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From Pipeline to Pump, How Gasoline Gets to Your Car

Johnny Herrera is a dispatcher for Tex Con Oil. A company that distributes fuel around the Austin area.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Johnny Herrera is a dispatcher for Tex Con Oil. A company that distributes fuel around the Austin area.

By now, the initial surprise over low gas prices has worn off. But people looking for the very best deals might have noticed a trend: small, unbranded gas stations are often the first to cut prices. Many of them continue to stay competitive even when larger brand-name stations cut their prices as well.

To understand why stations offer different prices for essentially the same product, it helps to take a trip from the pump back to the pipeline, to see exactly how gas is bought, sold and transported.

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Amid a New Swarm of Quakes, Researchers Head to Irving

This map from the USGS shows the approximate location of a recent quake near Irving, Texas.

Courtesy of USGS

This map from the USGS shows the approximate location of a recent quake near Irving, Texas.

Updated 1/6/14 with more comment from Railroad Commission and information on Tuesday January 6th earthquake.

A team of seismologists headed to the North Texas town of Irving Monday.  Like some other Texas towns, Irving has experienced scores of small earthquakes lately, 20 since last September, including a magnitude 3.5 quake that struck on January 6th. And the city is hoping to figure out what’s behind the shaking.

The upsurge in quakes started in Texas around the time the oil and gas boom took hold several years ago.  Residents in many parts of the state blame the them on wastewater disposal wells, where fluid byproducts of oil and gas drilling are pumped deep into the ground.  Scientists have shown how injecting fluid into the ground can cause earthquakes.

After a spate of quakes in the North Texas town of Azle, the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator, hired a seismologist, Dr. David Craig Pearson, and passed new regulations for disposal wells. The Commission says it is not investigating the Irving quakes.

“The Railroad Commission is not investigating seismic activity around Irving,” Ramona Nye, a spokesperson for the Commission wrote in an email to StateImpact Texas. “Specifically, there are no disposal wells in Dallas County, and there is only one natural gas well in the vicinity, and it is an inactive well.”

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Copenhagen Turns to Two Wheels and Takes Off

Cyclist commuting in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Norrebro.

DPA /LANDOV

Cyclist commuting in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Norrebro.

Rain or shine, in the light of summer or the early afternoon darkness of winter, under heavy sleet, unrelenting winds or drifts of snow, people in Copenhagen just bike. They bike in fur coats, they bike in suits and ties. They bike old, they bike young. They wheel their kids around on a cargo bike with a wooden box carrying the children up front, taking them to and from school; this is Copenhagen’s take on a minivan. People just bike, and after arriving in the city myself, I soon found out why: it’s usually the fastest way to get around. So I rented a bike, too.

Today, 60 percent of people in the city’s core commute by bike. In the greater Copenhagen area, over 40 percent do. “We see the same numbers [of commuting by bike] all year round,” says Copenhagen Environmental and Technical Affairs Mayor Morten Kabell.

“It’s not something that’s in Copenhagen’s genes, or that we’re weirder or stranger than any other people on earth,” Kabell says. “Every city can do this.”

Copenhagen has had enormous success getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, public transit and their own two feet. But this development has less to do with Danes wanting to save the planet, and much more to do with saving their own sanity.

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How Denmark and Texas Became Wind Energy Kings

Standing on the shore of the Baltic sea a few miles outside of Copenhagen, Denmark, the view’s about what you’d expect. Rocky shore, grey horizon, a boat here or there. But this shore is special. Look up, and you’ll see — and hear — three giant offshore wind turbines cutting through the air. Each stands 500 feet tall, with three blades (each close to 200 feet long), spinning non-stop.

“The blades look quite thin, but don’t be cheated,” says Rune Birk Nielsen, with DONG Energy, which runs the turbines. “They each weigh about twenty tons. They are massive.” Each turbine has a capacity of 3.6 megawatts, or enough to power 3,000 Danish homes.

Nielsen guides me through the small offshore wind park — well, technically it’s offshore. The turbines aren’t actually too far from land — each is connected to the shore by a short footbridge about ten yards long.

