Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Kate Galbraith, Texas Tribune

Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.

  • Email: TX_kate@faketrib.com

Texas Groundwater Levels Suffer Sharp Drop, Study Finds

Photo Illustration by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

From the Texas Tribune: 

Groundwater levels in Texas’ major aquifers dropped considerably between 2010 and 2011, as the state’s drought intensified, according to a report published recently by the Texas Water Development Board.

The report showed significant declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies much of the Panhandle. The water board monitors 26 wells in the Ogallala, and water levels dropped in all but one during the 2010-11 period. The average drop was 3.5 feet, with a median decline of 1.8 feet.

“This year of a drought — it has affected even the groundwater levels to a greater extent than I’ve ever seen,” said Janie Hopkins, who manages the water board’s groundwater division.

The figures for 2011-12, which will probably be ready for publication around August, are also expected to be gloomy. There will probably be a “continuing downward [trend] in the majority of these wells, but just at a less rapid rate,” Hopkins said. Continue Reading

Texas Railroad Commission Bill Passes Senate

A bill that would change the name of the commission and have some campaign reforms passed the state Senate today.

From the Texas Tribune: 

After 40 minutes of discussion Thursday about a bill that would rename the Railroad Commission of Texas and make other significant changes to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the Senate passed the measure with a 21-0 vote.

Senate Bill 212, carried by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. That would reflect its current duties, which no longer include railroads .

A companion bill, House Bill 2166, is moving through the House. This morning the House Energy Resources Committee voted to forward the measure to the full House.

SB 212 would also tighten some of the ethics rules governing the Railroad Commission. The commission is headed by three elected officials, who get many of their contributions from the oil and gas groups, despite also regulating them. Continue Reading

Shale Boom Has Major Impact on Texas’ Budget

Photo by MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The rise of drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has led to new economic prosperity in Texas. (Photo of a Cabot natural gas drill at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.)

From the Texas Tribune:

The impact of the recent boom in shale drilling is hard to miss in some remote Texas towns, where hotels and homebuilders scramble to keep up with the influx of oil and gas workers.

But the most significant effect from the boom may be seen in the state’s coffers. Taxes on oil and gas production have soared past estimates from the state’s comptroller’s office for fiscal 2012. And with production expected to continue to rise over the next several years, the economic benefits will continue.

James LeBas, a fiscal consultant who also works as a lobbyist for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, estimates that oil and gas interests paid about $12 billion in taxes in Texas in fiscal 2012, up from $9.25 billion in 2011 and $7.4 billion in 2010. That included taxes on property, sales and production, as well as the franchise tax and indirect items like taxes on motor fuels.

“It would be unambiguously positive for the state fiscal situation and local [economies], if oil production continues to rise,” LeBas said. “For most of my lifetime, it has been falling.” Continue Reading

In Texas and Nationwide, Many Shales Left to Explore

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

A pumpjack in Midland, home to yet another oil boom recently.

From the Texas Tribune:

SWEETWATER — About a year ago, talk began circulating in this West Texas town about a huge oil-producing formation called the Cline Shale, east of the traditional drilling areas around Midland.

Then the oilmen and their rigs arrived. Now homes and hotels are sprouting, “help wanted” signs have multiplied, and a major drilling company has cleared land to build an office and equipment yard.

“It is coming, and it is big,” said Greg Wortham, the mayor of Sweetwater, who also serves as executive director of the Cline Shale Alliance, a new economic development group.

The Cline Shale, thousands of feet underground in a roughly 10-county swath, is just one of many little-tapped shale formations in Texas and across the nation, geologists say. That means the potential for oil and gas discoveries is theoretically huge, and the reason is technology. The rock-breaking process known as hydraulic fracturing, coupled with the ability to drill horizontally underground, has allowed drillers to retrieve oil and gas from previously inaccessible areas.

Many shales will be too expensive or too small to develop, especially if oil prices fall or environmental regulations tighten. But in Texas, which is already the top oil-producing state, bullishness about a new era is pervasive. Continue Reading

Texas Nuclear Reactor Restarts, Four Months After Fire

From the Texas Tribune:


Four months after a fire shut it down, a nuclear reactor at the South Texas Project in Bay City is being restarted. That is the second prolonged shutdown at the plant in two years, prompting critics to demand closer scrutiny of the operation.

Four months after a fire in January, one of Texas’ four nuclear reactor units is being restarted, bringing to an end the unit’s second prolonged shutdown in two years.

“We’re bringing the unit back up,” said Buddy Eller, a spokesman for the South Texas Project, the enormous Bay City nuclear plant where the problems have occurred. The 1,350-megawatt reactor unit, known as STP Unit 2, should be producing 100 percent power by sometime Tuesday, according to Eller, who spoke with the Tribune on Monday afternoon.

