U.S. House Passes Bill Extending Anti-Terrorism Safeguards For Chemical Plants

Rep. Michael McCaul

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rep. Michael McCaul

The House of Representatives has passed a bill to extend anti-terrorism protections for chemical plants through 2017. The bill’s lead sponsors included two Houston congressmen – Republican Rep. Michael McCaul and Democratic Rep. Gene Green.

The rules governing security for high-risk chemical facilities have been in place since 2007. But under current legislation, they must be renewed annually, along with appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security. That’s led to some problems.

“Last year, because of the budget problems, when we shut down the government for thirteen days, this law was not into effect,” says Rep. Green. “We want to give it its own freestanding law, so there can be some certainty.” Continue Reading

El Paso May Become the First Texas City to Go Coal Free

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and the most widely used for power generation.

Photo by Cabot/Getty Images

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and the most widely used for power generation.

El Paso’s public utility announced plans to run the city coal-free in two years. It’s a bold proposal since no major U.S. city can run without coal power yet, but it seems possible, and it puts El Paso ahead among Texas cities that have sought to end their dependence on coal.

The announcement mirrors an initiative in Austin. But El Paso, with less investment in coal plants, less dependence on coal power and substantial recent development of other energy sources may find it easier to get out of the coal game completely.

“Our overall portfolio for generation has a very small percentage of coal,” said Eddie Gutierrez, spokesman for El Paso Electric Company. “In our region we have the right kind of sun for the optimal type of solar energy, so moving forward solar energy and cost effective forms of technology is what were going to go with.”

El Paso Electric Company services about 400,000 customers and has doubled its solar power production capacity in the last year. The utility signed a 20-year contract to get power from Macho Springs, a New Mexico solar farm as big as 300 football fields, which started operation in May. They have also started construction on a new natural gas plant.

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Pollution From Ship Channel and Port Traffic Affects Galena Park

From KUHF News: 

 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 city of Galena Park is on the north side of the Ship Channel, surrounded by highways, freight rail lines and heavy industry.

It has about 10,000 residents.

The city’s main road, Clinton Drive, is a major artery for the Port of Houston and Ship Channel industries, according to Bel Vasquez-St. John, community outreach director for the environmental group Air Alliance Houston.

Vasquez-St. John says thousands of tractor trailers pass through Galena Park every day.

“There’s just so many going and coming that it makes it very unsafe, for even the drivers coming in to Galena Park,” she said. Continue Reading

Is the Oil Boom Helping Prices at the Pump?

tom-clipped+cropped

Photo courtesy of Tom Kloza and Gasbuddy.com

Texas is getting more oil out of the ground than it has since the great boom of the 1970s. And it’s not alone: the oil fields of North Dakota are, for the first time ever, producing over one million barrels a day. Across the country, the boom has lead to predictions that the U.S. will overtake even Saudi Arabia in oil production by the end of the year. But is all that drilling helping American consumers at the pump?

A quick look at the numbers before the long weekend would indicate not. Prices were about 20 cents per gallon higher than this time last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There’s a lot more to what you pay when you fill up your car than how much oil is out there. Market speculation can inflate prices. Then there’s how much it costs to move oil around. You can drill for all the crude you want, but it’s another thing to bring it to a refinery. Add to that the role played by OPEC in setting prices, and it’s clear that what you’re paying is not dictated by simple supply and demand.

Nonetheless, some analysts say consumers are benefiting from the boom. They just might not notice it.

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Seem Hazy in Central Texas? It’s All Saharan Dust in the Wind

This image, taken by astronauts in the International Space Station from 160 above Earth, shows a Saharan dust cloud (in the frame's top half) floating across the Caribbean. The camera is pointed southwest and the land in the upper right is Haiti.

Taken by astronauts on International Space Station mission STS065 on July 11, 1994 / JSC Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science Directorate, NASA, The International Space Station

This image, taken by astronauts in the International Space Station from 160 above Earth, shows a Saharan dust cloud floating across the Caribbean. The camera is pointed southwest and the land in the upper right is Haiti.

Some Texans have been able to enjoy exceptional sunsets this week as billions of tiny grains of dust from afar traverses our skies. A dusty drifter from 6,500 miles away – a giant mass of super-fine sediment and dry air from the Sahara Desert — is visiting Central Texas this week.

Saharan dust blows across the Caribbean and passes through Texas most summers, says meteorologist Jason Dunion with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. The dust is blown out of Africa in giant windstorms.

“What makes these things so incredible is how big they are. They’re the size of the lower 48 states, so you’re basically stirring up this continent-sized land mass and blasting it out into the Atlantic,” says Dunion, who was the principle investigator in the Saharan Air Layer Group.

