Climate Deal Puts Spotlight on Carbon Capture Technology

New rules proposed by the Obama administration seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A new deal between the US and China would reduce carbon emissions from the two countries over the next several years.

The deal that the U.S. and China have struck to curb carbon emissions has been hailed as a breakthrough by many concerned with climate change, and panned by politicians opposed to President Obama. But it’s also captured the interest of a group of researchers — some in Texas — who specialize in carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The deal is short on specifics. But it commits the U.S. and China to continue investing in carbon capture, use and storage. That’s technology that filters CO2 from coal power plants and then pumps the carbon underground. Texas has been doing it for decades to get oil out of the ground in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

“It’s always poor form for Texas to do too much boasting, but the source of expertise for injecting CO2 for enhanced oil recovery lies mostly in Texas,” says Susan Hovorka, a senior researcher scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, who works on carbon sequestration.

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New Federal Regulation Coming For Oil and Gas Well Pollution

Oil & gas facilites in LaSalle County, part of the Eagle Ford Shale.

Photo by Dave Fehling.

Oil & gas facilites in LaSalle County, part of the Eagle Ford Shale.

The federal government says the oil & gas industry is the largest industrial source of pollution that creates smog. In coming months, Texas drillers could learn what the government plans to do about it.

New pollution rules could mean that thousands of oil & gas wells in Texas will have to have their leaks fixed.

“It’s an issue because we’re now drilling in heavily populated areas,” said Melanie Sattler, a researcher at the University of Texas in Arlington. Continue Reading

Denton Voted To Ban Fracking. So Now What?

Cathy McMullen was an organizer with Frack Free Denton, the group that pushed for the ban.

Mose Buchele

Cathy McMullen was an organizer with Frack Free Denton, the group that pushed for the ban.

This week Denton, Texas became the first city in the state to ban fracking within its city limits. The ban passed with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

Many in Denton worry about how fracking and associated activities impact their health and quality of life.  But opponents say the ban is bad for the economy. The drilling industry, which pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign against the ban, is concerned with the precedent Denton could set for other Texas towns.

Just hours after the vote, the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TxOGA) filed a legal challenge to the ban, as did the Texas General Land office with a suit.

There may be more legal challenges on the way.

The TxOGA lawsuit asserts that ”the public policy of Texas is to encourage the full and effective exploitation of our mineral resources,” says Tom Phillips, a lawyer with Baker Botts who is working on the challenge.

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Voters Pass First Local Fracking Ban in Texas

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Update, Nov. 5: Denton voters passed a local ban on “fracking,” an oil and gas production process. 59 percent of voters said “yes” to the ban, with 41 percent voting against. The Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) wasted no time in filing a request to overturn the vote, saying it violates state law.

Original story, Oct. 21: For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community. The site is, however, not very close to any houses.

“I’ll show you where this exact same thing was sitting by someone’s home,” she says.

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Amid Oil Boom, Texas Votes On Who Holds the Reins of Regulation

Steve Brown, left, and Ryan Sitton, right, are the two major party candidate for the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Graphic courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

Steve Brown, left, and Ryan Sitton, right, are the two major party candidate for the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Update: Ryan Sitton has won the race for the empty east on the Railroad Commission of Texas.

An empty seat on a strangely-named state regulatory agency usually flies under the radar of voters. But the race to serve on the Railroad Commission of Texas has gained additional attention and importance this election. That’s because whoever wins will not oversee railroads, as the name suggests, but will regulate the Texas oil and gas industry. It’s an industry in the midst of a boom that’s transforming global energy markets and pumping billions into the Texas economy.

The two major party candidates competing for the seat offer starkly different visions for what the job entails.

Democrat Steve Brown spent much of campaign highlighting issues of public health and landowner rights. He visited with workers in the Permian Basin of West Texas to talk about safety in the oilfields, and spent time with residents of a North Texas region dealing with an upsurge in earthquakes tied to oil and gas production.

If elected, Brown says he will ask the state for more funding for an agency whose growth has not kept pace with the industry it regulates. Continue Reading

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.


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

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