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Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

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Presidio County Water Managers Offer Answers, but Citizens Have More Questions

From Marfa Public Radio: 

Tanker trucks lined up inside the City of Marfa’s water treatment plant after a group of residents blocked the trucks’ access to city fire hydrants.

Tanker trucks lined up inside the City of Marfa’s water treatment plant after a group of residents blocked the trucks’ access to city fire hydrants.

Two weeks ago, a small group of citizens vocalized concerns over Marfa’s practice of selling bulk water to clients outside the city.

“Our water is too cheap. It needs to be expensive. We need water conservation. We need to think about that,” said Buck Johnston.

Two weeks ago the Marfa resident formed a small protest to block tanker trucks using city water for their oil and gas speculation. The protest worked briefly but soon the trucks were rerouted to other spigots.

Later, it was announced that no oil or gas was found. And though the trucks disappeared from Marfa city streets, the concern about water use in Presidio County hasn’t. Continue Reading

Texas Slams EPA Website that Compares State Pollution Enforcement

The ECHO website uses data from state pollution regulators

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

The EPA's ECHO website uses data from state pollution regulators to compare compliance and enforcement

Compared to other states, Texas has a consistently higher percentage of major industrial plants with “high priority violations” of air pollution laws. Yet, compared to other states, Texas does far fewer comprehensive inspections of polluting facilities.

Or at least, that’s what data seem to show on website run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Not surprisingly, Texas, with a history of fighting the EPA at every turn, says the website has “tremendous potential” for being misleading, deceiving, and inaccurate.

The site is called ECHO for Enforcement and Compliance History Online. The EPA launched it in 2002. The goal was to give the public access to data on how state and federal regulators were enforcing pollution laws. The site not only allows access to detailed compliance reports for specific facilities, it also allows a comparison of enforcement action by state.

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Despite Obstacles, Solar Gains Ground in Texas

From Marfa Public Radio: 

photo-2-8-500x375

(Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

This week we have examined the opportunity and challenge for solar power in Texas. There are no state mandates or incentives for solar.

And the head of the Public Utilities Commission says Congress should end solar’s 30 per cent federal tax credit. 

Despite that landscape solar is breaking through in parts of Texas, providing models that renewable energy advocates hope will resonate in the rest of the state, starting with the price of solar power.  Continue Reading

Small-Scale Solar Energy Projects take Advantage of Abundant Sunlight in West Texas

From Marfa Public Radio: 

Continuing their weeklong series on the future of solar power in West Texas, Marfa Public Radio takes a look at small-scale solar projects around the Big Bend region:
Bennett Jones points to the solar panels he helped design for Alpine Public Library.

KRTS/Tom Michael

Bennett Jones points to the solar panels he helped design for Alpine Public Library.

The Big Bend region is ranching country. Miles of barbed-wire fences, cows clustered in the distance, and windmills on the horizon. Those windmills, of course, draw well-water from the ground. It’s alternative energy, but it’s old technology.

Preston Fowlkes and his family has been in ranching for generations. For the past five years, he’s been replacing his old windmills with solar panels for his water wells, especially in remote locations.

“We’ve used windmills in the past, but were just not reliable. In my opinion it’s become the best alternative., versus a generator or a windmill or an engine which requires fuel,” Fowlkes says. Continue Reading

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

As Solar Grows in Texas, Border City Provides a Model

From Marfa Public Radio:

Presidio Economic Development Director Brad Newton says the city could partner economically with Mexico by selling supplies for oil and gas exploration taking place across the border.

Travis Bubenik/KRTS

Presidio Economic Development Director Brad Newton says the city could partner economically with Mexico by selling supplies for oil and gas exploration taking place across the border.

For most of its life, the small border city of Presidio, Texas has been on the edge of the electric grid.

This rugged part of West Texas has seen a major upgrade of its transmission lines over the past five years, but Presidio’s Economic Development Director Brad Newton says before that, it was pretty much the Wild West of the grid.

“We were working off the old wooden poles that were put about the same time they were filming Giant,” he says, “and electrical outages were very common in Presidio.”

As part of our look at solar power in Texas this week, we went to see how after those new lines were put in, the city turned to the sun to make what used to be regular blackouts and power surges a thing of the past. 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

Winners and Losers in Texas from Greenhouse Gas Ruling

New EPA regulations would place new restrictions on coal-burning power plants, a major source in Texas for greenhouse gases

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

New EPA regulations would place new restrictions on coal-burning power plants, a major source in Texas for greenhouse gases

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week on a lawsuit over how much latitude the federal government has to regulate facilities that emit greenhouse gases, victory was claimed both by environmentalists who want more regulation and by Texas state officials who wants less.

Texas and 16 other states brought the action.

The Texas Attorney General’s office proclaimed after the ruling that the Supreme Court had “overturn(ed) EPA’s Illegal greenhouse gas permitting scheme.” The Court had “delivered a stern rebuke to the President” said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and candidate for governor.

Clean air advocates wondered what Abbott was thinking.

“Oh my gosh, when you lose one suit after another you’re desperate to claim a victory anywhere, and I guess that’s what Attorney General Abbott did,” said James Marston, Vice President for U.S. Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Feds Target Oil and Gas Industry for Underpaying Workers

Exhibit from lawsuit: worker's time sheet showing 90 hours in eight days

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Exhibit from lawsuit: worker's time sheet showing 90 hours in eight consecutive days

In states with the most oil and gas drilling, including Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota, the U.S. Department of Labor has won back pay for over 4,000 energy industry workers in just the past year.

It totaled $6.7 million dollars, accounting for a third of all such settlements by all types of industries nationwide.

“We were hearing that workers were being misclassified as independent contractors, that they were being paid straight-time for their hours over 40 in a workweek. And we were hearing this consistently throughout the Southwest Region,” said Cynthia Watson, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Regional Administrator in Dallas.

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What Will Hundreds of Water Tests Reveal About Drilling in Texas?

“In Texas, I don’t think there’s anybody else doing quite what we’re doing,” says research scientist Kevin Schug.

Becky Burke's home in Denton County has a water well in her side yard and a gas well in the front yard

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Becky Burke's home in Denton County has a water well in her side yard and a gas well in the front yard

What Schug is doing can be found in a two big kitchen refrigerators in a lab on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. The fridges are crammed with hundreds of plastic bottles containing samples from private water wells located mostly in North Texas, but some of them in West Texas, too.

The project hopes to determine if drilling for oil and gas and burying chemical waste generated by the work is contaminating groundwater. The project is not sponsored by Texas environmental regulators nor the oil and gas industry but rather by UT Arlington. UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology is also involved.

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