Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany. An interim charge for the Texas legislature could change the United States' management of nuclear waste.
The United States’ total high-level radioactive waste could fit inside a football stadium with room to spare. Right now, it’s distributed between the country’s 100 commercial nuclear power plants and stored on site. But all that waste could be headed to Texas in the coming years.
One of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ interim charges for the 83rd legislature (basically study material that could come in handy during the next session when it comes time to file legislation) has exactly that goal in mind.
The charge, addressed to the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, says to “make specific recommendations on the state and federal actions necessary to permit a high-level radioactive waste disposal or interim storage facility in Texas.” While Texas already allows low-level radioactive waste storage, this new suggestion has drawn its fair share of controversy, intrigue and confusion. So let’s take a look at the ins and outs of nuclear waste storage, and how it could pan out in the Lone Star State.
Jefferson County Court at Law Judge Tom Rugg listens to arguments in the property rights case.
Eminent domain. It’s been a political hot potato at the Railroad Commission of Texas for years. As regulators of the state’s oil and gas industry, commissioners give pipeline companies the right to take private property for their projects. That pits one of Texas most important industries — oil and gas — against one of Texas’ most cherished political ideals — private property rights.
Under the current system, pipelines get the power to take property from an unwilling Texas landowner simply by checking a box and submitting a form to the commission. That form amounts to a promise that the pipeline will be a “common carrier,” that it will make itself available for hire to whoever wants to use it. But the commission does nothing to verify that the pipeline will act accordingly. Once it grants “common carrier” status to the pipeline, the company can go ahead and use eminent domain to take land for its project (after paying a price determined by the courts), whether the landowner likes it or not.
After a 17-hour hearing last week, State Administrative Law Judges William Newchurch and Travis Vickery came to the conclusion that the LCRA-requested trigger level of 1.1 million acre-feet was actually insufficient, and recommended modifying the order to an even higher leve, to 1.4 million acre-feet. Right now the Highland Lakes have 761,700 acre-feet of water.
“The likelihood of reaching either of those trigger levels is almost negligible at this point, and so that certainly diminishes the importance of having a trigger level,” TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw said. “The issue of properly managing water in the Lower Colorado River and these releases is much more complex than simply pulling a trigger number out of the air.” Continue Reading →
Disposal wells like this one are the point where a small operation could turn out to be causing big tremors that can be felt miles away.
Texas has seen the number of recorded earthquakes increase tenfold since 2007, the same time a drilling boom spurred by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” took off. Scientific studies of those quakes has linked many of them to oil and gas drilling activity. In North and East Texas, peer-reviewed studies have pointed the finger at oil and gas wastewater disposal wells, where fluids from drilling are injected underground. The state oil and gas regulator has been slow to respond to the phenomenon, maintaining that links between the quakes and oil and gas activity are “hypothetical.”
But that’s beginning to change after residents of the towns of Azle and Reno in North Texas got vocal about the earthquakes in their region. It’s seen over 30 earthquakes since the beginning of November, and in response, the Railroad Commission has announced it’s hiring a seismologist to study the issue. A committee of lawmakers will be doing so as well. Other states have been more active in their approach to the issue, however.
In our third installment of questions for the candidates for Railroad Commissioner, we asked each of them where they stand on the science and potential solutions to the tremors. We reached out to candidates from all parties, but three of the Republican candidates did not participate. (Again, Malachi Boyuls, Wayne Christian and Ryan Sitton — we’d still like to hear back from you.)
The six candidates that did respond had varying answers and views on the quakes and regulating disposal wells: Continue Reading →
Millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry go into the campaign coffers of those elected to regulate the industry.
Most Candidates for Texas’ Oil and Gas Regulator Want Changes
Take a peek a little ways down your ballot in the primaries this year and you’ll see the race for a spot on the Railroad Commission, the state’s powerful oil and gas regulator. We’ve been working to get the candidates to “eat their vegetables” when it comes to the policy issues at stake, asking each to answer a questionnaire on issues ranging from manmade earthquakes to eminent domain.
