Ron Curry at a Superfund site with Harris County officials
Ron Curry is the EPA’s new administrator for Region 6, overseeing enforcement of federal pollution laws in New Mexico (where he once headed that state’s environment department), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and in Texas.
Texas, where the state has gone to court to stop the EPA from enforcing pollution laws. Texas is also where the previous EPA regional administrator, Al Armendariz, had a rocky relationship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Armendariz left last year to join the Sierra Club after a firestorm erupted when he was heard on a video using the word “crucify” as he explained how tough his staff could be on the worst polluters.
The Texas Attorney General says the TCEQ, the state's environmental regulator, was not responsible for killing 23 rare whooping cranes.
UPDATE: Late Friday afternoon State Attorney General Abbot’s request to stay the ruling on TCEQ water management was denied, according to The Aransas Project, the plaintiffs in the case.
However, the language of Judge Jack’s original order (the one the state was trying to stay) was amended to allow the TCEQ to approve water permits from the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins which are “necessary to protect the public’s health and safety.”
You can find the document denying the stay and amending the original order here.
Earlier this week, a federal judge found the state’s environmental agency guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act. The ruling, which could have implications for the water management across the state, said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was responsible for the deaths of 23 rare Whooping Cranes. It prohibited the TCEQ from issuing new water use permits for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River unless the Agency could prove that the cranes would not be impacted.
Today, the Texas Attorney General said the state would appeal that ruling, and sought an emergency stay from the federal district court while the state plans that appeal.
For years, critics of how Texas enforces environmental regulations have charged that polluters didn’t pay enough when caught, that it was cheaper for big corporations to pay the fine than obey the law.
But the newest member appointed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Toby Baker, said changes made by the state legislature are putting more bite in enforcement. Continue Reading →
This graph shows how little water has flowed into the Highland Lakes since mid-year.
Mark Dewey of KUT News contributed reporting.
Two high-profile Texas legislators have put the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) on notice this week: if you send water downstream to rice farmers in 2013, there will be consequences. In a letter to the LCRA, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Abilene, urge the LCRA to withdraw the emergency water management plan passed in November. That plan, if approved and followed, would likely result in water being sent down the Lower Colorado to grow rice. Even though it would be a smaller amount than usual, opponents of the plan fear it could be enough to send the Highland Lakes down to drought of record levels.
“We appreciate the letter and understand the concerns expressed by the senators,” the LCRA says in an emailed statement. Acknowledging the extremely dry conditions and low inflows into the lake, the authority says that it is “continuing to closely monitor the situation” and may seek a different emergency drought plan when it meets next month that could result in rice farmers’ water being cut off. Continue Reading →
Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat says he wants to put the fracking study controversy behind him.
One University of Texas at Austin professor has retired and another has resigned his position as head of UT’s Energy Institute, the school announced Thursday after the release of a scathing review of a study on fracking that has become mired in controversy.
The man at the center of the storm for sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has declined a request for an interview, but has talked to us about his take on the matter in a series of emails over the last 24 hours. “While I admit that even though my reasons for not disclosing my industry connection were valid in terms of connection to the report results,” Groat writes, “I should have made a disclosure.”
In his most recent email to us, Groat writes, “I don’t have anything further to discuss regarding my role in the project.”
Under an Open Records Request, we have obtained Groat’s letter of retirement dated November 21, which you can read in full below. In it, Groat makes no mention of the controversy, instead he writes of his new position as head of the not-for-profit Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana, where he and his wife are moving.
UT Professor Charles "Chip" Groat came under fire for not disclosing significant financial ties to the drilling industry, and has resigned from the University.
Resignation and Retirement Result
The long-awaited review of a controversial study on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was released today, and it finds numerous errors and flaws with how the study was conducted and released, as well as University of Texas policies for disclosing conflicts of interest.
The head author of the study, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has retired in the wake of the controversy, and the head of the Energy Institute that released it, Dr. Raymond Orbach, has resigned as head of the Institute, the University announced today.
