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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Five Years After BP Spill, What’s Killing Gulf Dolphins?

A dolphin spotted in Galveston.

carolyn/flickr

A dolphin spotted in Galveston.

It was five years ago next month that a BP oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers. Millions of gallons of crude spilled into the water. Damage was done to aquatic life.

But is the spilled oil now to blame for the deaths of hundreds of dolphins?

“The magnitude and the duration of the deaths is utterly unprecedented in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ryan Fikes, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. In a conference call, Fikes talked with reporters along with the group’s David Muth. They released a report titled “Five Years & Counting” about the effects of the spill on wildlife.

“There is compelling evidence that this mortality event that has been going on since the spill is linked to the spill,” said Muth, head of the group’s Gulf Restoration Program.

But is BP’s oil to blame?

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Regional Haze, The ‘War on Coal,’ and How Environmental Policy Is Made

Everyone’s heard of the War on Drugs. There’s also, of course, the War on Terror. And as presidential election season heats up – we can expect to hear more about another war.  For years some politicians have accused President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency of waging a “war on coal.”

For StateImpact Texas, KUT’s Mose Buchele reports on the legal push and pull over environmental regulation.

 

How The Oceans Have Dried Texas Out

A weed grows out of the dry cracked bed of O.C. Fisher Lake in July. The drought has taken a severe toll on Texas' lakes and rivers.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A weed grows out of the dry cracked bed of O.C. Fisher Lake in July. The drought has taken a severe toll on Texas' lakes and rivers.

Over the last several years, climate patterns from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have exacerbated the historic Texas drought. A reverse in those patterns could bring Texas abundant rains over the next couple decades, according to State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

But, Nielsen-Gammon says, long term trends give Texans no reason to break out the champagne.  Global climate change means the next major drought could be even worse than this one.

The Texas climate is sensitive to weather cycles in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and neither has favored precipitation in the state since 2005.  “The Pacific Ocean has been unfavorable for rainfall since about 2000 or 2005. The Atlantic Ocean has been unfavorable since 1995,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

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This Dam Holds in Lady Bird Lake, So When Will It Get ‘Essential’ Repairs?

Officials have long been aware of the need for repairs at Longhorn Dam.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Officials have long been aware of the need for repairs at Longhorn Dam.

The poor condition of the dam that holds in the waters of Austin’s beloved Lady Bird Lake continues to vex city officials.  Emails obtained in a public information request reveal challenges the city faced in performing maintenance on Longhorn Dam, which crosses the Colorado River beneath Pleasant Valley Road. Documents tell of water lost through the dam’s gates that could potentially stay in upstream reservoirs, and show city departments struggling to assign responsibility for the structure and plan a long-term solution.

Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility, and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) have long known about the need for work on the dam. Austin Energy is the city department that operates the structure. The LCRA operates dams upstream from Austin and coordinates with Austin Energy when they release water downstream.

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Looking for a Silver Lining in Falling Oil Prices in Texas

Economists and state officials are reaching for their calculators as to predict how  the Texas economy will respond to lower oil prices. We’re already seeing falling oil and natural gas revenues pinch incomes and constrain spending, including layoffs at some energy companies. But is there also a silver lining? Could the downturn in the energy sector also mean savings at pump and a new eagerness to spend?

State Parks are seeing more visitors. Above: Palo Duro Canyon, in the Panhandle.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

State Parks are seeing more visitors. Above: Palo Duro Canyon, in the Panhandle.

Lower Gas Prices = More Road Trips 

The average price of gas in Texas dipped to $1.82 a gallon in late January, and though it’s climbed back to $2.17 today, it’s still a dollar cheaper than the state average a year ago, according to the Automobile Association of America (AAA). The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration predicts the average price of gas will remain under $3 per gallon for the coming year.

With those savings, drivers are starting to hit the road more. Continue Reading

West Texas to Mexico Pipelines On Track for 2017 Finish

Two planned pipelines would export natural gas from the Permian Basin across the border to Mexico. (Energy Transfer Partners)

(Energy Transfer Partners)

Two planned pipelines would export natural gas from the Permian Basin across the border to Mexico. (Energy Transfer Partners)

A Dallas-based company looking to build two sizable natural gas pipelines from Far West Texas to Mexico says it plans to have both pipelines built and operating by early 2017.

Energy Transfer won a contract from Mexico’s electricity commission to build the manage the pipeline’s construction. It’s estimated the two 42″ lines could carry a combined 2.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

In an earnings call this week, the company’s CEO Kelcy Warren – also the owner of the Lajitas Golf Resort near Big Bend National Park – said the company’s making progress on meeting that timeline.

“We’re very excited about our business south to Mexico,” Warren said. “The next two projects that we were winners on, we’re looking at both of them to come on in the first quarter of 2017, and we are finalizing negotiations and everything is on track to that timeline.”

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