Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

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.

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

In Texas, Using Fire to Protect and Expand Water Supplies

Fire and water may seem at odds with each other, but Austin’s city-owned water utility is using prescribed burning in an effort to help more rainfall make its way underground to the Edwards Aquifer.

A fire official with the Wildland Conservation Division starts a blaze with a drip torch at a 2009 prescribed burn on Water Quality Protection Lands in Hays County.

Courtesy of Austin Water's Wildland Conservation Division

A fire official with the Wildland Conservation Division starts a blaze with a drip torch at a 2009 prescribed burn on Water Quality Protection Lands in Hays County.

Austin Water’s Wildland Conservation Division is conducting the burns on over 380 acres of Hay County that feed into the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The goal of each blaze is to remove brush, cedar, large plants and invasive species that can crowd the land and displace the native grasses. The division oversees prescribed fires on between 2,500 and 5,000 acres of preserved land each year.

“If there’s a woodland environment and it rains, about 30 to 40 percent of that water will be captured in the canopy of those trees,” says Amanda Ross, spokeswoman for the Wildland Conservation Division. “But grasses will allow the water to come down to the ground and run off slowly into nearby creeks or percolate into the soil through the deep root systems of the grasses.”

The fires mimic naturally-occurring wildfires in order to maintain a grassland habitat, Ross 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

Denton City Council To Vote On Fracking Ban Tuesday

From KERA News: 

A Chesapeake natural gas production facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

A Chesapeake natural gas production facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

The city of Denton could take another step Tuesday toward becoming the only Texas city to permanently ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The city of Denton sits above the Barnett Shale, one of the country’s largest natural gas fields. There are already nearly 300 active gas wells.

But concerned citizens filed a petition in May with nearly 2,000 signatures forcing a vote on the city council whether to ban fracking.

Resident Cathy McMullen, who helped organize the initiative, says in the past month, Denton has been inundated with people employed by outside opposition.

“It’s hard being the first,” McMullen says, “And what’s making it particularly hard for us is that the fracking is [already] there. We’re trying to get it out.” 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

Houston’s One Bin for All Recycling Proposal Divides Environmentalists

From Houston Public Media:

Houston's proposal to throw everything in one bin -- trash and recycling -- is meeting opposition from environmental groups.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

Houston's proposal to throw everything in one bin -- trash and recycling -- is meeting opposition from environmental groups.

The City of Houston hopes to eventually do away with curbside recycling and allow residents to throw all of their trash and recycleables into one bin. The items would then be sorted and separated at a processing facility and city leaders claim they can divert 75 percent of the waste from landfills using this method.

But a group of environmentalists have formed a coalition against the plan. Texas Campaign for the Environment Program Director Melissa Scruggs says it will be a boondoggle for the city.

“There’s no way that they’re going to be able to divert 75 percent of waste from landfills with this type of technology. Our report shows that no facility that claims to separate recycling from trash has ever exceeded 30 percent recycling,” Scruggs said.

Proponents of the city’s plan says that information is outdated. Continue Reading

Marfa Residents Protest City Water Sales

Trucks wait to be filled with water purchased from the City of Marfa

(Sara Melancon/KRTS)

Trucks wait to be filled with water purchased from the City of Marfa

From Marfa Public Radio: 

With reports of drilling activity approaching the Big Bend region, some residents of Marfa are concerned about the city’s practice of selling its water supply in bulk, sometimes to drilling companies.

On Thursday, protesters parked and left their cars in front of city fire hydrants, hoping to block trucks from accessing the water supply.

Marfa resident Buck Johnston spearheaded the effort. She feels it’s a short-sighted move to sell city water in bulk, especially in a drought-stricken desert region.

“Ask any rancher, and they’ll tell you their wells are dropping and going dry,” she says. “I don’t really care what anyone’s feelings are about fracking or oil exploration, my concern is water.” Continue Reading

You May Want to Slow Your Coal Roll in Texas

The world is warming, and there’s heated debate over what to do about it, or if it’s even warming at all. (Hint: It is.) Amidst this debate, some opponents of government regulations and environmental policy have taken up protest by retrofitting their diesel trucks to spew billowing clouds of black, noxious smoke. When the soot gets blasted, it’s called “rolling coal.” Some save the move for those special moments when they’re in front of a Prius, then post the video online.

The practice is illegal under federal legislation, but apparently not so hard to get away with in Texas. The state’s transportation code prohibits excessive smoke from a vehicle, but that code includes a handful of exceptions for diesel engines, saysTom Vinger, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“[Diesel engines] will smoke during acceleration, gear changes, some travel conditions, vehicle loading, and those exceptions are covered under the law,” Vinger said.

There are several ways to make your truck “roll coal,” ranging from removing factory-installed emissions regulators to reprograming the small computer that coordinates fuel injection.

But according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act, it is illegal “to manufacture, sell, or install a part for a motor vehicle that bypasses, defeats, or renders inoperative any emission control device.” Continue Reading

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