Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Jim Malewitz, Texas Tribune

Jim Malewitz covers energy for the Texas Tribune.

Responding to Quakes, Texas Passes Disposal Well Rules

From Texas Tribune: 

A fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, TX.

Photo by Jennifer Whitney/Texas Tribune

A fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, TX.

Texas regulators on Tuesday tightened rules for wells that dispose of oilfield waste, a response to the spate of earthquakes that have rattled North Texas.

The three-member Texas Railroad Commission voted unanimously to adopt the rules, which require companies to submit additional information – including historic records of earthquakes in a region– when applying to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections of fracking waste into a problematic well and require companies to disclose the volume and pressure of their injections more frequently.

The commissioners – all Republicans – said the vote showed how well Texans can respond to issues without federal intervention.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman called the vote a “textbook example” of how the commission identifies an issue and “moves quickly and proactively to address it.”

“We don’t need Washington,” he said. Continue Reading

Court Thwarts Sierra Club’s Radioactive Waste Challenge

John Ward, operations project task manager at Waste Control Specialists' facility near Andrews, Texas, walks over to inspect concrete canisters that will house drums of nuclear waste.

John Ward, operations project task manager at Waste Control Specialists' facility near Andrews, Texas, walks over to inspect concrete canisters that will house drums of nuclear waste.

From the Texas Tribune:

A state appeals court has thwarted a challenge to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in West Texas – a ruling that signals growing difficulties for those trying to scrutinize the decisions of Texas environmental regulators.

Depending on whom you ask, such a trend would either rightly save companies time and money or unjustly bar citizens from fully sharing their environmental concerns.

The site, a 36-acre facility in Andrews County operated by Waste Control Specialists — a company formerly owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons — is the final resting place for hazardous waste and slightly radioactive items from shuttered nuclear reactors and hospitals, among other places.

Both the company and state regulators have repeatedly called the site safe. But environmental groups have closely scrutinized the site as it has expanded the scale of waste it accepts, raising concerns about the effects on groundwater and other resources. Continue Reading

ERCOT: Rolling Blackout Threat Averted In Cold Snap

Controllers make daily forecasts of the next day’s electric demand and supply down to every five minutes.

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/StateImpact Texas

Controllers make daily forecasts of the next day’s electric demand and supply down to every five minutes.

As chilly weather grips much of Texas, the state’s electricial grid operator is asking consumers to reduce their energy use, though it says a brief threat of rolling blackouts has been averted.

In an alert sent at 8 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid covering 85 percent of the state, issued an emergency alert, meaning the grid’s power reserves had dropped below a comfortable threshold.

But the situation, ERCOT said, was improving.

Less than an hour earlier, ERCOT issued a “power warning,” which is just a step away from rolling blackouts — controlled, temporary interruptions of power service — due to high demands that threaten to exhaust capacity.

Continue Reading

Report: EPA Followed Rules in North Texas Drilling Case

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

StateImpact Texas

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was legally justified in issuing — and later withdrawing — an emergency order against a Fort Worth-based driller following a 2010 complaint of groundwater contamination in North Texas, the agency’s internal watchdog said in a report released Tuesday. But questions linger the about the source of the contamination, it added.

The findings come 18 months after six U.S. senators, including John Cornyn, called for an inquiry into the agency’s handling of a case that rose to prominence in the national discussion of the impacts of natural gas drilling.

In the report, the Office of Inspector General said officials at EPA Region 6 “conformed to agency guidelines, regulation and policy” when they charged Range Resources with contaminating two Parker County wells with benzene, methane and other substances.

“Test results on November 16, 2010, showed the presence of chemical contamination in both wells. The contamination levels indicated a risk to a drinking water source — the aquifer and the wells drawing from it,” the report said. “The methane in the wells presented an explosion hazard, and benzene presented health hazards.”

Range says that the gas was present in the water before it arrived, and that drilling was not to blame. Continue Reading

Railroad Commission Candidates Promise to Stick Around Awhile

RRC-Docs-2_jpg_800x1000_q100From the Texas Tribune: 

At a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in St. Louis, Charlie Kirk, executive director of the free-market group Turning Point USA, introduced state Rep. Stefani Carter as a leader who will one day prompt folks to muse, “Ah, I remember when I saw her.”

For most public office-seekers, being known as a rising star would boost their chances. But the seat Carter seeks is different. She’s campaigning — against a wide field of candidates — to replace attorney general candidate Barry Smitherman on the Texas Railroad Commission, the powerful oil and gas regulatory agency that’s widely known — and sometimes derided — as a launching pad for higher office. Leaders in the oil and gas industry, who are largely responsible for bankrolling the candidates’ campaigns, say they are frustrated by the seemingly constant turnover at the agency, and they are looking for candidates who plan to serve their full terms.

“The industry and the state deserves someone who’s going to stay a full six years,” said Bill Stevens, a consultant with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. Continue Reading

Report: Electric Deregulation Drives Complaints

California Power Grid Strained By Heat Wave

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A new report says complaints are up since the Texas energy market was deregulated.

Texans are growing more satisfied with their electricity providers, but they are griping far more than they did before the state deregulated its power market, according to a report released Monday.

The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, a group of cities and other local governments, analyzed 16 years of consumer complaints filed with the state’s Public Utility Commission. The complaints — which cover a range of issues including those related to billing, service and meters — have dwindled in each of the past four years. That trend may indicate that Texans are getting used to a new electricity market with more choices, the group said, although falling electricity prices, spurred by low-priced natural gas, may have also helped drive that trend.Longer-term data, however, shows that Texans are complaining far more than they did before 2002, when the state allowed consumers to choose their power providers. That trend, the group said, signals lingering problems in the market and the possibility that some consumers aren’t fully weighing their options. Continue Reading

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