Each day this week we’ll be posting their answers — well, at least from six of them. Out of the four Republican candidates in the race, only one — Becky Berger — responded to the questionnaire. (To the campaigns of Malachi Boyuls, Wayne Christian and Ryan Sitton — we’re still hoping to hear back from you.)
Today’s questions deal with ethical and campaign finance reforms for the commission. The three Railroad commissioners get most of their campaign funds from the very industry they regulate. One of the candidates this race, Republican Ryan Sitton, has even said that he plans to keep working at his oil and gas consulting firm if elected to the commission.
Should lines be drawn? Should commissioners refuse campaign contributions from companies with cases before the commission? If elected, will they serve their full six-year term before running for another office? Those questions and more were put to all of the candidates. They’re based on reforms that the Texas legislature failed to pass during the last session under pressure from current Railroad Commissioners.
We here at StateImpact Texas were curious what the Republican candidates had to say about the real policy issues facing the commission, as well as the candidates from other parties. So we put together a questionnaire that did just that, and every candidate save one, Republican Ryan Sitton, agreed to participate. (Despite requests to Sitton’s campaign and to a consulting firm he hired, we have not received any direct response.) The powerful commission is the only state regulatory body run by elected leaders; all other major state regulators are run by gubernatorial appointees.
But if you’re hoping to hear what most of the Republican candidates have to say about manmade earthquakes linked to drilling activity, the use of eminent domain for routing private oil and gas pipelines, or ethics reforms, you may be disappointed. While all of the Democratic, Libertarian and Green candidates responded to the questionnaire as promised, only one Republican candidate, Becky Berger, did so. The campaigns of Republicans Wayne Christian and Malachi Boyuls both agreed to answer the questionnaire, but despite being giving an extra week to do so (and follow-up emails and phone calls), they have not yet turned in their responses.
Charles Matthews served on the Railroad Commission of Texas from 1995 to 2005, including time as Chairman.
In an often-quoted scene from the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood, sociopathic oilman Daniel Plainview meets his rival for the last time. If oil fields are like milkshakes, he says, it pays to have a straw that reaches all the way across the room “and starts to drink your milkshake.”
This year, Texans will have the chance to vote for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas. But the commission has a lot more to do with milkshakes than railroads. It regulates oil and gas in Texas.
“The commission acts like a court,” Charles Matthews explains. Matthews served on the three-member commission from 1995 to 2005, before stepping down to become Chancellor of Texas State University.
That three-person “court” often decides on disputes between oil and gas drillers, to make sure nobody drinks anyone else’s milkshake.
The drought has affected Texans across the state. Haskell Simon, a rice farmer in Bay City, could go without water a third year in a row.
Update: State administrative law judges recommended today a higher trigger point for cutting off water from the Highland Lakes for rice farmers this year, saying “emergency conditions exist which present an imminent threat to the public health and safety.” If adopted, these recommendations would mean there is almost no chance of most rice farmers downstream on the Lower Colorado of getting water for irrigation. This would be the third year in a row of water cutoffs for the rice farmers. Under the proposed cutoff, unless the lakes are nearly 70 percent full, water will not be sent downstream for most farmers. The lakes are currently 38 percent full.
Original Story, Feb. 13: There’s less and less water in the Highland Lakes of Central Texas these days, and the fight over who gets what’s left has laid bare the ugly politics of drought. With each passing day, it seems the comity and compassion between groups competing for the water drops in step with the falling lake levels. Now those interests will need to wait longer before regulators make a decision on giving water to farmers this year.
The story comes from the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Gilbert, who learned that Tillerson has joined his neighbors in Bartonville (a Dallas suburb) in a suit against a water tower that would be used in part for fracking and drilling operations. Tillerson (along with former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey) is actually showing up in person at town hall meetings to protest the tower. “He and his neighbors had filed suit to block the tower, saying it is illegal and would create ‘a noise nuisance and traffic hazards,’ in part because it would provide water for use in hydraulic fracturing,” Gilbert reports.
“Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.”
“Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice “[c]annot be proven to be protective.” Continue Reading →
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