Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Holly Heinrich

Reporting Intern

Holly Heinrich is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas.

  • Email: Hollygrayheinrich@gmail.com

Growing Pains in America’s Fastest-Growing City of San Marcos

The Aquarena Center, an educational center at the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

Holly Heinrich / StateImpact Texas

The Aquarena Center, an educational center at the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

Development May Have Already Damaged Fragile Habitats 

San Marcos, Texas is the fastest-growing city in the nation, in a rapidly-growing state, and with that growth comes concerns over balancing development with environmental and ecological needs.

Tensions over development exist in communities across the country, but they are amplified in San Marcos, which is home to approximately 50,000 people, and a number of endangered species, including rare salamanders and golden-cheeked warblers. The growth in San Marcos has been a source of conflict among residents, as well as a source of pride.

Some residents see the city’s real estate development as an economic opportunity, and necessary to house the growing student population of Texas State University. Others say that new student housing developments are eroding the character of the town they love, and damaging the area’s fragile natural environment. Continue Reading

How 10 Western Cities Are Dealing with Water Scarcity and Drought

The Denver, Colorado skyline in January 2012. Denver, located on the dry side of the Continental Divide, has instituted a number of programs to encourage water conservation.

MATTHEW STAVER/Landov

The Denver, Colorado skyline in January 2012. Denver, located on the dry side of the Continental Divide, has instituted a number of programs to encourage water conservation.

This summer, much of the American West is in drought. And climate change in the American West is expected to bring longer droughts, increased wildfire risk, and diminished water supplies. The region is also one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

As the region looks at a future of growing population and shrinking supplies, many cities are trying to adapt. We decided to take a look at ten of them, including several in Texas.

A few caveats: many of the cities listed here share similar water conservation programs, such as outdoor watering restrictions or pricing systems that charge heavy water users more per gallon. And the programs described here do not reflect all the water programs that exist in each city. Continue Reading

During Domestic Drilling Boom, Why Are Gas Prices Still High?

Photo Illustration by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Despite a domestic drilling boom, gas prices are still relatively high.

The drilling processes of hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” — and horizontal drilling have made it possible to access previously unreachable deposits of fossil fuels, creating a surge in domestic oil and natural gas production. So why are prices at the gas pump still relatively high? (Last week, the average national gas price was $3.68 per gallon.)

We sat down with Dr. Ted Patzek, Chairman of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, to find some answers.

He said there are multiple reasons why gas prices are still up, even though the country is producing more than it has in some time: Continue Reading

With New Head of EPA, Battles With Texas Likely to Continue

Gina McCarthy, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been the top air quality official at the agency since 2009.

Photo by REUTERS /JOSHUA ROBERTS /LANDOV

Gina McCarthy, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been the top air quality official at the agency since 2009.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recently confirmed administrator, Gina McCarthy, gave her first public address at Harvard Law School today. As the head of the EPA’s air and radiation office since 2009, McCarthy has helped write some of the agency’s toughest air pollution regulations. Today she announced her intentions to make a serious effort to combat climate change, and made it clear that effort will require reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which could have big implications for Texas, the top emitter in the country.

With new regulations potentially on the horizon, will the fractious relationship between Texas and the federal government likely continue? Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (and now candidate for Governor) has spent over $2.5 million suing the federal government. Many of those lawsuits, including 14 which are active, have been directed against the EPA. (Texas lost the latest round, fought over whether the EPA has the right to regulate greenhouse emissions.) 

And the state’s U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, voted against McCarthy’s appointment. However, Texas environmentalists consider her confirmation a victory. Continue Reading

Risk of Life Without Air Conditioning Grows for Low Income Texans

State Rep. Sylvester Turner helped create the System Benefit Fund. He will now see the fund drawn down.

Mose Buchele for StateImpact Texas

State Rep. Sylvester Turner helped create the System Benefit Fund. He will now see the fund drawn down.

Over the next three years, low-income Texans will receive approximately $800 million from the state to help pay their summer electric bills. However, on September 1, 2016, that money will run out. As a result, Texans who cannot afford to pay their electric bills are likely to go without air-conditioning during the summer.

The money comes from the System Benefit Fund, which the Texas Legislature created to assist low-income Texans with their electric bills after the state’s electricity markets were deregulated over a decade ago. (In Austin and San Antonio, where electricity markets are still regulated, residents are not eligible to receive this funding.)For years, however, though the state collected fees for the fund from Texas electric ratepayers, it often reduced or withheld the money that was supposed to go to low-income Texans. Keeping the money in the treasury helped state lawmakers certify that the budget was balanced.

During the 2013 regular legislative session, lawmakers ended the collection of fees for the program, but increased the electric bill discount for qualifying low-income households from 16.5 percent to 82 percent. The existing fund will be used to help pay the remaining 18 percent of those households’ electric bills for the month of September 2013, and the period from May to August 2014.

Once the fund is gone, there are concerns about what could happen to elderly and low-income Texans who cannot afford to pay their electricity bills during the hot summer months. Continue Reading

Permafrost Melting Faster Than Expected in Antarctica

Research team member Jim O'Connor of the USGS inspects a block of ice calved off the Garwood Valley ice cliff.

Dr. Joseph Levy / The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

Research team member Jim O'Connor of the USGS inspects a block of ice calved off the Garwood Valley ice cliff.

