Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Sheyda Aboii

  • Email: TX_sheyda@fake.com

What’s With All These Earthquakes in Texas?

StateImpact Texas

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

Call it a new Texas tradition: An earthquake hits and the ground has barely stopped shaking before people start looking for oil and gas drilling operations near the quake zone.

This past week saw a big jump in rare seismic activity across the state. Last Thursday, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake startled San Antonio residents early in the morning. And this Sunday, a 2.1 magnitude quake shook Keene, a small town just 25 miles south of Fort Worth. Then, early this morning, the U.S. Geological Survey says a 2.6 magnitude quake hit near Fort Worth.

All those places are relatively close to drilling operations and disposal wells.

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Why an Environmental Group is Going After Austin’s Coal Plant

Photo by Andy Uhler/KUT News

The Fayette Power Project coal plant in La Grange, Texas. An environmental group says it's violating its permit, which the LCRA denies.

One environmental group believes that the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) needs something more than just a chimney sweep to clean up its act.

LCRA was served with a notice of intent to sue last week by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), representing the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The environmental group’s notice of intent cites Clean Air Act violations at the Fayette Power Project (FPP) near La Grange (about 60 miles outside of Austin) as cause for the lawsuit. Specifically, the group claims that the coal plant has exceeded limits on particulate matter emissions.

“We’ve discovered what we believe are egregious violations of the air pollution permit for the power plant and that harms public health, pollutes the air that we all breath,” said Ilan Levin, the Associate Director of Environmental Integrity Project, in an interview with StateImpact Texas.

And like many environmental vs. energy spats in the state, this is another case of He Said, She Said. LCRA General Manager Becky Motal believes the groups claims are groundless.

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Reax Roundup: Little Lizard Causes Big Stir

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to not list the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard as an endangered or threatened species has everyone buzzing. Here’s a roundup of reactions from groups across the state.

Ken Kramer, the director of Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter was critical of the decision:


Ken Kramer, Director of Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter

“Let’s be clear that these agreements are voluntary,” Kramer said in a statement. “That means that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will have to be active in seeing that these agreements are carried out and have the desired results, but the agency will not have the power to enforce the agreements. That’s the real difference between listing or not listing a species as endangered – not the specific actions to protect a species, which may well be the same in a voluntary agreement or an agency mandate, but the ability to make sure those actions take place. Basing the fate of the dunes sagebrush lizard solely on voluntary actions puts the species at greater risk.”


Jerry Patterson, Texas Land Commissioner

But not everyone found fault with the decision. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson weighed in on the issue, too, lauding the defeat of “federal reptile dysfunction:”

“Texans stood up and were heard,” Patterson said in a press release. “The drive to list this lizard wasn’t based on science, but was in response to abusive lawsuits filed against the federal government by a radical environmental group – and Texans showed that we don’t get intimidated so easily.”

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Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Not Endangered


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Dunes Sagebrush Lizard should not be considered endangered.

The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, a native of the Permian Basin, will not find its way onto the threatened or endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today cited the Texas Conservation Plan (TCP) as adequate protection for the species.

“We have determined that the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction and is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future,” said Dan Ashe, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a conference call to reporters. Continue Reading

After Hearing, White Stallion Coal Plant Keeps its Air Permit

Photo by Mose Buchele for StateImpact Texas.

Brian Shaw is Chair of ther TCEQ.

Representatives for environmental groups walked away disappointed from a meeting of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this morning, after TCEQ made it clear that it would not pull its air permit for the White Stallion Energy Center.

This time, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) brought White Stallion representatives before the TCEQ over the existence of a second site plan for the proposed coal plant.

The EDF asked TCEQ to reconsider the air permit issued in October 2011 because White Stallion submitted a new site plan to the Army Corps of Engineers as part of an application for a wetlands permit just days after receiving an air permit from TCEQ. Continue Reading

How Juniper and Mesquite Trees Could Help Fuel Texas

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The leaves of a honey mesquite tree. Excess trees could be harvested and used as biofuels.

Scientists may have found something more than just rings in the heart of Texas’ Juniper and Mesquite trees – more than 8,000 Btu in renewable bioenergy per pound, according to experts at Texas Agrilife Research. That’s roughly equivalent to “medium grade subbituminous coal,” according to Agrilife.

The Juniper and Mesquite trees now covering more than sixty million acres of brushland could be converted to biofuel by a process called biomass gassification. Biomass gassification produces syngas – a natural gas substitute consisting of carbon monoxide, ethane and hydrogen. Tar is also formed from biomass gassification and may be used as a fuel source.

