Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas
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.
Tubes sticking out from the plane
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo by Philip Issa
Philip Dellinger is head of the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Section for Region 6 in Dallas.
The earthquakes that have shaken Dallas and Irving, Texas the last several months have people looking into whether oil and gas activity in the area plays a role. Some of those people work at the Environmental Protection Agency. But EPA researchers say they’re not getting the data they’ve requested from Texas state oil and gas regulators to investigate the possible link.
Philip Dellinger is head of the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Section in Dallas. At a conference of the Groundwater Protection Council Tuesday, he showed early results from a study his team conducted on earthquakes around Irving.
The group looked at the use of wastewater disposal wells closest to Irving earthquakes. Dellinger does not necessarily believe the recent quakes are related to disposal wells, where wastewater from oil and gas drilling is pumped underground. But these types of wells have caused other earthquakes, so his team wanted to see what wells were close to the Irving events.
His choice for where to look was simple. There are only two wells near the recent quakes, and one had been plugged up.
Counties that contain at least one project applying for state funds are highlighted in blue.
The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) had planned to distribute about $800 million in low interest loans for Texas water projects this year. By the time the deadline for project applications closed, total requests reached $5.5 billion, many of them from urban and suburban parts of the state.
The new system of financing was set up by state lawmakers and approved by voters in 2013. Under that system, billions of dollars were moved from the Texas Rainy Day Fund and put into a separate fund for water. The Water Development Board plans to distribute about $800 million dollars in loans every year for the next ten year.
The 48 projects eligible for loans this year range from modest to mighty. The City of Marfa asked for $700,000 to build a single well, but the North Texas Municipal Water District requested $791 million for the under-construction, 16,500 acre Lower Bois d’Arc reservoir.
Applications from the greater Houston metropolitan area comprise one third of the total requests received by the Water Development Board. The sixteen projects around Harris County alone add up to $3 billion in loan requests. Projects in the Dallas Fort Work area made up about ten percent of all requests.
Ehud Ronn directs the Center for Energy Finance Education and Research at UT Austin.
The financial markets may be betting that the Keystone XL pipeline is a done deal.
The U.S. House and Senate have now both passed bills to force approval of the controversial pipeline. The southern leg of the project already delivers oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast. But approval of the full build-out would link existing pipe to the Canadian border, allowing more crude from the tar sands of Canada to reach Texas refineries via Cushing.
President Obama has vowed to veto the bills, but one expert says the fate of the project may already be written in futures contracts for crude oil.
Beer, Coffee, or Crude was created by Rice University student Aruni Ranaweera.
Anyone who spends time looking at how oil is drilled for and refined around the world comes to notice something strange. The names people give to different types of crude oil can sound surprisingly delicious.
In reporting on the role that benchmark oil prices play in moving the price of gasoline, I was introduced to one person who had made a game out of it. Rice University student Aruni Ranaweera created the quiz “Beer, Coffee, Crude” to test her classmates’ ability to distinguish between types of crude, types of beer, and blends of coffee. It’s harder than is sounds. Go ahead, crack open a can of Tia Juana Light and give it a shot.
Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters/ Landov
An exploratory oil well in California. Oil companies base their decisions to drill around the "benchmark price" of crude oil.
If you’ve followed the drop in oil prices over the last few months you might have noticed the words “Brent” and “WTI” being thrown around without much explanation. The price of these benchmark crude oils influences everything from how big oil companies invest in drilling, to the amount you pay to fill up your car. So what exactly are they?
The first thing to remember is that the crude oil we refine into gasoline comes in a lot of different varieties from all over the world. They have different names and some of them, like Tia Juana Light sound more like a refreshing beverage than an oil.
To make buying and selling all these different crudes simpler. People in the industry use benchmark oil prices. Brent crude, and West Texas Intermediate (or WTI) are the two big ones.
“So somebody will write a contract that says, I will sell you Crude X from the gulf of Mexico at WTI plus a dollar,” says Tim Hess, lead analyst for the US Energy Information Administration’s short term energy outlook.
He says WTI is the price marker for American crudes, “particularly on the Gulf Coast where the petroleum industry is centered.”
For most of the rest of the world, it’s Brent.