil fields of North Dakota are, for the first time ever, producing over one million barrels a day. Across the country, the boom has lead to predictions that the U.S. will overtake even Saudi Arabia in oil production by the end of the year. But is all that drilling helping American consumers at the pump?

A quick look at the numbers before the long weekend would indicate not. Prices were about 20 cents per gallon higher than this time last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There’s a lot more to what you pay when you fill up your car than how much oil is out there. Market speculation can inflate prices. Then there’s how much it costs to move oil around. You can drill for all the crude you want, but it’s another thing to bring it to a refinery. Add to that the role played by OPEC in setting prices, and it’s clear that what you’re paying is not dictated by simple supply and demand.

Nonetheless, some analysts say consumers are benefiting from the boom. They just might not notice it.

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Ranchers Approve Added Charge for Cattle Sales in Texas

The Texas Ag Commissioner's role is about much more than just farming.

Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

The Texas Ag Commissioner's role is about much more than just farming.

Every time a cow is sold in Texas, a dollar of that sale goes to industry groups that use it to promote and research beef. It’s part of a national program called the “beef checkoff,” and that charge will now rise to two dollars in Texas after a statewide vote by cattle owners.

The vote to raise the fee passed by nearly 67 percent. The results were announced Wednesday and hailed by agriculture and cattle industry groups, who say the money is needed to keep beef competitive.

“The beef checkoff program was initiated (at one dollar per sale) back in the 1980s; we’re down to about 40 cents on the dollar for that value today,” says Jay Evans, Chair of the Natural Resource and Environment Committee of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The association has received support from the beef checkoff program and nominates members to the board that distributes money from the program.

The existing program splits the dollar charge between national and state groups. The new charge approved by the recent vote will stay in Texas and be controlled by the Texas Beef Council.

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As Renewables Grow in Texas, Battles Over Fees and Subsidies Emerge

Wind turbines in West Texas help produce record amounts of electricity for the state.

Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

Wind turbines in West Texas help produce record amounts of electricity for the state.

In the coming years, the federal government wants Texas to reduce its carbon emissions by about 40 percent. With a goal like that, you might expect to see more programs aimed at promoting renewable energy in Texas. But something like the opposite appears to be happening.

Donna Nelson, chair of Texas’ Public Utility Commission, asked last month if wind power generators, not Texas utility customers, should pay for upgrades to transmission lines. The Commission regulates the state’s electric grid, among other things.

“This is really my attempt to flesh out some of the issues that are associated with the continued growth of renewable resources in Texas,” Nelson said. In a memo outlining her request, Nelson said wind and solar are already mature industries in Texas, and that federal subsidies distort the market. The federal tax credit for wind power was allowed to expire last year, but could be renewed by Congress this year.

Nelson’s idea got a lot of people talking. Texas’ much-touted Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission line project, that brings wind power from the West, were paid for by electric customers to encourage renewables. Those lines, along with federal subsidies, brought a boom in Texas wind power.

A boom, critics say, that Nelson of the PUC is trying to hinder by exploring the idea of a fee or tax. Continue Reading

Judge Approves Three Million Dollar Verdict in Fracking Lawsuit

The Parrs says drilling near their property made them sick. A Dallas jury agreed, awarding them nearly $3 million.

Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

The Parrs say drilling near their property made them sick. A Dallas jury agreed, awarding them nearly $3 million.

A Texas family claiming emissions from gas drilling made them sick is one step closer to collecting a $3 million jury award against the drilling company, Aruba Petroleum.

When the Parr family of Wise County won their case, it was called the first successful “fracking lawsuit” in the county. Aruba asked Dallas County Judge Mark Greenberg to throw out the three million dollar verdict. But late Thursday Greenberg denied that motion.

The case is important because drilling companies often reach out-of-court settlements with plaintiffs. Those can include gag orders. This time there was no settlement, so the details of the Parrs’ sickness, including nosebleeds, rashes and stomach problems were made public.

The case is being closely watch by industry and groups opposed to fracking.

Tom McGarity, a law professor at UT Austin calls the judge’s ruling “a bad precedent for the industry.”

“I think there are plaintiffs’ lawyers out there right now that are looking at this case and saying this is a really opportunity here to raise claims by people who have been damaged either in their property values or health,” he says.

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Curious About Explosive Chemicals Near You? Texas Attorney General Says It’s Secret

The Texas Attorney General says the TCEQ, the state's environmental regulator, was not responsible for killing 23 rare whooping cranes.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Rulings from the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's Office say that homeland security concerns trump the public's right to know about dangerous chemicals in Texas .

Ever since a fertilizer plant blew up last year and killed 15 people in West, Texas, many Texans have wanted to know where dangerous chemicals are stored in their area. Until recently, it was pretty easy to find out. They could simply ask the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). But a string of recent rulings from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott now says that information should be kept confidential.

It’s a trend that has open government advocates and some local officials worried.

The rulings from Abbott, who is running for Governor, came to light after an ammonia nitrate storage building in Athens, Texas caught fire last month. WFAA, an ABC affiliate station in Dallas, requested data from the Department of State Health Services on the building. Instead of getting the data, reporters were presented with this ruling from Attorney General Abbott, saying it was confidential.

The ruling came after DSHS asked for the Attorney General’s opinion. The Department sought the opinion because of a string of earlier rulings Abbott provided to other state agencies, all determining that information on dangerous chemicals should not be shared.

