Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Yana Skorobogatov


Yana Skorobogatov is an intern at StateImpact Texas

  • Email: TX_yana@fake.com

Drilling Still on the Rise in Texas

Oil and gas drilling in Texas is alive and well, according to a new numbers from the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Photo courtesy of nikki_flowers/Flickr Creative Commons

One of Texas' many oil rigs.

The commission says that 943 oil permits were completed this March, meaning that they’ve been built and are either scheduled to produce or already producing. That’s up from 518 oil completions during March 2011. Another 421 natural gas permits were completed the same month. Overall, Texas still accounts for about half of the active drilling in the U.S., producing some 417 million barrels of oil and over 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the last twelve months.

Despite natural gas prices reaching a ten-year low, fracking for gas isn’t down over last year. Production is up almost twenty-five million Mcf (thousand cubic feet), and gas completions are especially active in the Haynesville Shale and North and South Texas.

Midland, San Antonio, and San Angelo were awarded the most oil and gas drilling permits – 750, 360, and 221, respectively – while East Central, East, and Deep South Texas got the least – 26, 41, and 56, respectively.

Here’s some more relevant data from the Commission’s report: Continue Reading

Bike to the Future: Electric Bicycles Hit the Road in Austin

Photo by Yana Skorobogatov of StateImpact Texas

Nicole Zinn, one of the owners of Rocket Electric.

Austin has transformed into a major biking city in recent years. Rising gas prices, chronic city traffic, and limited parking are just some of the reasons why local residents have begun leaving their cars at home and getting on the seat. Having six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong as a local celebrity helps, too.

Other factors, however, make the transition a bit more difficult. Record heat waves, limited bike lanes, and a hilly topography go a long way to deter Austinites from fully embracing cycloculture. Fitness and cost-saving factors are certainly persuasive, but are they really worth arriving to work drenched in sweat in the middle of July?

Rocket Electric, a new bike shop in East Austin, has a solution: electric bikes. The shop‚Äôs inventory consists entirely of battery-powered two-wheelers that come in a variety of models, ranging from $1,100 to $2,500 in price. They allow customers to conquer Austin‚Äôs hilly streets with just the flick of the ‚Äúthrottle‚ÄĚ switch. A fully-charged electric bike can travel fifteen to twenty miles at a speed of about twenty miles per hour without a single bead of sweat.

But in Austin, some transportation¬†interest group representatives have lent only tepid support for e-bikes. Dominic Chavez, the former treasurer for Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin who’s currently running for a seat on Austin City Council, believes that more work should be done to improve biker safety, especially in neighborhoods with a high concentration of children riders, rather than diversify bicycle technology. Continue Reading

The Top Ten Invasive Species in Texas

Photo courtesy of Flickr user riko.jennrich/Creative Commons

Nutria are one of the more notorious invasive species in Texas

Burros, armadillos, bluebonnets, and pecan trees are just a few examples of the diverse flora and fauna that one might come across in Texas. While some of these species have become a source of state pride, others are much less welcome.

Over the past few decades, a coterie of invasive species has trespassed into the Lone Star State. The federal government defines an “invasive species” as ‚Äúa species that is non-native or alien to the ecosystem” and “causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.‚ÄĚ Zebra mussels, Africanized bees, and feral hogs are just a few of the invasive species that have made their presence known in Texas.

Combined, invasive species have caused an immense amount of¬†agricultural, ecological, and economic damage. Local scientists are worried that they’ll continue to wreak havoc unless state regulators and citizens alike start implementing stronger measures to stop them from spreading.

The photo gallery below shows the top ten invasive species in Texas, along with brief summaries of the damage they’re causing to the state. Continue Reading

Poll: Consumers Favor Domestic Energy Production, Natural Gas

Americans will likely take their views on energy issues to the voting booth this November, according to a new national poll by The University of Texas at Austin. The survey found that 65 percent of respondents considered energy to be an important presidential issue.

Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, March 12

The results suggest that overall, consumers favor policies that would increase domestic energy production. Fifty percent of respondents said they would likely vote for a presidential candidate who approved construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and 46 percent said that they would support a candidate willing to expand offshore oil drilling along the Gulf Coast. But only twenty percent of participants said that they would likely vote for a presidential candidate who supported eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Continue Reading

EPA to Range Resources: Drill Away

Courtesy of Cathy McKenna via Flickr Creative Commons

A Range Resources oil rig across the street from a public park in Denton, TX.

The original version of this article, released on March 30, 2012, incorrectly attributed the following quote¬†to an EPA press release: ‚ÄúIn a press release today, the EPA stated that ‚Äėmultiple investigations into the claims showed no link between Range Resources‚Äô operations and water contamination.‚Äô‚ÄĚ The Texas Oil and Gas Association provided this quote in its own press release on 3/30/2012. The EPA did not issue a press release on 3/30/2012. We regret the error.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today its decision to drop charges filed against oil drilling company Range Resources for contaminating residential well water. The now-defunct charges stemmed from a Parker County couple’s claim back in August 2010 that Range Resources’ natural gas fracking wells polluted their water supply with methane.¬†A press release issued by the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) attributed the EPA’s decision to withdraw from the case to “multiple investigations into the claims [that] showed no link between Range Resources‚Äô operations and water contamination.”

