Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Terrence Henry

Reporter

Terrence Henry reports on energy and the environment for StateImpact Texas. His radio, print and television work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The Texas Tribune, The History Channel and other outlets. He has previously worked at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University.

4 Ways Texas Could Win Big Under New Climate Change Rules

A coal power plant in Fayette, Texas.

Photo by Andy Uhler/KUT News

A coal power plant in Fayette, Texas.

Earlier this year, the earth hit a frightening milestone: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its highest level since humans have inhabited the earth. The last time there was this much carbon on the planet was nearly a million years ago.

As the heat-trapping gas proliferates, the world warms, and the climate effects domino: droughts intensify, floods increase, ice melts and seas rise. The question now isn’t whether human activity is changing the global climate; the question is what to do about it.

The Obama administration proposed new rules last month that would take a first step in curbing carbon emissions from power plants in the U.S. Their target? Coal power plants. The response to the rules from Republican leaders in Texas was predictable: Gov. Rick Perry said the regulations “will only further stifle our economy’s sluggish recovery and increase energy costs.” And Attorney General (and candidate for Governor) Greg “I  go into work to sue the Obama Administration” Abbott vowed to fight the “job-killing” rules just as he’s fought other rules from the EPA.

But Texas may want to sit the fight over the new carbon rules out: because they could be an economic windfall for the state, to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

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Who’s Behind Denton’s Fracking Ban? Head Texas Regulator Thinks It Could Be Russia

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

Doualy Xaykaothao KERA News

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

After collecting thousands of signatures from local residents, a proposal to ban the oil and gas production technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the city of Denton will end up before voters this fall. While the Denton City Council turned down an opportunity to pass the ban themselves very early this morning, the proposal could still go into effect if voters approve it in November.

It would mark the first time a Texas city has outright banned fracking, and will likely result in a lengthy legal battle. Whether or not Texas cities can have bans like the one proposed in Denton is an open question, and the ban could push Texas courts or the legislature to answer it.

The proposal was put together by a citizen environmental group called the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. Locals in favor of the ban packed City Hall last night (and well into this morning) to speak in favor of it; there were oil and gas industry voices that spoke in opposition as well.

One prominent critic of the proposed ban is Barry Smitherman, the chair of Texas’ oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission (which regulates drilling and production, but not railroads). In a letter sent to the city council ahead of the vote, Smitherman cautioned strongly against it, writing that a ban on fracking would mean a ban on drilling. “If other cities were to follow your lead, then we could potentially, one day, see a ban on drilling within all cities in Texas.”

In the letter, Smitherman implies that it isn’t locals pushing the ban. It’s Russia.

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Construction Begins on Largest Carbon Capture Project in the World

Carbon dioxide will be captured and piped to an oilfield

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Carbon dioxide will be captured and piped to an oilfield

Here’s a head-scratcher: Over a million of tons of carbon dioxide a year will be captured from a coal plant near Houston, Texas. Then that captured carbon will be used to get more fossil fuels out of the ground, specifically from an old oilfield that’s been in use since the 1930s. Construction has begun on the Petra Nova Project, which the U.S. Department of Energy is calling “the first commercial-scale post-combustion carbon capture retrofit project in the U.S.”

The carbon capture will take place at the NRG W.A. Parish coal plant in Fort Bend County, the largest coal plant in Texas. The carbon capture project has quadrupled since its conception, now aiming to capture 90 percent of the emissions from one of the generating units at the plant. That carbon dioxide will be compressed and sent via pipeline 80 miles away to the West Ranch Oil Field

Dave Fehling of StateImpact Texas took a look at the project in February 2012: Continue Reading

How One Austin Home Produces More Energy Than It Uses

Steve Bijansky climbs down from the attic.

Mengwen Cao for KUT News

Steve Bijansky climbs down from the attic.

As the mercury rises in Texas, so does our energy use. Air conditioners will work overtime to keep your house cool. And when that happens, the Texas grid can become stretched thin. One solution is to build more power plants to meet growing demand. Another is to simply get Texans to use less energy.

“The cheapest and cleanest electricity is the electricity you don’t use,” says Kate Zerrenner, a Project Manager in the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund that focuses on energy efficiency and the energy-water nexus.

To see how far efficiency can go, I visited one of the newest – and smallest — power plants in Austin. Forget smokestacks and huge transmission lines: this “power plant” is actually a modest three-bedroom house in the Allandale neighborhood, right off Burnet Road. It’s classified as a “Net Zero” home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses. Or in this case, it actually produces more energy than it needs. Continue Reading

Proposals to Prevent Another Fertilizer Explosion Immediately Meet Resistance

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas last year took much more than fifteen lives. At least 262 people were injured; twenty percent of those were brain injuries. Homes and schools were destroyed. But judging from the response of some state lawmakers charged with stopping it from happening again, preventable disasters like the one in West are just something Texans are going to have to live with from time to time.

There’s been no new regulations for fertilizer plants since the disaster until this month, but there’s been a consensus for some time about how to prevent another tragedy like the one in West: require fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate in non-combustible facilities or to use sprinklers; conduct inspections of facilities; and train first responders so they know how to deal with fires that may break out at sites with ammonium nitrate.

draft bill to do just that was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But Republicans on his committee like Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) made clear at a hearing yesterday that they’re likely going to fight new regulations proposed to prevent another West. Flynn said new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business, and he worries that any new rules for volunteer fire departments could strain budgets.

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Rising Oil and Gas Boom Does Little for Poor in Texas

When it comes to the oil and gas drilling boom in the country, Texas is king. Actually, make that crown a global one: over a quarter of all the active drilling rigs in the world are right here in the Lone Star State.

