Options Drying Up For Some Parched North Texas Towns

A tree trunk is exposed where water used to be in Bridgeport Lake, which is over thirty feet (9 meters) below normal levels, in Bridgeport, Texas, USA, 04 September 2013.

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

A tree trunk is exposed where water used to be in Bridgeport Lake.

Although parts of the state saw massive amounts of rain in October, parched conditions remain a dismal reality for many north Texas towns.

In September, StateImpact spoke with people in two towns – Gordon and Mineral Wells – both scrambling for alternative water sources. Gordon had about four months of water left at the end of August according to the city’s utilities director, Kenneth Epperson.

We recently checked in with Epperson, who says the early autumn months brought no relief.

“We think we’ve got ‘till January the 15th,” he says.

The town had been considering tapping into a lake owned by a local rancher. Unfortunately, that may no longer be an option.

“His is pretty low too; so we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Epperson.

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Responding to Quakes, Texas Passes Disposal Well Rules

From Texas Tribune: 

A fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, TX.

Photo by Jennifer Whitney/Texas Tribune

A fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, TX.

Texas regulators on Tuesday tightened rules for wells that dispose of oilfield waste, a response to the spate of earthquakes that have rattled North Texas.

The three-member Texas Railroad Commission voted unanimously to adopt the rules, which require companies to submit additional information – including historic records of earthquakes in a region– when applying to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections of fracking waste into a problematic well and require companies to disclose the volume and pressure of their injections more frequently.

The commissioners – all Republicans – said the vote showed how well Texans can respond to issues without federal intervention.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman called the vote a “textbook example” of how the commission identifies an issue and “moves quickly and proactively to address it.”

“We don’t need Washington,” he said. Continue Reading

Deepwater Horizon Oil May Sit On Ocean Floor, But How Did It Get There?

Eleven People Missing After Explosion At Offshore Drilling Rig

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

Ever since an explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in 2010 released about five million of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, researchers have been trying to figure out where much of the oil ended up. A new study is offering some answers.

By tracing chemicals in undersea sediment, scientists have found what appears to be a layer of oil on the ocean floor concentrated within 25 miles of the busted well. They believe up to sixteen percent of all the crude released during the spill may be found in that footprint.

“We found a really high amount of this tracer called hopane in the top one centimeter, which is where you would expect it to be, in the sediment. There’s a very sharp footprint right near the Deepwater Horizon well that certainly points towards that as the source,” says Burch Fisher. He was one of the scientists who worked on the project at UC Santa Barbara and is now a researcher at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences.

He says it’s a striking discovery because oil often floats on the ocean surface after a spill.

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Why Is the U.S. Still Importing So Much Oil?

Dr. Tad Patzek is the Chair of UT's Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering .

Dr. Tad Patzek is the Chair of UT's Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering .

Texas is leading the way in a massive boom in U.S. oil production: oil exports are higher than they’ve been since the 1950s, when the Suez Canal crisis caused a brief jump in shipments. Imports have dropped significantly, but even with that decline, Americans still import about a fourth of the oil they use. We called Tad Patzek, Chair of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at at the University of Texas in Austin, to ask why.

Q: So why do we still import so much oil?

A: We have built a very large refining capacity especially on the Gulf Coast, and refineries cannot run at half time. They have to run full-time, at 100% capacity. So, we are importing oil, we are exporting oil, and we certainly are exporting finished products. You know, gasoline, lubricants and so on, so that the refineries are running all the time.


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Texas Enviromental Regulators Question Ozone’s Impact On Health

A pollution haze over Houston East End.

Dave Fehling

A pollution haze over Houston East End.

The Texas agency that regulates industries that pollute, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, is questioning federal research into the health threat posed by breathing ozone and is using its website to publish articles that critics call “provocative” and “misleading.”

First, some background. Houston has an ozone pollution problem and so do Dallas and big cities across the country that for years have exceeded federal limits for ozone.

Ozone forms when air pollution from industrial plants and vehicles reacts to sunlight. Breathing ozone has long been considered harmful especially to people with conditions like asthma and heart disease.

