Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Mose Buchele


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.

State Lawmakers Consider the Impacts of EPA Regulations

A recent drop in carbon emissions in the U.S. could only be temporary, a new report warns.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A recent drop in carbon emissions in the U.S. could only be temporary, a new report warns.

Texas will need to make big cuts in carbon emissions over the next 15 years under a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency.  You can expect to hear complaints about the EPA rule at a two-day meeting of the House Environmental Regulations Committee starting Monday.

The federal agency and state leaders have been at odds for years and many conservatives worry that limiting carbon emission to fight climate change will hurt the economy.

But there are some in Texas who see an upside. Click the player to learn more.

Will Mexican Drilling Bring Texas Profit?

An exploratory well drills for oil in the Monterey Shale, California, April 29, 2013. Voters in Denton, Texas could decide whether or not to outlaw fracking within their city's limits through a ballot initiative.

Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters/ Landov

The oil and gas rich Eagle Ford Shale formation straddles both sides of the Texas Mexico border.

Today, members of the state House Energy Resources Committee met in the Rio Grande Valley town of Edinburg to discuss how a partial privatization of Mexico’s oil and gas sector could impact the Texas economy.

Until this year, drilling in Mexico was run by Pemex, a state-owned company.  A change in Mexican law has now partially opened the county to foreign business.  That could be a big opportunity for Texas companies familiar with the oil and gas rich Eagle Ford shale that straddles the border. Some estimates have already said a shale boom in Mexico could grow the Texas economy by tens of billions of dollars. Others say it’s too early to tell.

“I have seen some of those estimates, and at this point all they are are numbers on a spreadsheet,” say Tom Tunstall, director of the Center for Community and Business Research at UT San Antonio.

He says infrastructure and border security concerns could complicate investment. Then there’s uncertainty around the continued roll of Pemex.

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Fewer Atlantic Hurricanes Bode Well For An El Niño Winter

In this handout GOES satellite image provided by NASA, Hurricane Sandy, pictured at 1410 UTC, churns off the east coast on October 28, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo by NASA via Getty Images

Hurricane Sandy, pictured, churns off the east coast on October 28, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean.

There’s a good chance of an El Niño weather pattern forming by the end of the year. That could be good for easing or even ending the Texas drought. But it’s not a sure thing.

For meteorologists to know El Niño has definitely arrived, warmer surface water in the Pacific needs to engage with the atmosphere. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Forecasters, however, are already seeing another sign of El Niño: fewer hurricanes than average in the Atlantic.

“I think we’ve only had five named storms so far [in the Atlantic], about 50 percent of normal,” says Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Whereas the Eastern Pacific Basin, I think they’re on the “P” storm Polo. I think they’re at about 150 percent of activity in the Pacific.”

The “O” storm, “Odile,” from the Pacific, dropped a sizable amount of rain on parts of Texas just last week.

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What Does Fossil Fuel Divestment Mean For Texas?

Pushes to modernize the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling in Texas, are taking shape.

Photo by Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images

Divestment has become a popular topic on college campuses and some boardrooms.But it will likely have trouble taking hold in oil rich parts of the state.

“I think it is worth asking ourselves as a society how much longer we think we need to have an oil economy.” — Michael Webber, UT Energy Institute

This week in New York, the UN Climate Summit is underway, and the Rockefeller Foundation made news with the announcement that it will divest close to a billion dollars from fossil fuels. Here in Austin, University of Texas President Bill Powers gave his State of the University address. But in contrast to the news from New York, Powers thanked “heavens” for the oil wealth provided to UT by its land holdings, and celebrated the fracking revolution as “good news” for the University.

The disconnect between the two messages leads one to wonder about the role of the divestment campaign in oil-rich parts of the country. Could divestment in other parts of the country grow to the point where it disrupts Texas’ fossil fuel economy? By contrast, could divestment ever catch on here?

We called Michael Webber, Deputy Director of UT’s Energy Institute, to talk about all that and more.

It should be noted that the Institute receives funding from industry and from UT, which, as President Powers noted, is no stranger to the oil business. (StateImpact Texas has also been sponsored by the Energy Institute on special projects. These disclosures seem all the more important in a blog post about how deeply intertwined the fossil fuel industry is with many aspects of the life in the state.)

StateImpact Texas: Could divestment shake up the Texas economy?

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Eminent Domain Debate Goes To The Railroad Commission

Activists took to the trees to try to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline in East Texas.

Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films

Activists took to the trees to try to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline in East Texas.

Last year at a farm in outside of Beaumont, Dick O’Keefe sat at the kitchen table and talked about how a pipeline had come to his land. The company had claimed eminent domain powers. O’Keefe was not convinced.

“The pipeline companies should have to demonstrate that they have the right of eminent domain before they ever start beating the streets and handing out contracts,” O’Keefe said. “The threshold for them is extremely low.”