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Winners and Losers in Texas from Greenhouse Gas Ruling

New EPA regulations would place new restrictions on coal-burning power plants, a major source in Texas for greenhouse gases

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

New EPA regulations would place new restrictions on coal-burning power plants, a major source in Texas for greenhouse gases

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week on a lawsuit over how much latitude the federal government has to regulate facilities that emit greenhouse gases, victory was claimed both by environmentalists who want more regulation and by Texas state officials who wants less.

Texas and 16 other states brought the action.

The Texas Attorney General’s office proclaimed after the ruling that the Supreme Court had “overturn(ed) EPA’s Illegal greenhouse gas permitting scheme.” The Court had “delivered a stern rebuke to the President” said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and candidate for governor.

Clean air advocates wondered what Abbott was thinking.

“Oh my gosh, when you lose one suit after another you’re desperate to claim a victory anywhere, and I guess that’s what Attorney General Abbott did,” said James Marston, Vice President for U.S. Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Ranchers Approve Added Charge for Cattle Sales in Texas

The Texas Ag Commissioner's role is about much more than just farming.

Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

The Texas Ag Commissioner's role is about much more than just farming.

Every time a cow is sold in Texas, a dollar of that sale goes to industry groups that use it to promote and research beef. It’s part of a national program called the “beef checkoff,” and that charge will now rise to two dollars in Texas after a statewide vote by cattle owners.

The vote to raise the fee passed by nearly 67 percent. The results were announced Wednesday and hailed by agriculture and cattle industry groups, who say the money is needed to keep beef competitive.

“The beef checkoff program was initiated (at one dollar per sale) back in the 1980s; we’re down to about 40 cents on the dollar for that value today,” says Jay Evans, Chair of the Natural Resource and Environment Committee of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The association has received support from the beef checkoff program and nominates members to the board that distributes money from the program.

The existing program splits the dollar charge between national and state groups. The new charge approved by the recent vote will stay in Texas and be controlled by the Texas Beef Council.

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Big Bend Area Residents call for Local Fracking Ban

From KRTS Marfa: 

Residents in the Big Bend region are concerned about drilling coming to the neighborhood.

Residents in the Big Bend region are concerned about drilling coming to the neighborhood.

Some West Texas residents are starting to put pressure on local officials to keep hydraulic fracturing out of the Big Bend region.

Fracking is of course widespread in the Midland-Odessa region, but there are active gas leases in counties further south toward the border, and some are worried the industry might be edging ever-closer to Big Bend National Park.

Fracking opponents gathered alongside the Sierra Club at a recent city council meeting in Alpine, where they presented information on the extraction method’s effect on health, water and safety, and called on city officials to lead the way in keeping fracking out of the region. Continue Reading

Proposals to Prevent Another Fertilizer Explosion Immediately Meet Resistance

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas last year took much more than fifteen lives. At least 262 people were injured; twenty percent of those were brain injuries. Homes and schools were destroyed. But judging from the response of some state lawmakers charged with stopping it from happening again, preventable disasters like the one in West are just something Texans are going to have to live with from time to time.

There’s been no new regulations for fertilizer plants since the disaster until this month, but there’s been a consensus for some time about how to prevent another tragedy like the one in West: require fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate in non-combustible facilities or to use sprinklers; conduct inspections of facilities; and train first responders so they know how to deal with fires that may break out at sites with ammonium nitrate.

draft bill to do just that was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But Republicans on his committee like Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) made clear at a hearing yesterday that they’re likely going to fight new regulations proposed to prevent another West. Flynn said new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business, and he worries that any new rules for volunteer fire departments could strain budgets.

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Texas’ Solar Challenge: Lessons Learned From Arizona, California

San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy has committed to building what would be the largest single solar installation in Texas.

San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy has committed to building what would be the largest single solar installation in Texas.

From Fronteras: 

MARFA, Texas — Texas has been called an energy superpower. Fracking technology is allowing Texas producers to extract vast amounts of oil and natural that were once out of reach.

The state pumps more natural gas that any other. And it leads the country in wind energy. But Texas ranks eighth in solar power.

Three attempts by the state legislature to give incentives to solar have failed. The economics of solar in Texas stand in contrast to the rest of the Southwest. And a prominent Texas regulator says solar should not receive any government assistance to expand its footprint.

The United States Department of Energy says Texas represents 20 percent of the country’s potential solar output. So why is solar sluggish in Texas? Blame it on mix of policy choices and economics. Continue Reading

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