The boom – taking place thanks to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling – has brought jobs, money and more energy security to Texas and the country. It’s also damaged roads, increased traffic and accidents, strained local governments and caused housing prices to skyrocket in parts of the state. How the boom is leaving some communities behind is the subject of an in-depth report today in The New York Times.

“Though the boom has helped produce fortunes for some and comfortable lives for many, for others it exists within a rural landscape of unpaved streets without garbage pickup, where few dare to drink the tap water because it tastes and smells like chlorine,” Manny Fernandez and Clifford Kraus write.

“Not all tides raise all ships,” Libby Campbell, director of the West Texas Food Bank in Midland-Odessa, told StateImpact Texas when we visited her last fall. Campbell showed us how her operation is struggling to meet with increased demand for their services. People are showing up to the region broke, with the hopes of finding a job in the oilfield – or they already live in the area and have seen their rent double or triple since the latest boom began.

In a video accompanying the story in today’s Times (above), you can see how an influx of industry and profit has caused more hardship for those already stuck in poverty.  Continue Reading

Here Are 5 Challenges to Texas Water That Might Surprise You

An old radio lies in the mud exposed after the water has gone at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, in September 2013

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

An old radio lies in the mud exposed after the water has gone at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, in September 2013

With nearly 70 percent of the state still stuck in a drought that has dragged on for years, there’s been plenty of talk about how to strengthen water supplies in Texas. A multi-billion-dollar water fund (the passage of Proposition 6 last election) is in the works that will help fund projects like reservoirs, desalination and conservation. And there’s ongoing discussion and debate about the elephant in the aquifer: ways to change how groundwater is regulated, which took up a whole day of testimony at the state legislature this week. But that’s not all.

Beyond those two big-ticket items — how to pay for water supplies and how to regulate water underground — there are some other smaller challenges the state faces when it comes to water. At a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday, several state agencies told lawmakers about the water challenges they’re dealing with. Here’s five issues that caught our attention:

1. ‘Toilet to Tap’ Could Mean Drier Rivers Downstream

Water reuse is picking up in Texas, but it could create problems for downriver communities. Customers currently pump treated wastewater back into a river, where its carried downstream to be treated and used again, but better techniques and technologies in water reuse are upsetting that system. Now communities like Wichita Falls in North Texas are moving towards direct wastewater reuse, and when that happens, there’s less water flowing downstream. Continue Reading

How New Transmission Lines Are Bringing More Wind Power to Texas Cities

New transmission line projects are already resulting in more wind power making its way to cities in Central and North Texas.

Public Utility Commission

New transmission line projects are already resulting in more wind power making its way to cities in Central and North Texas.

We’re all going to be paying for it, so you might be glad to know that a new set of transmission lines to bring wind power from the Panhandle and West Texas to folks in North and Central Texas appear to be off to a good start. According to a new federal analysis this week, the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones power transmission project, also known as CREZ, is already resulting in fewer curtailments of wind power and more even prices in Texas’ energy market.

The project cost $7 billion, a price that will be paid for by tacking on a fee to Texans’ utility bills. On average, your power bill could go up several dollars a month.

Before the lines went into operation, Texas had an odd problem: the state was producing too much wind power. Wind power grew so rapidly in Texas that it was a victim of its own success. More than half of the state’s wind power was built in a very short period, from 2006-09, according to the analysis from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and transmission couldn’t keep up.  Continue Reading

Finding Definitive Answers to North Texas Quakes Could Take Years, But Clues Appear

A panel of experts gathered in Azle Wednesday night to talk about what's behind the North Texas earthquake swarm.

Andy Taylor/KERA

A panel of experts gathered in Azle Wednesday night to talk about what's behind the North Texas earthquake swarm.

What is behind the tremors in North Texas? Starting late last fall, a swarm of quakes struck the communities of Reno and Azle outside of Fort Worth. It’s hardly the first community in the Lone Star State to have to deal with damaged foundations, cracked windows and rude awakenings from quakes: there have been nine other scientifically-researched quake swarms in Texas, all of them in areas of oil and gas drilling activity.

In all of those other Texas cases, injection for either oil and gas drilling wastewater disposal or to enhance oil and gas production has been behind many of the quakes. That mirrors similar phenomena in Oklahoma, Ohio and other states, where wastewater disposal has become the main culprit behind a rise in quakes in what used to be seismically-quiet parts of the country. Oklahoma, for instance, now has more quakes than California, with several smaller quakes taking place yesterday, the same day we held a forum with Dallas’ KERA News, ‘What’s Behind the North Texas Quakes?’

The community forum, featuring a panel of officials and experts, explored what we currently know about the quakes, what can be done about them, and whether or not state regulators and legislators are up to the task of taking actions to prevent more quakes in the future. Here’s what we learned, and some of the questions that remain unanswered: Continue Reading

Listen to Our Community Forum: What’s Behind the North Texas Quakes?

Azle and Reno are the epicenter for the North Texas earthquake swarm.

Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News

Azle and Reno are the epicenter for the North Texas earthquake swarm.

On Wednesday night, StateImpact Texas and KERA Dallas hosted a community forum in Azle, ‘What’s Behind the North Texas Quakes?’ The goal of the forum was to bring together experts and civic leaders to address a swarm of tremors that began late last fall that could be tied to oil and gas production. Read our full story on the forum here. 

Moderated by KERA’s Doualy Xaykaothao, the panel included state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes, SMU Associate Professor of Geophysics Heather DeShon, Bill Stevens of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, and our reporter Mose Buchele.

The forum explored what we currently know about the quakes, what can be done about them, and whether or not state regulators and legislators are up to the task of taking actions to prevent more quakes in the future. We have a full story here on the forum, and audio of the whole event here for you to listen to:

Audience members were also invited to ask questions of the panel. Here’s that portion of the forum:

And here’s a collection of tweets covering the event: Continue Reading

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