Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


Quiz: Beer, Coffee, or Crude Oil? Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell


Credit Amanda/flickr

Beer, Coffee, or Crude was created by Rice University student Aruni Ranaweera.

Anyone who spends time looking at how oil is drilled for and refined around the world comes to notice something strange. The names people give to different types of crude oil can sound surprisingly delicious.

In reporting on the role that benchmark oil prices play in moving the price of gasoline, I was introduced to one person who had made a game out of it. Rice University student Aruni Ranaweera created the quiz “Beer, Coffee, Crude” to test her classmates’ ability to distinguish between types of crude, types of beer, and blends of coffee. It’s harder than is sounds. Go ahead, crack open a can of Tia Juana Light and give it a shot.

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How Climate Change Is Making Allergies Worse

Looking for someone to blame for cedar fever? Try your ancestors.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/flickr.com/23959586@N00/

In Texas, many people suffer from "cedar fever," a winter allergy caused by the Ashe Juniper.

Thanks to all the pollen in the air, I spent the last few weeks coughing, wheezing and blowing my nose. Austin is infamous for bad allergy seasons. We have three of them: fall, winter, and spring. In the summer, it’s too hot for pollen (but the heat gives me something else to complain about).

Other Texas cities may have even stronger allergy seasons. And it could all get worse thanks to global climate change.

An little-noticed part of the National Climate Assessment, released yesterday by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, explains how: climate change results in “more frost-free days and warmer seasonal air temperatures,” according to the report. That can mean longer pollen seasons.

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Mapped: Groundwater Contamination in Texas

Though the rise of fracking (and the chemicals used in the fracking process) has raised concerns about groundwater contamination, the source of a majority of Texas’ cases is far more mundane.

Gasoline is the most prevalent source of groundwater contaminant in Texas, according to a Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Report put out last year by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Of 2,083 total cases in the last five years, almost half (922) were because of a gasoline leak. The map above plots every reported contamination case from 2008 to 2012, the most recent year of data.

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Near-Catastrophe During Flooding Highlights Issues at Dam in Austin

Crews work to dislodge a barge from Longhorn Dam. The dam that creates Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.

Austin Energy

Crews work to dislodge a barge from Longhorn Dam, the dam that creates Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.

A lot of people who walk or drive past Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin probably assume it’s a natural feature. They appreciate the trails and parks that line the lake’s 416 acres, unaware of the series of floodgates on the Longhorn Dam that hold its waters in. But recent flooding along the waterway has called attention to longstanding mechanical problems at the dam, problems that the City of Austin is aware of, but hasn’t found the money to address.

While its been called the “jewel in the crown” of Austin, Lady Bird Lake was created to serve a utilitarian purpose: to provide water for a now-decommissioned gas power plant in the Holly neighborhood of East Austin. Because of its connection to the power plant, the dam is operated under the supervision of Austin Energy, the city’s publicly-owned electric utility. Built in 1960, the floodgates on Longhorn Dam have stored and released water from the lake for over 50 years. Now that age is showing.

“There’s been a lack of maintenance on the dam for the last 15 years,” Dennis Hipp, a recently-retired Austin Energy employee tells StateImpact Texas. “It’s steadily gotten worse and it’s to the point now where it’s going to start doing some damage. [Both] upstream and down.”

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As Texas Towns Shake, Regulators Sit Still

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?


After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

State Oil and Gas Regulator Says No Changes Needed After Latest Earthquake Swarm

After twenty minor earthquakes in a month, residents in the small towns of Azle and Springtown outside of Fort Worth are understandably confused about why their once-stable region is now trembling on a near-daily basis.

Teachers in the Azle school district are taking a page from the California playbook and holding earthquake drills for students. Inspectors are making regular visits to the earthen Eagle Mountain Lake dam, as well as others in the area, checking for damage. (So far they’ve found none.) And locals like Rebecca Williams are constantly looking at their own homes for damage. So far she’s found cracks in her home, driveway and in a retaining wall in her backyard.

The quakes have been small, below the threshold that is known to cause significant damage. But they’ve unnerved residents like Williams, who moved out to Eagle Mountain Lake looking for some peace and quiet.

“You can actually see my house rocking from side to side,” Williams says. She was at home when the largest of the quakes (magnitude 3.6) struck on the evening of November 19th. “I tried to get up and run downstairs,” she says. “And for a moment, I couldn’t run, because the house was shaking so bad!”

So what’s behind the tremors?  Continue Reading

When Could The New Texas Oil Rush Beat the Boom of the 70s?

A pumpjack in Midland, home to yet another oil boom recently.

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

A pumpjack in Midland, home to yet another oil boom recently.

A lot was made this week of numbers showing record-breaking numbers for daily oil production in Texas. Those figures, from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In September, the most recent month for the data, drillers in Texas pulled about 2.7 million barrels of oil a day from the earth, most of it from the state’s two hottest shale plays, in the Eagle Ford region in South Texas and the Permian Basin in the west.