The fire in January occurred at a transformer in the electrical switchyard outside the reactor. The fire was fueled by oil, lasted about 10 minutes and was immediately put out by the plant’s fire brigade, Eller said. Continue Reading

Energy Dollars Flow to Texas Politicians

Photo courtesy of Texas House

Rep. James "Jim" Keffer, R-Eastland, heads the House Energy Resources Committee.

During a legislative hearing this year related to hydraulic fracturing, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, made a reference to what he thought was an unfair portrayal of the industry in the film Promised Land.

“My wife’s seen it, she didn’t like it, so don’t go if you haven’t,” Keffer said at the hearing, which featured testimony from oil and gas representatives.

Friendliness toward the drilling industry is typical for Texas, where many lawmakers receive campaign contributions from oil and gas groups or have investments in drilling companies. The three elected members of the Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, have received significant contributions from the very industry they regulate.

Critics say that the industry exerts excessive control over elected officials, especially in boom times. But lawmakers and the drilling industry say that the donations are the way things operate. And lawmakers say that they make their decisions based on the best interests of the state. Continue Reading

Top Oil and Gas Regulator Retweets Noose Image

Courtesy Barry Smitherman for Texas Facebook page

Barry Smitherman, the head of Texas' oil and gas agency, took to social media today to criticize Republican senators advocating for debate on expanded background checks for gun ownership with the word "treason" and a picture of a noose.

Update: 24 hours after his tweet, Smitherman apologized on Twitter, saying “I chose the wrong message to [re-tweet]. A regretful mistake. I apologize.”

Original story: Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman weighed in on the gun-control developments in Washington on Thursday, re-tweeting an image that showed a noose beside the names of Republican U.S. Senators who had voted down a filibuster.

On Twitter, Smitherman re-posted an image and message from a user with the handle @PsychScriv, who had posted: “Make sure none of these people have seats in 2014.” The accompanying image showed a list of the 16 Republican senators whose vote had broken the filibuster that would have kept the gun-control bill off the U.S. Senate floor. A noose dangled beside the names, topped by a single word: “Treason.”

Smitherman added his own commentary, tweeting: “We are in trouble when these Rs side w/ Sen Reid.” The list included Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the Republican party’s 2008 presidential nominee. Continue Reading

Perry to Obama: Press Mexico for Water


A United States Border Patrol agent looks for illegal immigrants along the Rio Grande River near McAllen, Texas, USA, 27 February 2013.

From the Texas Tribune:

Gov. Rick Perry, joining a chorus of Texas politicians, wants Mexico to release more river water to Texas.

In a letter to President Obama dated April 9, Perry urged the president and the State Department to press Mexico to release more water from Rio Grande tributaries, under the terms of a 1944 treaty between the two countries.

“Without immediate and direct action from the White House and U.S. Department of State, Texans along the Rio Grande will continue to suffer from a lack of available water,” Perry wrote. Continue Reading

Getting Serious About a Texas-Size Drought

Graphic by Todd Wiseman / Pedro Moura Pinheiro (Texas Tribune)

From the Texas Tribune:

Something odd happened here last week.

It rained.

But the relief, an answer to desperate prayers, is likely to be short-lived. The drought that has gripped much of Texas since the fall of 2010 shows few signs of abating soon. The latest forecasts say that parched West and South Texas will remain dry, and that the state is likely to see above-average temperatures this spring, increasing evaporation from already strained reservoirs. The conditions could lead to severe water restrictions in some parts of the state.

The implications have finally sunk in among lawmakers and business leaders here, who like to boast about the economic appeal of Texas’ low taxes and relaxed regulatory environment: No water equals no business. In a state fabled for its everything-is-bigger mentality, the idea of conserving resources is beginning to take hold. They are even turning sewage into drinking water. Continue Reading

In Texas, Underground Reservoirs Take Hold

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

Low reservoir levels, like here at the North end of Lake Travis, have some advocating for storing more water underground, where it won't evaporate.

From the Texas Tribune:

Texas summers are so hot that in many West Texas reservoirs, more water evaporates than gets used by people. In 2011, more water evaporated out of Lakes Travis and Buchanan in Central Texas than was used by their largest city customer, Austin.

So what about storing water underground — in manmade reservoirs?

More Texas communities are exploring the idea, which has found traction in states like Florida and California, and Texas lawmakers have introduced legislation to help it along. The basic concept of the technology — which is awkwardly named aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR — is to inject water into an aquifer for storage, hundreds of feet down, and pump it back up when it is needed. Proponents say that the technology reduces evaporation, is cheaper and faster to build than surface reservoirs, and avoids some of the issues associated with flooding land.

“You don’t flood a bunch of bottomland hardwoods, or take thousands and thousands of acres of cropland out of service,” said James Dwyer, an Austin-based engineer with CH2M Hill, an engineering company. Continue Reading

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