Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


Central Texas Water Conflict Heats Up Again

Graph by LCRA

This graph shows how little water has flowed into the Highland Lakes since mid-year.

Mark Dewey of KUT News contributed reporting.

Two high-profile Texas legislators have put the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) on notice this week: if you send water downstream to rice farmers in 2013, there will be consequences. In a letter to the LCRA, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Abilene, urge the LCRA to withdraw the emergency water management plan passed in November. That plan, if approved and followed, would likely result in water being sent down the Lower Colorado to grow rice. Even though it would be a smaller amount than usual, opponents of the plan fear it could be enough to send the Highland Lakes down to drought of record levels.

“We appreciate the letter and understand the concerns expressed by the senators,” the LCRA says in an emailed statement. Acknowledging the extremely dry conditions and low inflows into the lake, the authority says that it is “continuing to closely monitor the situation” and may seek a different emergency drought plan when it meets next month that could result in rice farmers’ water being cut off. Continue Reading

Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters

Photo by KUT News

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat says he wants to put the fracking study controversy behind him.

One University of Texas at Austin professor has retired and another has resigned his position as head of UT’s Energy Institute, the school announced Thursday after the release of a scathing review of a study on fracking that has become mired in controversy.

The man at the center of the storm for sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has declined a request for an interview, but has talked to us about his take on the matter in a series of emails over the last 24 hours. “While I admit that even though my reasons for not disclosing my industry connection were valid in terms of connection to the report results,” Groat writes, “I should have made a disclosure.”

In his most recent email to us, Groat writes, “I don’t have anything further to discuss regarding my role in the project.”

Under an Open Records Request, we have obtained Groat’s letter of retirement dated November 21, which you can read in full below. In it, Groat makes no mention of the controversy, instead he writes of his new position as head of the not-for-profit Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana, where he and his wife are moving.

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Review of UT Fracking Study Finds Failure to Disclose Conflict of Interest (Updated)

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

UT Professor Charles "Chip" Groat came under fire for not disclosing significant financial ties to the drilling industry, and has resigned from the University.

Resignation and Retirement Result

The long-awaited review of a controversial study on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was released today, and it finds numerous errors and flaws with how the study was conducted and released, as well as University of Texas policies for disclosing conflicts of interest.

(Read more on this story in our follow-up: Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters)

The head author of the study, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has retired in the wake of the controversy, and the head of the Energy Institute that released it, Dr. Raymond Orbach, has resigned as head of the Institute, the University announced today.

The original report by UT Austin’s Energy Institute, ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,’ was released early this year, and claimed that there was no link between fracking and water contamination. But this summer, the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group, reported that the head of the study, UT professor Chip Groat, had been sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time. His compensation totaled over $1.5 million over the last five years. That prompted the University to announce an independent review of the study a month later, which was released today.

The review finds many problems with the original study, chief among them that Groat did not disclose what it calls a “clear conflict of interest,” which “severely diminished” the study. The study was originally commissioned as a way to correct what it called “controversies” over fracking because of media reports, but ironically ended up as a lightning rod itself for failing to disclose conflicts of interest and for lacking scientific rigor. Continue Reading

Wildfire Report Sparks Concern Over Power Line Safety

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News.

Kate Stein's home in Steiner Ranch was destroyed by fire in 2011.

A report released by the Travis County Fire Marshall last week confirmed what many had already suspected: the Steiner Ranch Fire that destroyed 23 homes during last year’s infamous Labor Day wildfires was started by power lines.

County investigators believe the fire was likely started when high winds caused Austin Energy electrical lines to slap together, throwing molten metal on the dry grass below.

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee told KUT News that his office had been holding off on releasing the report until other private investigations were completed. But Lee says now he’s not sure when those investigations will be finished. So the Fire Marshall’s office decided to release the report a couple days before Thanksgiving.

“We are hoping that by releasing the information we have that people will have some bit of closure about the cause of the fire,” said Lee.

The fact that this fire, and the two other major fires that weekend, are all linked to power lines could force a re-evaluation of power line upkeep and safety, said Travis County fire Marshall Hershel Lee.

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Your Guide to the Sunset Advisory Report on the Texas Railroad Commission

Photo courtesy of RRC

Barry Smitherman is the Chair of the Railroad Commission of Texas.

“What does the Texas Railroad Commission oversee?” If it was a question on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, a lot of Texans would lose their spot in the hot seat.

Here’s a hint: the answer is not “railroads.” In fact, the commission regulates Texas’ booming oil and gas industry.

So the first suggestion in the recently released Sunset Report (a review of state agencies) is a name change. Apparently, the agency still receives complaints about train noise.

Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman says changing their name is a good idea. “With the increase of oil and gas activity I think we would be well-served to have a name that is easy for the public to understand,” he told StateImpact Texas.

Though the Railroad Commission does raise concerns over the proposal in its official response to the Sunset report, saying that a name change without an amendment to references to the “Railroad Commission” in the state constitution could lead to legal trouble for the agency.

Whether or not the Railroad Commission becomes the “Texas Energy Resources Commission” (the suggested new name) will be up to state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.

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The ‘Secret’ to Unlocking Renewable Energy in Texas? Battery Storage

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Texas is awash in green energy potential. Problem is, we don't have anywhere to store the renewable energy we produce.

Texas may be rich in fossil fuels like oil and gas, but it’s also awash in clean, renewable energy.

Well, at least it could be. With the most renewable energy potential in the United States, Texas is a formidable candidate to up their renewable energy usage. Wind power now supplies 8 percent of energy to the grid in Texas and it’s cheaper than ever. However, the Energy Institute’s Raymond Orbach at the University of Texas at Austin says there’s still one major roadblock. “If someone could lick the storage problem,” Orbach says, “we would really have a remarkable resource.”