Industry representatives across the state greeted the EPA’s decision with enthusiastic approval.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission – which conducted its own geological investigation of the the Parker County wells – celebrated the announcement as “a vindication of the science-based processes at the Railroad Commission.” Smitherman underscored his remarks with the promise that he “will remain vigilant to ensure that the EPA uses the highest standards of science instead of making arbitrary regulations to President Obama’s anti-fossil fuel agenda.”

The Texas Oil and Gas Association¬†praised the Railroad Commission’s investigation in its own press release, saying that the association is “encouraged that science appears to have prevailed in this instance at the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Despite the EPA’s withdrawal from the case, Range Resources isn’t completely off the hook. Continue Reading

How a New Study Links Earthquakes to Drilling Injection Wells

Courtesy of KQED Radio via Flickr Creative Commons.

An injection well in Northern California, one of the most seismologically active regions in the country.

A few months ago¬†we spoke with Cliff Frohlich, a¬†seismologist¬†and Associate Director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics, about the connection between a recent string of earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In the interview, Dr. Frohlich told us that fracking can directly cause earthquakes, but only in very rare cases. ‚ÄúIn¬†the last year, there have been three well-documented earthquakes that occurred during the frack job and were probably related to fracking. They were all small earthquakes ‚Äď of a magnitude of 2 or 3 ‚Äď and, considering that there are millions of frack jobs, fracking-related earthquakes are so¬†rare.”

What is causing these earthquakes, then? Deep well injection, the method used to dispose liquid and solid wastes produced during the fracking process. Frohlich explained that earthquakes occur when this industrial byproduct flows into, lubricates, and provokes a fault located in a shale or coal formation.

Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey¬†announced Thursday that they will corroborate Frohlich’s interpretation in¬†a report they plan to unveil next month. (The study was the subject of an article this week in E&E EnergyWire.) The government-sponsored researchers studied ten years of seismological data and concluded that recent earthquakes can, indeed, be attributed to deep well injection.¬†“A remarkable increase in the rate of [magnitude-3.0] and greater earthquakes is currently in progress,” the study’s abstract states. “A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock.” Continue Reading

Snapshots of the Devolution of West Antarctica’s Glaciers

A report published in this month’s Journal of Glaciology traces the evolution of West Antarctica’s glaciers. The study, produced by the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG), reveals that parts of West Antarctica’s floating ice fleet are slowly but surely breaking apart and sliding into surrounding sea waters.

The team’s conclusions reflect data taken from nearly 40 years of satellite imagery. ‚ÄúAnyone can examine this region in¬†Google Earth¬†and see a snapshot of the same satellite data we used,‚Ä̬†Joseph MacGregor, a research scientist associate and lead author of the study, said in a release accompanying the study.

The greatest source of concern is a disintegrating ice shelf in West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea Embayment, which saw the highest rate of ice loss from 1972 to 2011. Researchers are particularly worried about the state of the Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers, which thinned considerable over the past ten years. Evidence of existing fractures in remaining ice shelves suggest that the pattern will continue in the future.

See for yourself in the slideshow of photos above (collected by StateImpact Texas intern Filipa Rodrigues) which contains several satellite and up-close images of West Antarctica’s glacier population. Combined, they illustrate just how majestic, vast, and vulnerable these glaciers really are.

Yana Skorobogatov is an intern with StateImpact Texas.

How Wind Energy Can Power Desalination in Texas

Photo courtesy of Webber Energy Group

UT graduate student Mary Clayton has come up with an innovative approach for using wind to power desalination

Texas’ energy problems seem to be piling up more and more each day. The electric grid is strained, the drought persists (although things have improved), and alternative energy and water production models come across as financially and logistically difficult to implement in the middle of a recession. But with these myriad problems also comes the opportunity for innovation.

One graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) is an example of that innovation. Mary Clayton, has come up with a model that may help Texas overcome both its water and electricity problems in one fell swoop. The plan involves using wind energy produced at night to power desalination of brackish ground water in West Texas. Recently some lawmakers have incorporated desalination into their energy reform policies, yet many have criticized it as a costly and energy-intensive process. But what if there was a way to use excess wind to power it?

Windy nights, copious brackish ground water, and high levels of drought make West Texas towns like Lubbock, Abilene, and Midland the perfect location for such an experiment. Clayton, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in Mechanical Engineering, presented these findings at a recent symposium of the Webber Energy Group, an interdisciplinary research group at UT that focuses on energy problems. Their goal is to bridge the gap between engineering, science, and the general public. Clayton recently sat down with me to discuss her solution for making desalination affordable and renewable.

Q: Can you give us a basic explanation of your plan?

A: My research looks at using wind power for brackish ground water desalination in West Texas. Cities are running out of water and are going to have to be turning to new water sources such as desalination. But an issue with that is that it’s a very energy-intensive process, which is kind of counterproductive to our goal of reducing emissions. So one way to deal with that is to use wind power. The opposite side of that is that we’re increasing our wind installations [but] wind is mostly available at night when we don’t need it. So a solution to that is energy storage or some sort of technology that can use the power at night less intermittently. So one of our big ideas is, instead of energy storage, why not use water desalination? And that solves two problems. Continue Reading

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