New Research Shows Melting at Rates Comparable to the Arctic

Unlike the Arctic Circle up north, where once-permanent sea ice began melting and miles of permafrost began thawing decades ago, the ground ice in Antarctica’s Garwood Valley was generally considered stable. In this remote polar region near the iceberg-encrusted Ross Sea, temperatures actually became colder from 1986 to 2000, then stabilized, while the climate in much of the rest of the world warmed during that same period.

But now, the ice in Antarctica is melting as rapidly as in the Arctic.

That’s not because temperatures are rising. A team of researchers has discovered that increased solar radiation is thawing ground ice in Garwood Valley at an accelerated rate, disrupting normal seasonal ice patterns.

The cause of the increased solar radiation is, for now, uncertain, although it is related to changes in weather patterns. More research will be required to determine why it is happening.

“I’m a geologist—I look down,” explained Joseph Levy, one of two University of Texas at Austin scientists on the research team and co-author of the research paper in Scientific Reports. “The next step is to figure out what’s driving this change in sunlight patterns. It’s going to involve working with meteorologists and climate modelers.”

Antarctica is predicted to warm during the coming century. As a result, the ground ice could melt even more quickly, which would cause more serious sinking and buckling of the landscape. Continue Reading

Texas Drought Forecast to Continue, Perhaps For Years

 view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas October 28, 2011.

Photo by REUTERS/Calle Richmond /LANDOV

view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas October 28, 2011.

Recent rains have brought some relief to some parts of Texas afflicted by drought, especially around Central Texas: reservoir levels are a little higher, and the moisture has greened vegetation that was previously tinderbox-dry, potentially reducing the risk of wildfires this summer.

Now for some bad news: national meteorologists expect the drought to continue or worsen through late summer and early fall in Texas, and ocean patterns are troublingly similar to those during the “drought of record” in the 1950s.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its latest drought forecast. It predicts the drought will persist or intensify in most of Texas from July through October. But there is one exception — in Far West Texas, August and September rains are expected to bring some relief to an area from Midland to El Paso, according to NOAA meteorologist Victor Murphy. Continue Reading

Where We Stand: The Texas Drought

The most recent Texas drought map released by the US drought monitor on Tuesday.

US Drought Monitor

The most recent Texas drought map released by the US drought monitor on Tuesday.

Texas is now in its third year of drought—but is the end in sight, or are conditions getting worse?

Far more of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought now than in July 2012. The Panhandle and the Southeast Texas coast, which are important regions for ranching and agriculture, have been especially hard-hit. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, over 90 percent of Texas is in drought, and about 35 percent is in extreme drought.

To prevent water shortages, 665 public water systems have implemented mandatory water restrictions, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In many rural areas, farm and pastureland soils are dry, and grasshoppers, which eat crops, have become a problem. (The insects’ populations increase during droughts because the fungus that naturally limits their growth does not grow without moisture—although an extreme drought can prevent grasshopper eggs from hatching.)

The drought is not just a Texas problem. Most of the American West is in drought. The worst-affected regions are the state of New Mexico, and the entire Ogallala Aquifer region, stretching from the Texas Panhandle to Nebraska.

Continue Reading

Smart Clothes: Why Someday Your Shirt May Power Your Computer

Or Even Prevent Your Next Cold 

This year, students at Rice University in Houston developed a shoe that can charge a battery—and may someday be able to recharge cell phones and pacemakers. At Rice and other universities, electronic clothing (aka “smart clothes”) is being developed that has the potential to change how people monitor their health, protect themselves from disease, and address a variety of other problems.

Rice’s generator shoe is still a prototype. The shoe cannot yet produce enough usable power for portable electronics, and it is made impractical by a clanking metal bar around the heel. In the fall, however, a new group of engineering students will begin refining the existing model.

But some electronic clothes are closer to becoming part of Americans’ wardrobes—if their inventors can find corporate partners. Electronic fibers already developed by researchers at Cornell University in New York can detect disease and radiation, control the release of pesticides, kill bacteria, and capture hazardous gases. Cornell has filed patents for these fibers, and in the not-so-distant future, some of them may be found in medical clinics, disaster zones, and even ordinary clothing stores. Continue Reading

Without River Water, Rice Farmers Look to Alternative Crops

Rice farmers Billy Mann in Bay City, Texas.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/StateImpact Texas

Rice farmers Billy Mann in Bay City, Texas.

Rice has been growing in Texas since the 1800s, but for the past two years most rice farmers in Southeast Texas along the Lower Colorado River have been cut off from their usual water supplies because of the ongoing Texas drought. It’s possible they will be cut off a third time next year, leading to the question: can rice farming continue along the Lower Colorado River?

It they are cut off again next year, rice farmers on the Lower Colorado expect to lose the crop insurance benefits that have helped sustain them through the last two years without water. Some have begun planting less water-intensive alternative crops, such as sorghum and soy beans, to generate income on farms that are otherwise in economic limbo. But in this humid, once-swampy region stretching to the Gulf Coast, some rice farmers say that growing crops other than rice is not a permanently viable solution.

That’s because the conditions that make the Lower Colorado River ideal for growing rice also make it inhospitable to other crops, according to Ron Gertson, a rice farmer who chairs the Colorado Water Issues Committee. Continue Reading

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