Terrence Henry reports on energy and the environment for StateImpact Texas. His radio, print and television work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The Texas Tribune, The History Channel and other outlets.
He has previously worked at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University.
A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.
The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas last year took much more than fifteen lives. At least 262 people were injured; twenty percent of those were brain injuries. Homes and schools were destroyed. But judging from the response of some state lawmakers charged with stopping it from happening again, preventable disasters like the one in West are just something Texans are going to have to live with from time to time.
There’s been no new regulations for fertilizer plants since the disaster until this month, but there’s been a consensus for some time about how to prevent another tragedy like the one in West: require fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate in non-combustible facilities or to use sprinklers; conduct inspections of facilities; and train first responders so they know how to deal with fires that may break out at sites with ammonium nitrate.
A draft bill to do just that was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But Republicans on his committee like Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) made clear at a hearing yesterday that they’re likely going to fight new regulations proposed to prevent another West. Flynn said new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business, and he worries that any new rules for volunteer fire departments could strain budgets.
When it comes to the oil and gas drilling boom in the country, Texas is king. Actually, make that crown a global one: over a quarter of all the active drilling rigs in the world are right here in the Lone Star State.
The boom – taking place thanks to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling – has brought jobs, money and more energy security to Texas and the country. It’s also damaged roads, increased traffic and accidents, strained local governments and caused housing prices to skyrocket in parts of the state. How the boom is leaving some communities behind is the subject of an in-depth report today in TheNew York Times.
“Though the boom has helped produce fortunes for some and comfortable lives for many, for others it exists within a rural landscape of unpaved streets without garbage pickup, where few dare to drink the tap water because it tastes and smells like chlorine,” Manny Fernandez and Clifford Kraus write.
“Not all tides raise all ships,” Libby Campbell, director of the West Texas Food Bank in Midland-Odessa, told StateImpact Texas when we visited her last fall. Campbell showed us how her operation is struggling to meet with increased demand for their services. People are showing up to the region broke, with the hopes of finding a job in the oilfield – or they already live in the area and have seen their rent double or triple since the latest boom began.
In a video accompanying the story in today’s Times (above), you can see how an influx of industry and profit has caused more hardship for those already stuck in poverty. Continue Reading →
An old radio lies in the mud exposed after the water has gone at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, in September 2013
With nearly 70 percent of the state still stuck in a drought that has dragged on for years, there’s been plenty of talk about how to strengthen water supplies in Texas. A multi-billion-dollar water fund (the passage of Proposition 6 last election) is in the works that will help fund projects like reservoirs, desalination and conservation. And there’s ongoing discussion and debate about the elephant in the aquifer: ways to change how groundwater is regulated, which took up a whole day of testimony at the state legislature this week. But that’s not all.
Beyond those two big-ticket items — how to pay for water supplies and how to regulate water underground — there are some other smaller challenges the state faces when it comes to water. At a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday, several state agencies told lawmakers about the water challenges they’re dealing with. Here’s five issues that caught our attention:
1. ‘Toilet to Tap’ Could Mean Drier Rivers Downstream
Water reuse is picking up in Texas, but it could create problems for downriver communities. Customers currently pump treated wastewater back into a river, where its carried downstream to be treated and used again, but better techniques and technologies in water reuse are upsetting that system. Now communities like Wichita Falls in North Texas are moving towards direct wastewater reuse, and when that happens, there’s less water flowing downstream. Continue Reading →
New transmission line projects are already resulting in more wind power making its way to cities in Central and North Texas.
We’re all going to be paying for it, so you might be glad to know that a new set of transmission lines to bring wind power from the Panhandle and West Texas to folks in North and Central Texas appear to be off to a good start. According to a new federal analysis this week, the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones power transmission project, also known as CREZ, is already resulting in fewer curtailments of wind power and more even prices in Texas’ energy market.
The project cost $7 billion, a price that will be paid for by tacking on a fee to Texans’ utility bills. On average, your power bill could go up several dollars a month.
Before the lines went into operation, Texas had an odd problem: the state was producing too much wind power. Wind power grew so rapidly in Texas that it was a victim of its own success. More than half of the state’s wind power was built in a very short period, from 2006-09, according to the analysis from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and transmission couldn’t keep up. Continue Reading →
A panel of experts gathered in Azle Wednesday night to talk about what's behind the North Texas earthquake swarm.
What is behind the tremors in North Texas? Starting late last fall, a swarm of quakes struck the communities of Reno and Azle outside of Fort Worth. It’s hardly the first community in the Lone Star State to have to deal with damaged foundations, cracked windows and rude awakenings from quakes: there have been nine other scientifically-researched quake swarms in Texas, all of them in areas of oil and gas drilling activity.
