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Oil Prices Spell Bad News For Texas Budget Forecast

Texas-Oil-Drums_jpg_800x1000_q100

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

This week, oil prices dropped below $50 for the first time since February, a development that could upend the state’s predictions of oil revenue for this year.

Estimates from the Comptroller of Public Accounts put oil prices at an average of just over $64 per barrel in 2015 and 2016. And, as of now, those predictions are rosier than the reality of the market, meaning the state’s loss in oil and gas tax revenue could impact the Texas budget going forward.


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Hard Times Come to the ‘Hotel Capital’

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms. Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon Jose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms.Jorge Sanhueza-LyonJose Rodriguez is recently laid off from his oil industry job.

This story originally ran as part of KUT 90.5′s series “Meanwhile in Small Town Texas.”

Cotulla, Texas, is a small town deep in the oil fields of the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale.

It’s a town that bet big on the oil boom.

Five years ago the census put the population at less than 4,000 people. There were three or four motels then. Now in Cotulla there are around 25 motels, hotels and inns. It’s earned the town a nickname: “The ‘Hotel Capital of the Eagle Shale,’” says City Administrator Larry Dovalina.

He says for years Cotulla was like a lot of places in rural Texas: “Dying on the vine. Kind of forgotten.”

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Keeping Houses Out of Texas Floodwaters Could Cost Billions

First responders pull flood victims from a flooded South East Austin neighborhood.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

First responders pull flood victims from a flooded South East Austin neighborhood.

Back on May 26th, Houston woke up to flooded freeways and neighborhoods as bayous overflowed their banks. In the Texas Hill Country, homes and bridges washed away and levees broke.

But super-heavy rainfall is nothing new in Texas and in fact, it was years earlier that experts had warned that the state was doing dangerously little to minimize flood damage.

“We gave flood control the grade of D,” said Curtis Beitel, president of the Texas chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.


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After HB 40, What’s Next for Local Drilling Rules in Texas?

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

Mose Buchele

A signed announced the resumption of fracking in Denton last May, after lawmakers passed HB40.

This year state lawmakers severely restricted the ability of Texas towns to regulate local oil and gas drilling.

A law known as House Bill 40 was a reaction to a fracking ban passed by voters in the North Texas city of Denton.

Denton has come to represent local fracking bans and clashes between local governments and the oil and gas industry. But while Denton was the first city in Texas to ban fracking, it wasn’t the first city to ban drilling within city limits.

That practice goes back years, according to a survey by the Texas Municipal League.

The Texas Municipal League’s survey shows that about 30 Texas towns have more general bans on drilling.

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As EPA Pushes For Cleaner Air, Refineries Push Back

Petrochemical plant in Freeport.

KUHF

A petrochemical plant in Freeport.

If you lived in Houston in the 1980s, you might have noticed that something has changed about the air you breathe: back then, it was a lot dirtier. But whether it needs to be “cleaner” than it is today is at the heart of debate heating up as new federal regulations are being written.

In the past several decades, the air in Houston and other big cities has improved dramatically. One reason is that car engines emit far less pollution. And the same can be said for big industries.

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Could Evidence of Manmade Quakes Bring Tectonic Shift in Texas Regulation?

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

There have been earthquakes in almost every corner of Texas since the start of the state’s most recent oil and gas boom. One “swarm” that really captured people’s attention started in the town of Azle in 2013.  When oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas visited the town, local people suggested ways to handle the waste water disposal wells thought to be causing the quakes. One idea came up over and over again.

“Why is it we can’t shut the wells down around here for a period of time?” asked resident Gale Wood. “If nothing happens after a while, that would be one way to determine what’s going on.”

The Railroad Commission has a different approach. In the case of Azle, it waited over a year while a team of seismologists at Southern Methodist University undertook a study.  The results came back this month, confirming that disposal wells likely caused the quakes. That has some residents in Texas’ quake country hoping the simple notion put forth at that public meeting -shut down disposal wells if there’s a chance they’re related to earthquakes- may get another hearing.

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As Deadline Nears for Texas Haze Rule, A Look at How Lawsuits Shape Regulation

Haze is visible in the distance at Big Bend National Park.

Mary Ann Melton

Haze is visible in the distance at Big Bend National Park.

Note: This is a text version of a previously posted radio story.

One week remains for the public to comment on an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to reduce smog in one of Texas most beloved national parks. The EPA’s plan to limit so-called ‘regional haze’ is one of a slew of new air quality rules that have critics accusing the EPA of waging a ‘war on coal.’ But the reality of environmental policy-making, and the years of lawsuits that it often entails, is more complicated than the rhetoric.

To see how, look no farther than the hazy skies over Far West Texas.

“Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park. They are beautiful,” says Mary Ann Melton of the region. She’s a photographer who’s been visiting there since the 1970s.

“You can see 100 miles on a clear day. You’re looking over the valley, you’re about 1800 feet high off the floor of the river, and you can see far into Mexico and mountain ranges far into Mexico.”

Just not on a recent trip last year.

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Scientists Are Flying Over Texas Oil and Gas Fields To Measure Air Pollution

A team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – has been circling over Texas, gathering data.

The flights are part of a project to find out exactly how emissions from the state’s sprawling oil and gas fields pollute the air we breathe.

When he offered me a seat on the plane, Dr. Joost de Gouw, a scientist with NOAA’s earth systems research lab, gave me a warning: There are risks that come with this kind of mission.

“You know…some people can get airsick, and it’s hot and it’s noisy and it’s a seven- to eight-hour flight, so there are tough days,” de Gouw said.

Leading the study, de Gouw spends his time measuring air pollution from America’s biggest shale fields — the places where fracking created a boom in oil and gas extraction.

The project tracks things like the excessive production of ozone, which has adverse affects on human health, and methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than even carbon dioxide.

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Proposed Law Would Allow Houston To Regulate Mountains Of Coal

Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel.

Photo by Dave Fehling.

Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel.

State lawmakers are proposing legislation to deal with something we reported on this past December: giant piles of petroleum coke or “pet coke.” It’s a form of coal piling up along the Houston Ship Channel, and it’s leading to complaints from some nearby residents.

We recently reported how black mountains of petroleum coke could be seen along the Ship Channel; one pile looked to be more than half as high as the Beltway 8 bridge. The pile is just a mile from a neighborhood where we’d talked to Esmerelda Moreno who said with so many refineries and chemical plants nearby, they get used to mystery odors.

“Sometimes there’s like a smell, a weird smell,” Moreno said.

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Five Years After BP Spill, What’s Killing Gulf Dolphins?

A dolphin spotted in Galveston.

carolyn/flickr

A dolphin spotted in Galveston.

It was five years ago next month that a BP oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers. Millions of gallons of crude spilled into the water. Damage was done to aquatic life.

But is the spilled oil now to blame for the deaths of hundreds of dolphins?

“The magnitude and the duration of the deaths is utterly unprecedented in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ryan Fikes, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. In a conference call, Fikes talked with reporters along with the group’s David Muth. They released a report titled “Five Years & Counting” about the effects of the spill on wildlife.

“There is compelling evidence that this mortality event that has been going on since the spill is linked to the spill,” said Muth, head of the group’s Gulf Restoration Program.

But is BP’s oil to blame?

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