Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Olivia Gordon

Olivia Gordon is an intern with KUT News.

  • Email: TX_olivia@fake.net

2013 Brings Bad Spring for Some Texas Farmers

Rick Auckerman / Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Irrigation in freezing weather can damage crops and equipment, but many crops must be irrigated because of statewide drought conditions.

Recent rains helped pull more of the state out of drought- but 92 percent of Texas is still experiencing at least a moderate drought and in some of the state drought has worsened.

The U.S. Drought Monitor maps released Thursday morning show a slight decrease from last week in the percent of the state facing drought, but a four percent increase in the state currently under “extreme” drought.

The Northeast and far eastern portions of Texas received some relief with recent rains. The NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates these regions, along with much of the Midwest, will see improvements in the coming months. Continue Reading

Bills Aim to Ease Prescribed Burns to Prevent Wildfires

Mose Buchele

Larry Joe Doherty on his ranch, where he use prescribed burning. If passed, two bills could make this practice easier.

Two bills promoting responsible prescribed burning received a public hearing in the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee Wednesday morning.

Both bills would indirectly influence the ease with which landowners could use this wildfire prevention technique on their land.

SB 702 by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would establish standards for prescribed burners, as well as training, education and insurance for those doing the prescribed burning.

The bill received support from witnesses from the City of Austin and the Texas Forestry Association. Continue Reading

West, Texas: 14 Confirmed Fatalities, 200 Injured, Search and Rescue Complete

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

Residents of the town of West, Texas, hold a candlelight vigil Thursday evening for those killed and injured in an explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant in the town.

Reported by the KUT News Staff with Terrence Henry:

Read the new story: After West Fertilizer Explosion, Concerns Over Safety, Regulation and Zoning

Update: As of 3 pm Saturday, some residents of West, the site of a major explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, will be allowed back into their homes in part of the severely damaged neighborhood in the North section of town. Residents 18 and over living in the area from Walnut street southward will be allowed to enter until 7 pm. From 7 pm to 7 am, the city will have a curfew, and residents will need to either stay in their homes or leave the neighborhood. North of that area, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek said at a press conference this afternoon, the city will work “as quickly as possible”to allow people back to their homes. More information for residents is available at the City of West’s website.

Some press reports earlier today said that there were still small fires at the site of the fertilizer plant. Vanek said that “Everything is safe. It’s good. We’re trying to get our people back in.”

“Safe, safe, safe,” Vanek repeated.

The number of fatalities remains 14, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Previous reports, after the jump: Continue Reading

Texas Investigated West Fertilizer Plant in 2006

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has released the records history of the West


A citizen complained to the TCEQ in 2006 of a strong ammonia smell coming from the West Fertilizer Co.

Fertilizer Co.The plant was built in 1962, before the federal government required such facilities to have federal air permit authorizations for certain chemicals. The plant did not receive the authorization until 2004.

In 2006, a citizen filed an official complaint with the TCEQ. The complaint said that the “ammonia smell [was] very bad last night from Fertilizer Plant,” and that the smell  “lingered until after they went to bed.” The TCEQ investigated the plant and issued a violation because the plant had not gotten the required authorization. Continue Reading

Definition of ‘Brackish’ Stirs Debate at the Capitol

Photo by DPA /LANDOV

How salty is too salty when it comes to water? That was a hot topic this week at the Capitol.

Several representatives of groundwater districts testified on a whole host of water bills Tuesday at the Capitol, where they argued largely over one thing: what exactly is brackish water?

As Texas looks to build new water supplies, some lawmakers are advocating to look deeper underground than where our freshwater supplies lie. That’s where large deposits of salty, or “brackish,” wait, and could be desalinated for freshwater use. While not as salty as ocean water, exactly where to draw the line between fresh and brackish water was a key debate during a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.

Ty Embrey, an attorney representing several groundwater districts, started the debate when he questioned the definition of brackish water in a bill by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, HB 2334, which would make it easier for industries to desalinate salty groundwater and seawater. That bill, like most of the legislation dealing with brackish water at the Capitol this session, defines brackish water as “all groundwater with a total dissolved solids (TDS) concentration greater than 1,000 milligrams per liter,” according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Embrey expressed concern over the definition because he says legislative definitions like this are difficult to change in the future. He testified against five bills in the committee hearing because of this definition. Continue Reading

Report Shows Texas Counties Where Fracking and Water Needs Collide

Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT

Tom Bragg, left, of Sunpro Inc., works on finishing filling his truck with water as Gary Wortman takes off the filler hose from his truck after filling up with water at a Chesapeake Energy Corporation fresh water collection station at a sand and gravel pit, May 31, 2012, in Carroll County, Ohio.