In coming months, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue even stricter, lower limits for ozone which could put even more Texas cities in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. That could cost industry money to upgrade equipment to reduce pollution. And in Texas, where the state has repeatedly — and for the most part, unsuccessfully — sued the EPA to block pollution regulations, state officials are questioning whether ozone at current levels is really all that bad. Continue Reading

Midterm Elections Could Strengthen Opponents of Crude Oil Export Ban

 A tug boat navigates the Houston ship channel with a flare from an oil refinery and storage facility in the background south of downtown Houston

REUTERS /RICHARD CARSON /LANDOV

A tug boat navigates the Houston ship channel with a flare from an oil refinery and storage facility in the background south of downtown Houston

The campaign to end a 39-year ban on the export of most domestically produced crude oil has gathered momentum over the past week.  First came a report from the Government Accountability Office, indicating that removing the ban would boost domestic production by encouraging further investment. A few days later, fourteen independent oil producers joined to register the first lobbying group specifically aimed at lifting the embargo.

“They’re probably tilting at windmills, but it’s going to be a good try,” says Barbara Shook, senior reporter-at-large for Energy Intelligence Group. “They’ll have better luck after the November elections if the Republicans take control of both houses of the Congress. The Obama Administration is definitely against repealing the ban on exports.”

The Commerce Department issued a ruling in June that allowed limited exports of ultra-light crude oil, known as condensates. That led U.S. crude exports to spike in July to 401,000 barrels per day, the highest level in 57 years.

What it Would Take to Tap the Gulf’s Frozen Methane

According to University of Texas researchers, trillions of cubic feet of methane are trapped under the Gulf of Mexico, frozen.

The U.S. Department of Energy gave Texas over $40 million to research this frozen gas – methane hydrate. As part of a four-year program, researchers will study methane hydrate and evaluate its potential as a new energy source. Combined with funds from other donors, the program has a total value of $58 million.

Dr. Peter Flemings, the program’s lead investigator and a UT geophysics professor, says methane hydrate is one of the most fascinating materials on the planet. Continue Reading

Does Drop In Oil Prices Make Texas Crude Too Expensive?

A Permian Basin oil rig.

Photo by Mose Buchele

A Permian Basin oil rig.

Recent financial news headlines have warned about:

  • The dangers of “falling oil.”
  • Or enduring the “Oil Crash of 2014.”
  • Or having oil producers headed for “oblivion.”

Could it really get that bad? Maybe, if it’s like it was a few decades ago.

“There were bankruptcies everywhere,” said Ed Hirs, a Houston oil man and energy economist. “Exxon laid off 50,000 employees in 1986.”

But to mimic the great oil bust of the 1980’s, prices today have a long, long way to drop. Continue Reading

Texas PUC Leaves CenterPoint’s ‘Excess Revenue’ Untouched

CenterPoint says it will actually ask for a rate increase next year.

Photo by KUT News.

CenterPoint says it will actually ask for a rate increase next year.

CenterPoint Energy, a state-regulated utility that maintains poles and wires for over two million electricity customers, had millions of dollars in “excess revenue” last year. At its meeting Friday morning, the Texas Public Utilities Commission considered whether something should be done about that.

A report from the PUC’s staff said that last year alone CenterPoint had “excess revenue” of almost $47 million. News 88.7 reported earlier how company executives this summer bragged to investors that for the last three years, the utility had been earning “well in excess” of the amount authorized by the PUC.

But at the meeting, PUC staff member Darryl Tietjen told the commissioners: “We have recommended the commission take no action for any of the companies we have reviewed.”

The commissioners agreed. Continue Reading

How Much ‘Excess Revenue’ Did CenterPoint Energy Make?

CenterPoint's power station in downtown Houston.

Photo by Dave Fehling

CenterPoint's power station in downtown Houston.

The Texas Public Utility Commission meets Friday and will consider a report that says the Houston utility company, CenterPoint Energy, made almost $47 million in “excess revenue” last year. According to one utility watch-dog group, that’s too much.

CenterPoint Energy doesn’t sell electricity. It delivers it through thousands of miles of power lines. A charge is added to electric bills to pay CenterPoint.

“This is a regulated monopoly. They do not face competition,” said Thomas Brocato, a lawyer who works with the group Texas Coalition for Affordable Power.

Brocato is an expert on utility regulation and is a watchdog on utility companies. He said CenterPoint is, in essence, being allowed to make too much money. Continue Reading

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