As Crude Oil Rides The Rails To Houston, Texas Firefighters Prepare For The Worst

crude by rail photo2

Courtesy of KUHF

crude by rail photo2

There was a rail disaster northwest of Houston last week but you probably didn’t hear about it. That’s because it was staged as part of a training exercise at a Texas firefighting school where a new risk is changing the curriculum.

It’s scene that’s a nightmare for first responders. A train has left the tracks. Tanker cars have piled on top of one another. Two tankers are full of a flammable liquid. One’s on fire, the other’s leaking. A dozen firefighters are spraying the cars with water and foam.

“It’s hot. It’s hot. It’s very hot,” says firefighter Adrian Munoz, a volunteer for the Alvin Fire Department. “It was awesome. It was a great experience.”


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Oil Prices Spell Bad News For Texas Budget Forecast

Texas-Oil-Drums_jpg_800x1000_q100

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

This week, oil prices dropped below $50 for the first time since February, a development that could upend the state’s predictions of oil revenue for this year.

Estimates from the Comptroller of Public Accounts put oil prices at an average of just over $64 per barrel in 2015 and 2016. And, as of now, those predictions are rosier than the reality of the market, meaning the state’s loss in oil and gas tax revenue could impact the Texas budget going forward.


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The Texas Drought’s Over, But The Texas Slow-Motion Water Crisis Is Not

Texas Drought Map.

US Drought Monitor

Texas Drought Map.

The latest drought report from the Texas Water Development Board has some good news. After more than five years, spring rains saturated the ground enough to finally end our long drought — our long soil moisture drought. But that doesn’t mean water shortages don’t still plague some parts of the state, and that water challenges wont stay with Texas into the foreseeable future.

“So we have hydrologic drought,” says Robert Mace with the Texas Water Development Board.

He says the ground is doing great, but parts of the state need much more rain to replenish their reservoirs.

“If you look at Lake Abilene, which is, believe it or not…3.4 percent full. And that was last full in 2011. Another example is Lake Meredith, up north of Amarillo, [which is] 15.6 percent full currently,” Mace says.

Mace is optimistic those and the rest of the state’s reservoirs can recover this winter, when El Niño conditions are expected to bring us more rain.

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Hard Times Come to the ‘Hotel Capital’

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms. Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon Jose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms.Jorge Sanhueza-LyonJose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

This story originally ran as part of KUT 90.5′s series “Meanwhile in Small Town Texas.”

Cotulla, Texas, is a small town deep in the oil fields of the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale.

It’s a town that bet big on the oil boom.

Five years ago the census put the population at less than 4,000 people. There were three or four motels then. Now in Cotulla there are around 25 motels, hotels and inns. It’s earned the town a nickname: “The ‘Hotel Capital of the Eagle Shale,’” says City Administrator Larry Dovalina.

He says for years Cotulla was like a lot of places in rural Texas: “Dying on the vine. Kind of forgotten.”

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Keeping Houses Out of Texas Floodwaters Could Cost Billions

First responders pull flood victims from a flooded South East Austin neighborhood.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

First responders pull flood victims from a flooded South East Austin neighborhood.

Back on May 26th, Houston woke up to flooded freeways and neighborhoods as bayous overflowed their banks. In the Texas Hill Country, homes and bridges washed away and levees broke.

But super-heavy rainfall is nothing new in Texas and in fact, it was years earlier that experts had warned that the state was doing dangerously little to minimize flood damage.

“We gave flood control the grade of D,” said Curtis Beitel, president of the Texas chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.


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After HB 40, What’s Next for Local Drilling Rules in Texas?

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

Mose Buchele

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

This year state lawmakers severely restricted the ability of Texas towns to regulate local oil and gas drilling.

A law known as House Bill 40 was a reaction to a fracking ban passed by voters in the North Texas city of Denton.

Denton has come to represent local fracking bans and clashes between local governments and the oil and gas industry. But while Denton was the first city in Texas to ban fracking, it wasn’t the first city to ban drilling within city limits.

That practice goes back years, according to a survey by the Texas Municipal League.

The Texas Municipal League’s survey shows that about 30 Texas towns have more general bans on drilling.

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A Strange El Niño Is Bringing Rain To Texas

When you hear about El Niño, you might remember the classic skit where Chris Farley plays ”El Niño,” a pro-wrestling tropical storm.

What other weather pattern gets its own Saturday Night Live send-up?

Well, after a year of waiting, El Niño is here, and it is raging like Farley. But it’s it’s not like anything we’ve seen before. To understand why, we’ve got to clear up some misconceptions.


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As EPA Pushes For Cleaner Air, Refineries Push Back

Petrochemical plant in Freeport.

KUHF

A petrochemical plant in Freeport.

If you lived in Houston in the 1980s, you might have noticed that something has changed about the air you breathe: back then, it was a lot dirtier. But whether it needs to be “cleaner” than it is today is at the heart of debate heating up as new federal regulations are being written.

In the past several decades, the air in Houston and other big cities has improved dramatically. One reason is that car engines emit far less pollution. And the same can be said for big industries.

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Mexican Venture Capital Seeks Permian Basin Opportunity Amid Oil Downturn

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year.(Lorne Matalon)

Lorne Matalon

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year.(Lorne Matalon)

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon in collaboration with Fronteras, The Changing America Desk.

Mexican venture capital is hovering over distressed energy companies in the Permian Basin of Texas, the nation’s highest-producing oilfield.

Those companies – including oil and gas drillers, and service companies – crafted budgets when the price of crude oil was 100 dollars per barrel. It’s now in the 50s. And those companies need capital that U.S. banks are sometimes reluctant to give in an oil downturn.

“This is a buyers’ market right now,” said Carlos Cantú, an investor from Juárez.

He’s one in a stream of Mexican venture capitalists wanting in on U.S. oil and gas. Right now, the smaller players in the energy industry—operating on thin margins—can collapse without new capital.

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Could Evidence of Manmade Quakes Bring Tectonic Shift in Texas Regulation?

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

There have been earthquakes in almost every corner of Texas since the start of the state’s most recent oil and gas boom. One “swarm” that really captured people’s attention started in the town of Azle in 2013.  When oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas visited the town, local people suggested ways to handle the waste water disposal wells thought to be causing the quakes. One idea came up over and over again.

“Why is it we can’t shut the wells down around here for a period of time?” asked resident Gale Wood. “If nothing happens after a while, that would be one way to determine what’s going on.”

The Railroad Commission has a different approach. In the case of Azle, it waited over a year while a team of seismologists at Southern Methodist University undertook a study.  The results came back this month, confirming that disposal wells likely caused the quakes. That has some residents in Texas’ quake country hoping the simple notion put forth at that public meeting -shut down disposal wells if there’s a chance they’re related to earthquakes- may get another hearing.

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