The review finds many problems with the original study, chief among them that Groat did not disclose what it calls a “clear conflict of interest,” which “severely diminished” the study. The study was originally commissioned as a way to correct what it called “controversies” over fracking because of media reports, but ironically ended up as a lightning rod itself for failing to disclose conflicts of interest and for lacking scientific rigor. Continue Reading →
Kate Stein's home in Steiner Ranch was destroyed by fire in 2011.
A report released by the Travis County Fire Marshall last week confirmed what many had already suspected: the Steiner Ranch Fire that destroyed 23 homes during last year’s infamous Labor Day wildfires was started by power lines.
County investigators believe the fire was likely started when high winds caused Austin Energy electrical lines to slap together, throwing molten metal on the dry grass below.
Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee told KUT News that his office had been holding off on releasing the report until other private investigations were completed. But Lee says now he’s not sure when those investigations will be finished. So the Fire Marshall’s office decided to release the report a couple days before Thanksgiving.
“We are hoping that by releasing the information we have that people will have some bit of closure about the cause of the fire,” said Lee.
The fact that this fire, and the two other major fires that weekend, are all linked to power lines could force a re-evaluation of power line upkeep and safety, said Travis County fire Marshall Hershel Lee.
Barry Smitherman is the Chair of the Railroad Commission of Texas.
“What does the Texas Railroad Commission oversee?” If it was a question on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, a lot of Texans would lose their spot in the hot seat.
Here’s a hint: the answer is not “railroads.” In fact, the commission regulates Texas’ booming oil and gas industry.
So the first suggestion in the recently released Sunset Report (a review of state agencies) is a name change. Apparently, the agency still receives complaints about train noise.
Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman says changing their name is a good idea. “With the increase of oil and gas activity I think we would be well-served to have a name that is easy for the public to understand,” he told StateImpact Texas.
Though the Railroad Commission does raise concerns over the proposal in its official response to the Sunset report, saying that a name change without an amendment to references to the “Railroad Commission” in the state constitution could lead to legal trouble for the agency.
Whether or not the Railroad Commission becomes the “Texas Energy Resources Commission” (the suggested new name) will be up to state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.
Texas is awash in green energy potential. Problem is, we don't have anywhere to store the renewable energy we produce.
Texas may be rich in fossil fuels like oil and gas, but it’s also awash in clean, renewable energy.
Well, at least it could be. With the most renewable energy potential in the United States, Texas is a formidable candidate to up their renewable energy usage. Wind power now supplies 8 percent of energy to the grid in Texas and it’s cheaper than ever. However, the Energy Institute’s Raymond Orbach at the University of Texas at Austin says there’s still one major roadblock. “If someone could lick the storage problem,” Orbach says, “we would really have a remarkable resource.”
The ‘storage problem’ boils down to how energy works. “You can’t turn the sun off, and you can’t tell the wind to blow,” says Orbach. It’s simply unreliable.And you have to use the energy while it’s there. Right now turbine energy created from early afternoon winds has to be used immediately, in the early afternoon. But the demand for energy peaks later in the afternoon during the hot Texas summers, when the winds have died down. Solar could fill that gap, but efforts to incentivize it’s construction haven’t gone anywhere yet in Texas, and there’s always the question of what happens when a bunch of clouds pass over.
So creating something that can store and save renewable energy like wind and solar for later would change the game entirely. Continue Reading →
A new investigation reveals what sparked the Labor Day fire in Spicewood, outside of Austin, Texas.
As the anniversary of the Labor Day fires approaches, we’re beginning to get some answers on what was at fault.
As we reported earlier this week, the conditions at the time were the epitome of ‘perfect storm.’ Extreme heat, record drought, high winds and little humidity created a virtual powder keg. Compounding those well-known issues were the fact that many new communities had been built in greenbelts and woodlands, and fire departments that were cash-strapped and understaffed for a rash of fires of this magnitude.
What sparked each fire? In Bastrop, the culprit was power lines downed by dying trees, which has led to a lawsuit.
The Spicewood fire, aka Pedernales One, was originally reported as a brush fire. But a new investigation released by the Travis County Fire Marshal shows that the power lines in the community didn’t fall. Rather, winds forced them to slap together, sending “hot molten material” to the ground and sparking a fire that burned some 6,500 acres and destroyed 60 homes and structures. Continue Reading →
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