The Texas Supreme Court agrees with that assessment. In a 2011 decision, the court called the process giving eminent domain powers to pipeline companies nothing more than a “registration.” In the ruling the court said “No notice is given to affected parties. No hearing is held, no evidence is presented, no investigation is conducted.”

The conclusion: “Our Constitution demands far more.”

Today, the state’s oil and gas regulators are meeting to consider changing those rules. But getting there has been a long and windy road, as KUT’s Mose Buchele reports for State Impact Texas.

Despite Some Rain, Drought Still Grips Texas Towns

A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.


A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.

Summer brought no relief from drought in many parts of Northwest Texas. But storms related to Hurricane Odile could bring some much needed rain. The region, like much of Texas, has been struggling with drought for years. Now some communities there are now faced with a difficult task: find new water, or go dry.

Take the small Texas town of Gordon. Kenneth Epperson works for the Water Department there. By the end of August, the town had about four months of water left for close to 800 users. So he’s looking at his options, one of which is possibly getting water from a local rancher who has a lake on his land and bring it to the town treatment plant via pipeline.

Gordon is just one of many towns facing the prospect of running dry, and because the crisis is regional, stretching across city and county lines, officials are needing to get creative when considering new supplies. “You know, all over, this northwest Texas is kind of in a bind,” Epperson says.

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Cooler Summer Bites Into Public Utility Revenues

Austin Energy earns 40 percent of its revenue in the summer months


Austin Energy earns 40 percent of its revenue in the summer months

Aside from the month of August, this summer has been relatively cool as far as Texas summers go. That’s a welcome change of pace for those who live here, but it’s brought an unanticipated gap in revenue for some electricity providers.

Take Austin Energy. At the start of the year, the city-owned utility was expecting to bring in around $654 million in base revenue from energy used by customers.  Since then, it has reduced that estimate by about $16.5 million.

“That’s the impact the cooler weather has had. It’s to the tune of 16 and a half million,” says Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson for Austin Energy.

The utility makes 40 percent of its annual revenue in the four hottest months of the year that’s June, July August and September. This year all those months, except August, have seen lower than average AC use and peak electric demand.

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Research Links Drilling Activities to Water Contamination in North Texas

The study explored different scenarios that may have accounted for elevated methane in the groundwater.

Used with permission from Thomas Darrah, OSU

The study explored different scenarios that may have accounted for elevated methane in the groundwater.

For years, some residents of Parker County in North Texas have believed that nearby gas drilling was responsible for high levels of methane in neighborhood water wells. Research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences appears to back that up.

The study looked at water contamination in Texas and Pennsylvania. It suggests that faulty cement jobs on drilling wells could be at fault in North Texas. Cement is poured between the rock wall and the steel tubing of oil and gas wells to block contaminants.

“We think either there isn’t enough cement in this location or more likely there are cracks or imperfections in that cement. That’s what allowed the strong gas to move up through the well and then out into peoples drinking water,” says Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Stanford, who co-authored of the study.

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UPDATED: Four Earthquakes Rattled Texas Last Week, Another on Sunday

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?


Regulators are trying to craft rules to respond to the dramatic uptick in quakes.

It was a shaky week in Texas last week with three small earthquakes rattling the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a slightly more powerful quake detected in South Texas.

The first quake measuring magnitude 2.4 struck near Arlington. It prompted some residents to call 9-11 after feeling their houses shake and hearing “explosions,” according to the  the Forth Worth Star Telegram.

Earthquakes are often accompanied by loud “booms,” something that has become a source of anxiety in newly quake-prone parts of the state.

The quake coincided with a water main break that morning that left about a dozen homes without water. The City of Arlington tells StateImpact Texas that the water main break was not caused by the earthquake.

On Thursday, a second quake hit North Texas this one measuring 2.9. It was centered near an elementary school in Irving.

The South Texas quake was the strongest of the three. It measured 3.2 and was centered about two miles southeast of Charlotte. It struck on Wednesday, but was not reported by the USGS until Thursday.

A fourth quake again rattled Arlington on Friday evening, it measured 2.5.

All of the quakes happened in parts of the state with extensive oil and gas drilling activity.

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What an On-Again, Off-Again El Niño Means For Texas

For El Nino to fully appear, the ocean temperature must change the atmosphere.

Photo by Mose Buchele

For El Nino to fully appear, the ocean temperature must enter a feedback loop with the atmosphere.

Earlier this year Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist Bob Rose, liked what he was seeing in the forecast.

“I’m optimistic that we will get into a pattern of above normal rainfall this fall continuing into next winter and possibly into next spring as well,” he said in April.

But since then things changed.

After much ado, the El Niño predicted by many meteorologists hasn’t quite showed itself in the form rainfall yet. While there’s still a chance it could strengthen before the summer’s end, it’s not likely it will meet its initial forecasted fury.

“El Niño, while it looked like it was really starting to ramp up, and would really start to develop in September. It actually took a pause in July,” he says.

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