The community forum, featuring a panel of officials and experts, explored what we currently know about the quakes, what can be done about them, and whether or not state regulators and legislators are up to the task of taking actions to prevent more quakes in the future. Here’s what we learned, and some of the questions that remain unanswered: Continue Reading →
Moderated by KERA’s Doualy Xaykaothao, the panel included state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes, SMU Associate Professor of Geophysics Heather DeShon, Bill Stevens of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, and our reporter Mose Buchele.
The forum explored what we currently know about the quakes, what can be done about them, and whether or not state regulators and legislators are up to the task of taking actions to prevent more quakes in the future. We have a full story here on the forum, and audio of the whole event here for you to listen to:
Audience members were also invited to ask questions of the panel. Here’s that portion of the forum:
North Texas has the largest onshore natural gas field in the state, and some experts believe it may be the largest in the country. So when a swarm of earthquakes hit the cities of Azle and Reno beginning six months ago, local residents started asking questions. Scientists have linked the disposal of drilling wastewater used in fracking to earthquakes in Texas and other parts of the country. Now seismologists are studying the quakes in Parker and Tarrant Counties to monitor where the earthquakes occur, when and why.
What’s Behind the North Texas Quakes? A KERA/StateImpact Texas Discussion will be moderated by KERA Senior Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao, who has covered major earthquakes in Japan, Indonesia and Thailand. The panel discussion will include state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes, SMU Associate Professor of Geophysics Heather DeShon, and StateImpact Texas reporter Mose Buchele, who’s covered the oil and gas industry for many years. Audience questions will be moderated by StateImpact Texas reporter Terrence Henry.
Barry Smitherman is the chair of the Railroad Commission of Texas
Sometimes old news is anything but. That seemed to be the case this week when the Associated Pressreported that the Railroad Commission, the oil and gas regulator in Texas, had banned interviews with the media. “Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency has instituted a blanket policy barring staff members from doing media interviews, raising questions about transparency as the state grapples with the intricacies of one of the largest energy booms in decades,” the story said.
The policy isn’t new. It was approved by the three commissioners who head the agency in August 2012 (not a year later, as the AP reported), and it was discussed in two open meetings. It hasn’t been modified since. It’s not even an “unusual” policy for Texas, as it was closely modeled after a rule in effect at the state Attorney General’s office. All the Railroad Commissioners did was change the names.
“This is already policy,” then-commissioner Buddy Garcia said during the first meeting discussing the idea in July 2012. The commission was trying to put in “layman’s terms” how staff should handle media requests, Garcia said.
The media policy, which you can read in full below, says that with the exception of the commissioners and their staff, everyone else that works at the agency must go through the Railroad Commission’s Media Affairs Director or the Executive Director. The AP says this week that Milton Rister, who has been Executive Director since October 2012 (after the policy was passed), has not approved any interviews with Railroad Commission staff. Ramona Nye, a spokesperson for the commission, confirms that no interviews with staff have been approved.
In Texas, the Keystone XL pipeline is a forgone conclusion. Every day, up to 700,000 barrels of oil (both domestic crude and heavy oil commonly known as “tar sands,” extracted from Canada) make their way from Cushing, Oklahoma through the Gulf Coast segment of the Keystone XL pipeline to refineries in Texas. This section of the controversial project went ahead while the northern leg awaits presidential approval. Despite objections by some landowners and environmental groups, the southern leg began commercial operations earlier this year.
But one man just wants to know where the pipeline will actually run. And he’s been stymied again and again in his efforts to get that information. Thomas Bachand, a San Francisco photographer, finally got an answer this week from the U.S. Department of State on why they won’t release the info to him: Because the company behind the project, TransCanada, doesn’t want to. Continue Reading →
Big changes could be coming for Texas power plants. The Obama administration is announcing new rules today aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants – the chief culprit behind global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants in the U.S. by 30 percent (from their 2005 levels) by 2030. That “is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year,” according to the EPA. In Texas, that drop will need to be even higher: the state’s carbon emissions from the power sector will need to fall 39 percent by 2030 under the proposal.
The U.S. is already moving towards that goal, thanks in large part to the boom in shale gas drilling that has brought more natural gas into the energy mix. That has contributed to a 12 percent decline in energy-related carbon emissions between 2005 and 2012, according to federal statistics. The economic downturn and warmer winter weather may have also played a role in that decline.
In Texas, the leading carbon emitter in the country, the new rules could have a big impact, but the devil’s in the details.