Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Mose Buchele

Reporter

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for StateImpact. He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 in Austin since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.

In the Land of the Oil Bust, the Repo Business Booms

Ryan Peck has been repossessing many more trucks since the downturn in the oilfields.

Mose Buchele

Ryan Peck has been repossessing many more trucks since the downturn in the oilfields.

Oil closed at its lowest price in more than six years Wednesday. Some project the price to drop even further.

In some parts of Texas that’s bad news for almost everyone. The economic ripple effect of low prices leads to layoffs and slams the breaks on local economies.  But there’s one business that’s going through a boom in oil patch right now: the repo business.

Ryan Peck says when you’re a repo man some jobs are harder than others.

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In Some Texas Oil Towns, This ‘Downturn’ Feels More Like a ‘Bust’

A box at the Alice Food Pantry accepts prayer requests. Many people in Alice have lost jobs since the prices of oil dropped.

Mose Buchele

A box at the Alice Food Pantry accepts prayer requests. Many people in Alice have lost jobs since the price of oil dropped.

Even before oil prices plummeted last year, the town of Alice, Texas was feeling the paincaused by a restless oil industry. Some oilfield service companies had moved operations from Alice, located near Corpus Christi, to places deeper in the Eagle Ford Shale. That cost the town jobs and tax revenue. Then, starting around Thanksgiving, the value of Texas crude dropped by more than half. More layoffs came, the real trouble started.

“A lot of people are in depression right now. And in denial,” says Bonnie Whitley, volunteer coordinator at the Alice Food Pantry. ”They just can’t come to grips with what’s happened. So there’s depression and we really need some good counselors down here. Which we don’t have…”

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New Tool Predicts Bird Deaths from Wind Turbines

 Research looked at Golden Eagle deaths caused by wind turbines.

Wikimedia Commons

Research looked at Golden Eagle deaths caused by wind turbines.

Texas leads the nation in wind power, but some environmentalists worry about bird deaths cause by wind turbines – typically, birds fly into the blades of the turbines.

Now, a new approach pioneered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to decrease those fatalities by trying to calculate the probability of bird-turbine collisions, while recognizing the inherent uncertainty of the phenomenon.

The approach is basically a mathematical formula. You plug in what you know about the local bird population, and where the turbines will be built. You run the numbers and get a fatality estimate. Dr. Leslie New is an assistant professor of statistics in Washington State University. She helped create the model looking at Golden Eagles, an endangered species; though, she says the model could be used for other species like the Bald Eagle.

Obviously, killing an endangered eagle is illegal, but wind farms can apply for a permit to exempt them from prosecution under the Endangered Species Act. New says the permits provide more an on-the-ground assessment of deaths as a result of collisions, but they will also help the model in predicting patterns of eagle deaths.

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Oil Prices Spell Bad News For Texas Budget Forecast

Texas-Oil-Drums_jpg_800x1000_q100

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

This week, oil prices dropped below $50 for the first time since February, a development that could upend the state’s predictions of oil revenue for this year.

Estimates from the Comptroller of Public Accounts put oil prices at an average of just over $64 per barrel in 2015 and 2016. And, as of now, those predictions are rosier than the reality of the market, meaning the state’s loss in oil and gas tax revenue could impact the Texas budget going forward.


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The Texas Drought’s Over, But The Texas Slow-Motion Water Crisis Is Not

Texas Drought Map.

US Drought Monitor

Texas Drought Map.

The latest drought report from the Texas Water Development Board has some good news. After more than five years, spring rains saturated the ground enough to finally end our long drought — our long soil moisture drought. But that doesn’t mean water shortages don’t still plague some parts of the state, and that water challenges wont stay with Texas into the foreseeable future.

“So we have hydrologic drought,” says Robert Mace with the Texas Water Development Board.

He says the ground is doing great, but parts of the state need much more rain to replenish their reservoirs.

“If you look at Lake Abilene, which is, believe it or not…3.4 percent full. And that was last full in 2011. Another example is Lake Meredith, up north of Amarillo, [which is] 15.6 percent full currently,” Mace says.

Mace is optimistic those and the rest of the state’s reservoirs can recover this winter, when El Niño conditions are expected to bring us more rain.

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Hard Times Come to the ‘Hotel Capital’

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms. Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon Jose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms.Jorge Sanhueza-LyonJose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

This story originally ran as part of KUT 90.5′s series “Meanwhile in Small Town Texas.”

Cotulla, Texas, is a small town deep in the oil fields of the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale.

It’s a town that bet big on the oil boom.

Five years ago the census put the population at less than 4,000 people. There were three or four motels then. Now in Cotulla there are around 25 motels, hotels and inns. It’s earned the town a nickname: “The ‘Hotel Capital of the Eagle Shale,’” says City Administrator Larry Dovalina.

He says for years Cotulla was like a lot of places in rural Texas: “Dying on the vine. Kind of forgotten.”

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After HB 40, What’s Next for Local Drilling Rules in Texas?

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

Mose Buchele

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

This year state lawmakers severely restricted the ability of Texas towns to regulate local oil and gas drilling.

A law known as House Bill 40 was a reaction to a fracking ban passed by voters in the North Texas city of Denton.

Denton has come to represent local fracking bans and clashes between local governments and the oil and gas industry. But while Denton was the first city in Texas to ban fracking, it wasn’t the first city to ban drilling within city limits.

That practice goes back years, according to a survey by the Texas Municipal League.

The Texas Municipal League’s survey shows that about 30 Texas towns have more general bans on drilling.

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A Strange El Niño Is Bringing Rain To Texas

When you hear about El Niño, you might remember the classic skit where Chris Farley plays ”El Niño,” a pro-wrestling tropical storm.

What other weather pattern gets its own Saturday Night Live send-up?

Well, after a year of waiting, El Niño is here, and it is raging like Farley. But it’s it’s not like anything we’ve seen before. To understand why, we’ve got to clear up some misconceptions.


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Could Evidence of Manmade Quakes Bring Tectonic Shift in Texas Regulation?

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

There have been earthquakes in almost every corner of Texas since the start of the state’s most recent oil and gas boom. One “swarm” that really captured people’s attention started in the town of Azle in 2013.  When oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas visited the town, local people suggested ways to handle the waste water disposal wells thought to be causing the quakes. One idea came up over and over again.

“Why is it we can’t shut the wells down around here for a period of time?” asked resident Gale Wood. “If nothing happens after a while, that would be one way to determine what’s going on.”

The Railroad Commission has a different approach. In the case of Azle, it waited over a year while a team of seismologists at Southern Methodist University undertook a study.  The results came back this month, confirming that disposal wells likely caused the quakes. That has some residents in Texas’ quake country hoping the simple notion put forth at that public meeting -shut down disposal wells if there’s a chance they’re related to earthquakes- may get another hearing.

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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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