The Texas legislature is currently considering plans to fund water projects for the state. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is using billions of gallons of freshwater for fracking, which is getting the attention of lawmakers.

Virginia Palacios, a research associate at the Environmental Defense Fund, has a new analysis showing that many of the Texas counties currently facing water shortages are also slated to have oil and gas development in the coming years.

Palacios collected data from UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology on mining water use and oil and gas water use. She compared that data with projections on county water use by sector by the Texas Water Development Board to determine whether each county’s water supply could fulfill demand. She found that in 12 Texas counties, freshwater use by the oil and gas industry “made up at least 25 percent of overall county-wide demand in 2011.”

Continue Reading

Hurricanes May Be Needed to Help Pull Texas Out of Drought


Some parts of the state may find themselves in the strange position of actually needing hurricanes this summer. Victor Murphy, climate program manager at National Weather Service Southern Region, says tropical storm landfall could be the best hope to get rain to parts of Texas that desperately need it.

Even though much of the state experienced some rain in the past week, 89 percent of Texas remains in a drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map for this week, which includes last week’s rains, actually shows an increase in the percentage of the state suffering from drought.

Even though some areas received as much as four inches of rain, Murphy says the storms kept conditions from worsening, but didn’t improve anything. Continue Reading

Solar-Powered Public Property Bill Backed by Education, Military

Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, and other government-owned lands could use more solar panels like this one if SB 1586 passes.

A bill that would increase the amount of renewable electricity on publicly-owned land received support from educators, environmentalists and the military at the Capitol Tuesday.

An Army attorney, high school science teacher and an environmental advocate all testified in support of SB 1586, authored by Sen. Jose R. Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at a Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearing.

The bill would allow state-owned land to use up to 10 megawatts of electricity generated by renewable sources, or enough to power about 5,000 homes on average. Currently, publicly-owned land can only use two megawatts.

Grace Blasingame, a science teacher in Pasadena ISD explored solar energy in an engineering class- an exploration that is now known as the PISD Solar Initiative. She says that anything the state can do to offset the district’s $12 million annual electricity bill would be beneficial to taxpayers. She said school districts have unused land purchased for investment projects and future growth that could be used to develop renewable energy.

Continue Reading

Legislation Could Lead to More Pipeline Regulation in Texas

Photo courtesy of Texas House

Keffer's bill would result in more pipeline regulation.

The recent oil spill in Arkansas continues to draw nationwide attention to pipeline safety regulations, but here in Texas, fewer than 20 minutes of a five hour legislative meeting held Wednesday was spent discussing House Bill 2982, a bill that would give the Railroad Commission of Texas more authority to regulate certain pipelines.

Representative Jim Keffer, R- Eastland, Chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, which is considering the bill, introduced the legislation.

He said the commission currently does not regulate some rural gathering lines, which are pipelines that go from drilling well sites to compressor stations or other well sites. The bill, Keffer says, would grant the commission the authority to inspect these pipelines if requested to do so. Continue Reading

This Week in Drought: Time to Wake Up and Smell the Scarcity

Photo by Omar Montemayor/AgriLife Extension

A rancher in South Texas burns cactus to feed cattle.

New numbers out this week show an increasing percentage of Texas facing drought conditions, according to the US Drought Monitor Map. More than 96 percent of the state is classified as at least “abnormally dry.” That’s an 8 percent increase in the past week.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon warned on his blog earlier this week that Texas reservoir levels are back to where they where in August 2011, near the peak of the drought. “If the drought continues as I have depicted it, [by] the end of the summer it will be the second-worst drought on record, behind only the drought of the 1950s,” Nielsen-Gammon writes.

In a series of disturbing charts, Nielsen-Gammon shows that precipitation trends for the current water year (which began in October) are much closer to the extreme drought of 2011 than a normal year, and predicts reservoir levels in the state will drop below 50 percent in September. The Texas Water Development Board shows reservoir levels in Texas currently at just over 66 percent.

If the drought does continue, cattle ranchers are in for a summer similar to that of 2011, when they suffered over $3 billion in losses. Some South Texas farmers have already had to resort to an emergency method of feeding their cattle, and it’s not cheap.

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