Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

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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Legislation Aims to for More Oversight of Scrap Metal Recycling in Texas

Scrap Metal Yard, between Hirsch and Lockwood, Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas

Patrick Feller/Flickr/CC

Scrap Metal Yard, between Hirsch and Lockwood, Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas

Houston area residents who live near some scrap metal recycling facilities are inhaling dangerous levels of a metal carcinogen called Chromium Six. It’s the same pollutant at the heart of the class action lawsuit portrayed in the film Erin Brockovich.

The Houston Chronicle first reported about the pollution in 2012, after the city received 189 complaints over five years about red and yellow smoke, explosions, fire, and difficulty breathing in the affected areas.

State Representative Gilbert Peña, a Pasadena Republican, introduced a bill, HB 3760, that would give regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) more oversight over metal recyclers. At a committee hearing on the bill Tuesday, Peña said the solutions required by the bill would be simple. Continue Reading

What Could Reduce The Risk Of Another Catastrophic Oil Well Blowout?

Charlie Williams is a veteran of the drilling business and now heads an industry safety group.

KUHF

Charlie Williams is a veteran of the drilling business and now heads an industry safety group.

A little before 10 o’clock on the night of April 20th, 2010 multiple explosions blew apart the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Eleven crew members died, 17 more were injured while nearly 100 others narrowly escaped. In the five years since, the drilling industry says it has dramatically changed how it does business to make it safer.

Charlie Williams, who spent 40 years at Shell where he was Chief Scientist of Well Engineering, is the man the industry has put in charge of what it calls the Center for Offshore Safety, created after the tragedy and based in Houston.

“I think we are better and we’re going to get continuously better. And the thing people have to realize is you never have zero risk. It can never be zero,” Williams told News 88.7.

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As Deadline Nears for Texas Haze Rule, A Look at How Lawsuits Shape Regulation

Haze is visible in the distance at Big Bend National Park.

Mary Ann Melton

Haze is visible in the distance at Big Bend National Park.

Note: This is a text version of a previously posted radio story.

One week remains for the public to comment on an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to reduce smog in one of Texas most beloved national parks. The EPA’s plan to limit so-called ‘regional haze’ is one of a slew of new air quality rules that have critics accusing the EPA of waging a ‘war on coal.’ But the reality of environmental policy-making, and the years of lawsuits that it often entails, is more complicated than the rhetoric.

To see how, look no farther than the hazy skies over Far West Texas.

“Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park. They are beautiful,” says Mary Ann Melton of the region. She’s a photographer who’s been visiting there since the 1970s.

“You can see 100 miles on a clear day. You’re looking over the valley, you’re about 1800 feet high off the floor of the river, and you can see far into Mexico and mountain ranges far into Mexico.”

Just not on a recent trip last year.

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Scientists Are Flying Over Texas Oil and Gas Fields To Measure Air Pollution

A team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – has been circling over Texas, gathering data.

The flights are part of a project to find out exactly how emissions from the state’s sprawling oil and gas fields pollute the air we breathe.

When he offered me a seat on the plane, Dr. Joost de Gouw, a scientist with NOAA’s earth systems research lab, gave me a warning: There are risks that come with this kind of mission.

“You know…some people can get airsick, and it’s hot and it’s noisy and it’s a seven- to eight-hour flight, so there are tough days,” de Gouw said.

Leading the study, de Gouw spends his time measuring air pollution from America’s biggest shale fields — the places where fracking created a boom in oil and gas extraction.

The project tracks things like the excessive production of ozone, which has adverse affects on human health, and methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than even carbon dioxide.

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Sex, Drugs and Plant Biology: Why Much of Texas is Covered in Green Gunk

Does your car look like this? Many do during springtime in Texas.

Mose BUchele

Does your car look like this? Many do during springtime in Texas.

Every spring clouds of green pollen descend on Austin, bringing misery to allergy-suffering public radio reporters like me and frustrating drivers like DeAunderia Bowens.

“You know I just got my car washed and literally got up the next morning and my car was covered with this green stuff!” she said on her way to work. “If I had a green car it would be alright, but clearly not working on a grey vehicle.”

This time of year the stuff is oak pollen, but why does its get everywhere? The answer might make you look at trees a little differently.

It turns out we are surrounded by tree sex.

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Proposed Law Would Allow Houston To Regulate Mountains Of Coal

Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel.

Photo by Dave Fehling.

Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel.

State lawmakers are proposing legislation to deal with something we reported on this past December: giant piles of petroleum coke or “pet coke.” It’s a form of coal piling up along the Houston Ship Channel, and it’s leading to complaints from some nearby residents.

We recently reported how black mountains of petroleum coke could be seen along the Ship Channel; one pile looked to be more than half as high as the Beltway 8 bridge. The pile is just a mile from a neighborhood where we’d talked to Esmerelda Moreno who said with so many refineries and chemical plants nearby, they get used to mystery odors.

“Sometimes there’s like a smell, a weird smell,” Moreno said.

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