Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Shawna Reding

Reporting Intern

Shawna Reding is a reporting intern at StateImpact Texas. She is currently finishing her multimedia journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is pursuing a business foundations certificate from McCombs School of Business.

Could 2014 Be a Drought-Buster for Texas?

An empty rain gauge is strapped to a fence post on the edge of a pasture this summer near Canadian, Texas

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

An empty rain gauge is strapped to a fence post on the edge of a pasture this summer near Canadian, Texas

In Spanish, El Niño means “the boy child.” But if El Niño predictions for late 2014 prove correct, winter rainfall in Texas could be anything but little.  The deceptively-named weather pattern generally brings rain to Texas. Lots of it.

El Niño occurs when warm water buried below the surface of the Pacific rises up and spreads along the equator towards America. It often causes storms that devastate parts of Latin America, Indonesia and Australia, but it could also bring relief to drought-stricken Texas.

“It tends to cause the jetstream to be farther south than normal, which means we may get more rain events, generally cool temperatures and lots of run-off, which would be good for reservoir levels,” John Nielsen-Gammen, Texas State Climatologist, tells StateImpact Texas.

Now, a new study from Stanford University gives the El Niño weather pattern a 76 percent chance of returning this year. What exactly does that mean?

Continue Reading

How the Yeast in Your Bread Could One Day Be Fuel For Your Car

Hal Alper of UT examines a sample of his new yeast-based biofuel.

Photo by Amelia Johnson/Courtesy of UT

Hal Alper of UT examines a sample of his new yeast-based biofuel.

For years, soybeans have been the predominant base for biodiesel fuel in the United States. But the crop has a major limitation — it can’t grow everywhere, preventing its widespread adoption as a fuel.

Hal Alper, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has come up with a replacement. It’s found in your bread: yeast. After it undergoes some chemical tinkering and mixes with sugar, Alper and his team of researchers say yeast can then be converted into what he calls “sweet crude biofuel.”

He says yeast has been transformed into unlikely products such as alcohol for “thousands of years,” now it can be transformed into fuel. Alper says soybean and yeast have almost identical genes, which makes yeast an easy alternate for biodiesel. Continue Reading

With a Rise in Man-Made Quakes, a Search for More Data

William Ellsworth is a scientists with the United States Geological Survey.

Photo by USGS

William Ellsworth is a scientists with the United States Geological Survey.

Another earthquake swarm has been shaking towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth area over the last few months, with over thirty quakes measured since the beginning of November. Residents are shaken up, regulators have no answers, and no one is sure what comes next.

The likely culprit behind the quakes isn’t fracking, but rather a byproduct of it — hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater from oil and gas drilling. The disposal of that wastewater deep underground has been known to cause faults to slip, triggering earthquakes in parts of Texas. There were under a hundred recorded earthquakes (measuring 2.0 or higher) in Texas during the three decades before the current drilling boom began in earnest in 2007, according to records from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Since then, there’s been two hundred quakes recorded by the agency, along with hundreds more smaller ones.

The rate has increased from an average of three quakes a year in Texas before 2007 to nearly 30 a year since. “The increase in earthquakes is very clear, so it’s not an instrumental artifact,” says William L. Ellsworth, a seismologist with the USGS. “This we’re really quite confident of.” And the rapid increase in quakes isn’t unique to Texas: our neighbors to the north in Oklahoma have had an average of 40 quakes measuring 3.0 or higher a year since an uptick in drilling (and oil and gas wastewater disposal) in 2009. Before that, the state had one to three quakes a year of 3.0 or higher on average.

But to establish a link to drilling activity (and specific disposal wells) in each earthquake swarm, scientists need data. And they need a lot more of it when it comes to Texas. To look at how earthquakes are measured in the state and better understand the numbers, StateImpact Texas reached out to Ellsworth, who’s been studying the manmade quake phenomenon in Texas and other parts of the country.  Continue Reading

Angry North Texans Demand State Shut Down Wells Linked to Earthquakes

Residents of the quake-stricken area called on state regulators to immediately suspend operations at the wells believed to be behind the tremors.

Photo by Sam Ortega/KUT

Residents of the quake-stricken area called on state regulators to immediately suspend operations at the wells believed to be behind the tremors.

Dozens of residents and local officials from the towns of Azle, Reno and Springtown outside of Fort Worth bused down to Austin Tuesday to speak before state regulators about a swarm of recent earthquakes believed to be tied to the oil and gas industry. They had plenty of questions for the Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, but the commission had few answers.

While the quakes have been relatively small, not big enough to cause major damage, there’s been a lot of them: more than thirty over the last few months. They’ve caused cracks in homes, sinkholes and more than a few rude awakenings.

“The quakes started recently, and I didn’t think much about it until I was asleep at midnight,” testified Springtown resident Phil Doss. “It woke me up. I thought a 747 had landed on my roof. It was that bad.”

Springtown is one of several towns in Texas that saw a sudden onset of quakes over the last few years as a drilling boom expanded throughout the state. No earthquakes struck the Dallas-Fort Worth region before 2007, according to records from the United States Geological Survey. There have been more than a hundred since. Continue Reading

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