Aboard the Sturgis: US Army Corp of Engineers project managers Brenda Barber (flag safety hat) and Hans Honerlah (yellow jacket)
Sometime this winter, an historic sea vessel will float into Galveston. But you won’t be able to take a tour of it. In fact, you probably won’t be allowed to get close to it. Because the big barge is radioactive.
A half century ago, the U.S. Army came up with what sounded like a great idea: put a small, nuclear power plant on board an old military cargo ship. The Army called it the Sturgis after a three-star general.
“The Sturgis was fairly highly classified,” said Will Davis who used to operate nuclear reactors in the Navy and now has a blog on atomic power. He said the Sturgis had one mission: it was sent to the Panama Canal to generate electricity to operate the locks. But after about 7 years, it was no longer needed and was mothballed.
“Sturgis has been de-fueled since 1977. The nuclear fuel was taken out,” said Davis.
Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston
A growing Texas economy means thousands more rail cars are needed to keep up with the increasing flow of oil, petrochemicals and other goods. But the challenge is to find a suitable place to build huge rail yards that can cover hundreds of acres and handle thousands of rail cars a day.
Since 2009, one rail line reports a 35 percent increase in the number of rail cars “terminating” their trip in Texas.
“You’re talking a massive increase in movement that’s really poised to increase a lot in the next five years particularly with what’s happening in South Texas and West Texas,” said Ken Medlock, an energy economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
South and West Texas is where the oil is and tank cars by the thousands are moving it to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
But it’s not just oil. There’s also a big expansion of chemical and other manufacturing along the coast, plus more goods are moving through ports in Beaumont, Houston, and Corpus Christi.
Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston. She shows a reporter a map of Texas marked with a web of rail lines and highways that converge in clusters.
Railroad tracks into Mumford just northwest of Bryan-College Station. Photo by Dave Fehling
If it seems like you’re spending more time in Houston stuck waiting at railroad crossings, there’s a reason. Compared to just five years ago, there are hundreds of thousands more railcars crisscrossing Texas. Demand from the oil & gas industry is a big factor.
To keep up, railroad companies are building more tracks. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
Just northwest of Bryan-College Station you can follow the railroad tracks to the tiny town of Mumford.
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.”
Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, says the company’s not marketing flights to “tourists.”
By early next year, alongside the sound of jets landing at the Midland International Airport, you might also hear sonic booms from space flights re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
This month, the private space company XCOR broke ground at the airport, where it plans to launch commercial space flights next year. Some hope this new industry will stabilize the region’s traditionally oil and gas-based boom and bust economy.
The airport is still waiting to get the go-ahead from the FAA to launch those flights, but XCOR says despite some delays, it’s likely that will happen before a September 15th deadline.
XCOR President Andrew Nelson says the groundbreaking ceremony the company held recently for its new research and development hangar is proof of just how confident XCOR is that the spaceport license will be approved. Continue Reading →
Many of the quakes are likely caused by wastewater disposal wells, where the liquid waste from oil and gas drilling is pumped back into the ground. The Railroad Commission of Texas is the agency that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, and it’s proposing new rules for those wells.
David Craig Pearson, the Railroad Commission’s staff seismologist, told lawmakers that under the new rules, companies applying for a disposal well permit would need to report whether there was a history of earthquakes in the area.
The company would also need to estimate how much pressure the wells would be putting on nearby fault lines after a 10-year time span.
The proposed rules also give Railroad Commission staff the power to limit how waste is injected into a well that could be causing earthquakes, or shut the well down completely. Pearson said that would be an option of last resort, however.
During a meeting of the Texas Public Utility Commission, its former chairman, Barry Smitherman, gave Texans one more reason to love their state and for others to envy it: low, low prices for electricity.
“If you use the best available price in the market place from a retail electric provider Houston and Dallas have the lowest prices of any big city in America. I think we have to be very mindful of the competitive advantage this gives us here in Texas,” Smitherman said at the PUC meeting.
Strictly speaking, Smitherman might be right: the price of electricity is relatively low. But if you think that means people in Houston and Dallas have the lowest electricity bills, you’d be wrong. The reality is exactly the opposite because Texans use so much electricity.
For several years now, national comparisons using data reported to the federal government and from other sources show people in Houston and Dallas — and in Texas overall — pay some of the highest electricity bills in the country. According to the U.S. Energy Department, “The average annual electricity cost per Texas household is $1,801, among the highest in the nation; the cost is similar to other warm weather states like Florida, according to EIA’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey.”
But drilling deeper into the data, what you pay depends on where you live in Texas. Continue Reading →
ExxonMobil's refinery in Baytown is one of the nation's biggest
The Texas petrochemical industry is in the midst of its biggest expansion in decades. That’s thanks largely to the availability of cheap natural gas, used both for fuel and as a raw material. It’s hardly the first time the region has seen this scenario.
Barbara Shook is senior reporter-at-large for Energy Intelligence Group. She spends much of her time these days covering the construction boom in the petrochemical industry. Last week, she was on hand at a ceremony at ExxonMobil Chemical’s Baytown plant, where a multi-billion dollar expansion is already under way.
“This is my second petrochemical boom,” Shook says. “I watched the first one in the early 1950s from my father’s ’48 Ford pickup truck. He was the construction superintendent on a power plant for a big petrochemical plant in East Texas. That one was also fueled by natural gas and natural gas liquids, just like this one is.”
Texas had just passed a ban on flaring, which forced producers to find new markets for gas.
There are currently two multi-billion dollar projects underway in Greater Houston besides ExxonMobil’s. They include expansions of ChevronPhillips’ Baytown facility, as well as the Dow Chemical complex in Freeport.
Big Bend National Park has placed an “interim” ban on unmanned aircraft on any lands or waters within the park’s boundaries, as part of a nationwide directive from the National Park Service (NPS.)
The ordinance went into effect August 20th – it specifically prohibits the “launching, landing or operation” of unmanned aircraft in the park, and also anywhere on stretches of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, which is also managed by NPS.
A press release from the park says there have been rising concerns among national park visitors across the country about “noise and nuisance” from drones, and that the aircraft have in some cases disrupted wildlife behaviors.
Allen Etheridge, Chief Ranger at Big Bend National Park, says those concerns haven’t yet been an issue in the Big Bend, but he has heard about specific threats posed to wildlife and visitor experiences from other national parks.
“Some visitors had brought quad copters to Yellowstone National Park, and they had crashed them – not on purposefully of course – into the hot springs,” he says. Continue Reading →
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.