“For us, it’s kind of a demonstration park,” Nielsen says, “where we are able to test all sorts of things.” With turbines close to shore, they’re easier to fiddle with or repair. The company can safely train their workers without sending them far out to sea, where most of the country’s offshore turbines are.

Denmark is booming when it comes to wind energy. To understand how and why, you have to go back a few decades. Continue Reading

Voters Pass First Local Fracking Ban in Texas

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Update, Nov. 5: Denton voters passed a local ban on “fracking,” an oil and gas production process. 59 percent of voters said “yes” to the ban, with 41 percent voting against. The Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) wasted no time in filing a request to overturn the vote, saying it violates state law.

Original story, Oct. 21: For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community. The site is, however, not very close to any houses.

“I’ll show you where this exact same thing was sitting by someone’s home,” she says.

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State Lawmakers Consider the Impacts of EPA Regulations

A recent drop in carbon emissions in the U.S. could only be temporary, a new report warns.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A recent drop in carbon emissions in the U.S. could only be temporary, a new report warns.

Texas will need to make big cuts in carbon emissions over the next 15 years under a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency.  You can expect to hear complaints about the EPA rule at a two-day meeting of the House Environmental Regulations Committee starting Monday.

The federal agency and state leaders have been at odds for years and many conservatives worry that limiting carbon emission to fight climate change will hurt the economy.

But there are some in Texas who see an upside. Click the player to learn more.

As Drought Persists, Cities Look to Texas ‘Lakes’ to Answer Needs

Austin's Decker Lake is used for electricity production and recreations. But it could be re-purposed for municipal water use.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Austin's Decker Lake is used for electricity production and recreations. But it could be re-purposed for municipal water use.

The funny thing about Walter E. Long Lake: most people don’t know it exists.

The lake, tucked into a rural-feeling part of North East Austin is big, by Austin standards. It can hold more water than Austin’s two central city Lakes -Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake- combined. It was created to host a power plant, which it’s done for for nearly 50 years. That’s how it got its other name: Decker Lake.

But Last week, Austin’s city council voted on a plan to wean Austin off Decker Power Plant electricity, opting to shutter the plant to lower citywide emissions. If that happens, the lake could serve as Austin’s a new city reservoir.

“It’s a body of water most people don’t know about. Some people use it, you’ll see fishing boats out there on the lake,” says Sharlene Leurig, who works at Ceres, a non-profit specializing in sustainability. “But for the most part it’s the unappreciated stepchild of the lakes we have here in Austin.”

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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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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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During Drought, Once-Mighty Texas Rice Belt Fades Away

In the floodplain, several inches of fine silty mud sit atop thick, heavy clay. The clay is the finest dust eroded by the river, carried until this point then deposited as the river spreads out across the prairie. The silt is a thick rich mixture of sediment from upstream. The land in the floodplain naturally holds water very well.

Dylan Baddour / StateImpact Texas

In the floodplain, several inches of fine silty mud sit atop thick, heavy clay. The clay is the finest dust eroded by the river, carried until this point then deposited as the river spreads out across the prairie. The silt is a thick rich mixture of sediment from upstream. The land in the floodplain naturally holds water very well.

In 2012, some farming districts on the Lower Colorado River were cut off from water for irrigation for the first time. Reservoirs were too low to flood tens of thousands of rice fields. Some asked, “Why would anyone be farming rice in Texas in the first place?”

The answer is long, and it begins with the fact that parts of Texas haven’t always been dry. For farmers like Ronald Gertson, who remembers driving a tractor through rice fields as a child, recent years have been hard to bear.

“It’s just unbelievable that it’s been so bad that we have had three unprecedented years in a row, and I recognize some experts say we could have a couple of decades like this. I hope and pray that’s not the case,” says Gertson, a rice farmer, chair of numerous water-related committees and, in recent years, unofficial spokesman for the Texas Rice Belt. “If that is the case then yeah, this whole prairie is going to change.”

But it has already changed.

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