“The Permian’s already producing over a million barrels a day of oil, and the Eagle Ford’s up to about 650,000 barrels per day. And so it appears to be only a matter of time before we have two oil fields in Texas producing — by themselves — a million barrels per day,” Tom Tunstall, Director of the Center for Community and Business Research at University of Texas at San Antonio tells StateImpact Texas.

But the current 2.7 million barrel per day figure figure is “record-breaking” only in terms of government records. The fact is that Texas pumped far more oil in the early seventies, but the EIA simply did not keep track of daily oil production back then. According to historical annual data, provided to StateImpact Texas by the EIA, the Texas oil boom peaked in 1972, when drillers pumped around 3.4 million barrels a day on average from Texas oil fields.

Still, if trends continue, experts say the new boom could rival the previous one in a matter of years. Continue Reading

If Rains Refill Reservoirs, Can Texas’ Dams Hold Up?

Warren Samuelson is the Manager of the Dam Safety Program at the TCEQ.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Warren Samuelson is the Manager of the Dam Safety Program at the TCEQ.

Recent rain and snow haven’t been enough to replenish Texas’ water supply. Years of drought have taken their toll on the state’s reservoirs, some of which remain nearly empty.

Eventually, the reservoirs should fill back up. (Hopefully.) But it’s unclear if Texas’ infrastructure will be able to hold back the waters once that happens.

Experts say that Texas’ dams have incurred severe damage because of the drought and subsequent rains. Dry conditions can cause cracks to form in the dams, which undermines their structural integrity.

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Should Texas Ranchers Worry About Anthrax?

A map of reported Anthrax cases in Texas, by county. Map by Michael Marks

Texas is cattle country: there are nearly 13 million cows wandering through Texas, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s over 14 percent of the country’s total cattle population.

And our bovine friends have some company: there are also approximately 1.3 million goats, nearly one million horses, and 3.6 million deer.

So if just one grazing animal died of a lethal and highly transmittable disease, there would be cause for concern that large numbers of animals could be at risk.

That’s exactly what happened last Monday when the Texas Animal Health Commission confirmed that a cow had died of anthrax southwest of San Angelo.

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Looking at Pipeline Safety After the Chevron Gas Line Explosion

You might have heard that there was a national “Stand Down” yesterday – a day designated to create safety awareness at oil and gas sites in Texas and the rest of the country.

The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration has been holding these throughout the year, calling on companies to have workers stop for part of the day and focus on safety and training to help reduce accidents in the oil and gas industry. Those accidents have been on the rise, with the number of fatalities more than doubling in the last four years and reaching their highest level in a decade.

“Too many workers are dying in the oil and gas drilling industry,” Dr. David Michaels said at the event in Houston. “Employers need to ensure that jobs are planned out, everyone has adequate training in all aspects of safety and workers need to be part of the planning.”

But chances are the “Stand Down” didn’t catch your eye. Instead you probably read the many headlines about a gas pipeline explosion in Ellis County.

Thursday morning, a construction crew at a Chevon natural gas pipeline just outside the small town of Milford was “performing excavation activities,” according to the company, when a 10-inch liquified gas pipeline was ruptured. The black smoke reached all the way to Dallas, some 50 miles away.  Continue Reading

Evaporation, the Unseen Reservoir-Killer

Dried up mud from the lake bottom at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, September 2013.


Dried up mud from the lake bottom at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, September 2013.

Even if Rains Return, Climate Change Still Puts Texas Water Supplies at Risk

After years of drought, the city of Wichita Falls in North Texas is going to Stage 4 water restrictions this week, which bans all outdoor watering: No car washes. No more city water for golf courses. And no watering your lawn, of course.  It’s the first time the city has moved to this stage, declaring a “drought disaster.”

While a lack of rainfall is certainly to blame for the sorry state of reservoirs in the region, it isn’t the only culprit. Evaporation has also played a big part in making the drought so destructive.

Reservoir levels across the Western half of Texas remain dangerously low.

Map by Texas Water Development Board

Reservoir levels across the Western half of Texas remain dangerously low.

A typical year in Wichita Falls will see around 28 days with temperatures of a hundred degrees or higher. In 2011, they had 100 days over 100 degrees.

“Think about that for a minute,” Rusell Schreiber, Public Works Director, said while announcing the new restrictions this week. “That’s over three months of temperatures over a hundred degrees. One-fourth of the entire year.”

All that heat leads to more evaporation in the large, shallow reservoirs of North and West Texas. And it’s not limited to that region. Last year, the Highland Lakes, reservoirs for the city of Austin, lost more water to evaporation than the entire city used from them over the whole year. Continue Reading

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