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Beef “Checkoff” Vote Sparks Debate on How Beef is Taxed, Promoted

The Texas Ag Commissioner's role is about much more than just farming.

Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

The beef checkoff vote is about more than just a one dollar tax.

Forget the governor’s race. All across Texas people are voting over beef.

Friday is the final day for ranchers and others who deal in cattle to vote on implementing a Texas beef checkoff, a tax charged each time a cow is sold. There’s already a national beef checkoff that levies a one dollar assessment on the seller per cow.

The vote today is on a proposal to create a Texas checkoff, also for a dollar. If the proposal passes, most ranchers in the state will pay a two-dollar tax for each head of cattle they sell.

The government doesn’t collect this tax. The money goes to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board which then gives some of it to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. That industry group uses it to fund beef-related research and to promote beef. The same group also lobbies Washington on behalf of the beef industry. Supporters of the checkoff argue that the tax has raised the price of beef over the years by creating demand.

“Every time the price of beef goes up, it helps me,” says Texas Rancher Curtis Younts Jr., who supports the checkoff.

But the Texas vote has become about more than a one-dollar tax. Many are viewing it as a referendum on the way beef is taxed and promoted in Texas and the US.

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Regulators Close Case on Flaming Texas Water, Researcher Says Not So Fast

The growing presence of methane in the water wells of a suburban Dallas community cannot be linked to nearby drilling activity even though methane levels have risen in several wells in the area since drilling began, according to a report released by the state’s oil and gas regulator. But other scientists who study the issue are not so sure there is no link to drilling.

The report released last week by the Railroad Commission of Texas says it found no evidence that elevated levels of methane in the water or the Parker county housing development ‘Silverado on the Brazos’ is caused by gas drilling operations. The report also says further investigation into a potential link ”is not planned at this time.”

“I was surprised that the commission isn’t planning to do some more testing,” Rob Jackson, professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University who is also studying the issue, says. ”Their own data found that five of eight water wells had increasing methane concentration through time. That alone seems like enough reason to follow up.”

Jackson is planning to publish his own findings on the region’s water. Another study by former EPA scientist Geoffrey Thyne indicates the methane is linked to drilling, though Range Resources, the drilling company that owns nearby drilling wells has dismissed the scientists findings, and says the methane is naturally occurring.

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A Closer Look at How Ryan Sitton Became the GOP Nominee for Railroad Commission

Ryan Sitton and Wayne Christian are facing off to become the GOP nominee for Railroad Commissioner.

Images from campaign videos of the candidates.

Ryan Sitton and Wayne Christian faced off to become the GOP nominee for Railroad Commissioner.

Tuesday night’s runoff elections exhibited a clear pattern: the candidate who most convincingly wore the mantel of Tea Party conservatism won the night on the Republican side. But in the race for a seat on the Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the outcome was not so simple.

Wayne Christian, a former state lawmaker, lost that race even though he ran a campaign trying to “out-conservative” his opponent. Ryan Sitton, who owns an oil and gas engineering consulting firm, won.

That left many political reporters and pundits scratching their heads. Texas Observer politics writer Christopher Hooks summed it up in nicely when he tweeted: “Wonder why Wayne Christian is getting crushed tonight.”

We may have some answers:

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Ryan Sitton Wins Railroad Commission Runoff in Election Night Surprise

Ryan Sitton was chosen as the Republican nominee for Reailroad Commissioner.

Ryan Sitton was chosen as the Republican nominee for Reailroad Commissioner.

When former State Rep. Wayne Christian entered the GOP primary runoff for Railroad Commission 12 points ahead of his opponent, he had the backing of numerous Tea Party groups and Republican clubs. He looked very much like the favorite in his race against relative political newcomer Ryan Sitton.

Tuesday GOP voters upended those expectations, nominating Sitton to run in the general election for a seat on the Commission, which regulates the Texas oil and gas industry.

Sitton owns an oil and gas engineering consulting firm. He faced numerous questions in the primary and runoff over whether he could ethically regulate an industry to which he belongs. He initially said he would stay involved with his company if elected, a position from which he later backtracked. He also came under criticism for refusing to divulge his client list.

Little appeared to differentiate Christian and Sitton on policy issues. Both candidates stuck close to conservative positions on regulation, decrying what they describe as federal overreach and burdensome environmental rules. They also shared similar views on social issues unrelated to oil and gas, and reminded voters of their anti-abortion and pro-gun rights positions.

Drought Possible Culprit in Massive Fish Kill on Gulf Coast

A father and daughter play on the beach in Galveston in 2005. A red tide in Galveston Bay is causing dead fish to wash up on shore this week.

Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

A father and daughter play on the beach in Galveston in 2005. A red tide in Galveston Bay is causing dead fish to wash up on shore this week.

Researchers suspect drought is the cause of a massive fish die off in the Galveston Bay where millions of shad, also known as skipjack, have washed ashore there in recent days.  They’ve been found primarily around the communities of Kemah and Seabrook.

“We’ve never seen one to this scale in this location,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist Heather Biggs told KUT’s Nathan Bernier. Though she said that it’s “very common to have fish kills within tributaries throughout the bay system due to low dissolved oxygen.”

Biggs says the cause is apparently the drought. Researchers suspect a lack of rainwater runoff into Galveston Bay resulted in oxygen-depleted waters, which caused the fish to die.

“When you have more runoff, you have more turbidity in the water, and you have more mixing in the water and so you have more oxygen,” Biggs said.

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