Texas AgriLife Research rangeland ecologist, Dr. Jim Ansley, considers the Juniper and Mesquite trees to be a relatively untapped energy resource.

“Right now, they are perceived as noxious plants that are detrimental to rangeland ecosystems,” said Ansley, “Their removal and use as a bioenergy feedstock would improve ecosystem quality as well as services from these lands, such as increased income from livestock grazing.” Ansley and his colleagues conducted a study to determine the basic properties of Juniper and Mesquite wood chips when used as fuel.

Mesquite and Juniper woods proved to be better quality fuel than cattle manure biomass. You can visit our topic page on the Non-Wind and Non-Solar Renewable Resources of Texas to learn more about Texas biofuels.

How Increased Groundwater Use May Lead to Sea Level Rise

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

A street is flooded on Coney Island after Hurricane Irene hit, in New York, August 28, 2011.

In the world of water, all things are connected. That’s what a recent study seems to say about the effects of increasing groundwater consumption on the Earth’s sea levels.

Dr. Yoshihide Wada, a hydrologist at Utretcht University in the Netherlands, claims in the study that groundwater taken out of the earth will likely find its way back to the ocean, causing sea levels to rise further. His team of Dutch scientists modeled current groundwater extraction trends, economic growth, development projections, climate change, and aquifer recharge rates around the world to estimate the impact of harvested groundwater.

The findings of the study are intriguing; particularly when groundwater extraction issues have become so significant in the Texas Panhandle.

Wada and his colleagues have discovered that groundwater depletion is adding approximately 0.6 millimeters per year to the sea level. By 2050, the combined effects of population growth, economic development, and higher irrigation needs may increase this rate to 0.82 millimeters per year. Continue Reading

Why Groundwater Is Running Out in the Panhandle

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Juan Rico works in an cotton field that is watered by an underground irrigation system July 27, 2011 near Hermleigh, Texas.

The Texas Panhandle’s corn crops are greener now than they have been in many months. Recent rainfall has given this season’s crops a new lease on life. But, corn crops thirty years from now might not be so lucky. The rapid depletion of the Panhandle’s groundwater supplies could dramatically alter the character of agriculture in the region.

A new study on groundwater depletion in the Central Valley of California and the High Plains Region has placed most of the blame on agriculture irrigation practices. Researchers at the University of Texas claim that the Texas Panhandle will be unable to sustain irrigated agriculture within the next thirty years if current patterns of groundwater use continue.

“Current rates of replenishment in the Panhandle are very low and we are basically pulling out water faster than it is being replenished,” says Dr. Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology. “It’s just like a bank. If you withdraw money faster than you deposit money, you will eventually run out. The groundwater depletion rate in the northern Texas panhandle is now at least ten times its recharge rate.”

And the Central Valley of California faces a similar situation. Continue Reading

Exploring the Gap Between Water Supply and Energy Development

Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

A man shelters from the rain under his umbrella as he passes a giant mural showing the drought-affected Australian outback in 2007.

A growing shortage of freshwater is transforming into a commonplace global experience. Australia, Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, North East China, Argentina, portions of Brazil, and even Southern Europe are witnessing declines in freshwater availability.

In the U.S., states that don’t normally experience drought conditions such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Washington are now watching water caches run dry. “Drought is a trend, rather than just a temporary event,” says Michael Hightower, a representative of Sandia National Laboratories, “We are in about a three hundred-year drought that has been ongoing since the mid-1700s.” Hightower spoke about the challenges and opportunities for the expansion of water availability at the 2012 Water Summit hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Academy of of Medicine, Engineering and Science.

“I don’t think our political systems are set up to handle drought,” says Hightower. He cites the growing connections between energy development and water availability as a key justification for water resource expansion. He says that water availability issues are already impacting new energy development, like with fracking (a single hydraulic fracturing well requires up to three million gallons of water) and ethanol production (which requires three to four thousand gallons of water per bushel of corn).

So, what tools do we have to decrease the growing gap between our water resources and energy development plans? Continue Reading

New Water Center Aims to Help With State’s Struggles

Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

A coalition of Texas institutions announced a new water conservation and technology center today. It’s a group effort, headed by Texas AgriLife Research, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas Engineering Experiment Station, and Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

Dr. Neal Wilkins, the director of the Texas Water Resources Institute, hopes that the new center will put the development of new technologies on the fast track to solving the state’s evolving water challenges.

“The center will accelerate the development and adoption of new and innovative technologies to solve emerging water problems and meet future water supply needs,” he said in a statement.

Researchers at the center will target four research areas: water conservation, water reuse, groundwater desalination, and energy development.

Among some of the first issues on the table is the link between energy development and water use.  Continue Reading

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