The ‘storage problem’ boils down to how energy works. “You can’t turn the sun off, and you can’t tell the wind to blow,” says Orbach. It’s simply unreliable. And you have to use the energy while it’s there. Right now turbine energy created from early afternoon winds has to be used immediately, in the early afternoon. But the demand for energy peaks later in the afternoon during the hot Texas summers, when the winds have died down. Solar could fill that gap, but efforts to incentivize it’s construction haven’t gone anywhere yet in Texas, and there’s always the question of what happens when a bunch of clouds pass over.

So creating something that can store and save renewable energy like wind and solar for later would change the game entirely. Continue Reading

What Sparked the Spicewood Fire

Photo courtesy of Lea Luchsinger

A new investigation reveals what sparked the Labor Day fire in Spicewood, outside of Austin, Texas.

As the anniversary of the Labor Day fires approaches, we’re beginning to get some answers on what was at fault.

As we reported earlier this week, the conditions at the time were the epitome of ‘perfect storm.’ Extreme heat, record drought, high winds and little humidity created a virtual powder keg. Compounding those well-known issues were the fact that many new communities had been built in greenbelts and woodlands, and fire departments that were cash-strapped and understaffed for a rash of fires of this magnitude.

What sparked each fire? In Bastrop, the culprit was power lines downed by dying trees, which has led to a lawsuit.

The Spicewood fire, aka Pedernales One, was originally reported as a brush fire. But a new investigation released by the Travis County Fire Marshal shows that the power lines in the community didn’t fall. Rather, winds forced them to slap together, sending “hot molten material” to the ground and sparking a fire that burned some 6,500 acres and destroyed 60 homes and structures. Continue Reading

Appeals Court Turns Down Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, EPA Must Revise

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott joined dozens of others in challenging the EPA rule.

Just a week after a court victory against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has another notch in his belt. Today, an appeals court in Washington has ruled that the EPA violated the Clean Air Act with its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), and now must revise the ruling.

It’s welcome news for Abbott, who just last week bragged that he likes to “sue the Obama administration” for fun. The state of Texas was joined by dozens of others, including some Texas power companies, in challenging the rule. Abbott quickly tweeted this:

The proposed rules (you can read more about them here) would limit pollution (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide) from older coal power plants that ends up in other states. The rule would apply to 28 states, and would utilize a cap-and-trade system for the plants to come into compliance. Of particular concern to Texas were several aging coal plants that threatened to shut down because of the rule.

The EPA claims that if enacted, within two years, the rules would prevent “13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks,” and “400,000 aggravated asthma attacks.”

Why did the court vacate the EPA’s rule? Continue Reading

Texas Claims a Victory Against EPA, But the Point May Be Moot

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Power Subcommittee on Capitol Hill February 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Abbott has filed over 24 lawsuits against the federal government, six of them against the EPA.

You wouldn’t know it from much of the coverage out there, but a “victory” for Texas in its ongoing conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Monday is something of a moot point.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a 2-1 ruling yesterday saying that the EPA hadn’t properly rejected the state’s ‘Flexible Permitting Program.’ That was a system put in place in the nineties that was used by about ten percent of industrial facilities in the state to obtain air permits. (The rest of the facilities in the state used a standard permit approved by the EPA.) The court found that “the EPA based its disapproval on demands for language and program features of the EPA’s choosing, without basis in the Clean Air Act or its implementing regulations.” All three judges in the ruling were appointed by Republican presidents.

The state Attorney General Greg Abbott, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and several industry groups filed the suit, saying the EPA didn’t have the right to reject the permitting program. But while Texas fought the EPA’s decision, behind the scenes almost all of the facilities in the program went ahead and got a standard, federally-approved permit anyway. And the TCEQ also submitted a new Clean Air plan to the EPA (partly modeled after federal standards), which the agency approved in June. (The TCEQ points out that the new plan isn’t related to the old Flexible Permitting Program.)

So what’s the point of suing the EPA for permits no one really uses anymore? “This is all kind of beating a dead horse,” says Elena Craft with the Environmental Defense Fund. “The reality is that nothing on the ground is going to change.” Continue Reading

How Fracking Disposal Wells Are Causing Earthquakes in Dallas-Fort Worth

Image courtesy of the University of Texas

This map Map shows earthquake epicenters examined in the study (red circles), injection wells (squares and + symbols) in use since October 2006, seismic monitoring stations (white triangles), and mapped faults (green lines).

If you live in the Barnett Shale around Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, you may have noticed the ground has become a bit shakier in the last few years. And a new study by a Univeristy of Texas seismologist says that the wells used to dispose of fracking waste water are responsible. What’s more, there have been more than eight times as many earthquakes in the area than previously thought.

The rapid expanse of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has also led to an increase in the number of wells needed to dispose of the water used in the drilling process. (Fracking is a drilling process that uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture rock formations deep underground for oil and gas.) Once that waste water comes back up the well, it has to be disposed of, so drillers inject it into deep wells underground, as deep as 13,000 feet below the surface in the Barnett Shale.

The problem, according to the new study by Dr. Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the University’s Institute for Geophysics, is that some of those disposal wells around Dallas-Fort Worth are also on fault lines.

The seismologist uses the analogy of an air hockey table to describe what’s going on. If the air is turned off, the puck won’t move even if you push it. But when you pump in the air, it moves easily. With disposal wells sending fracking waste water deep underground, liquid and pressure are migrating into a “stuck” fault. “It wants to move but it can’t,” Frohlich tells StateImpact Texas. “Until you pump fluids in there and it slips.” Over 6 millions gallons of fracking waste water a month was pumped into each of the wells near the epicenters examined in the study.

(Update: Read about the Dec. 12 quake outside of Fort Worth here. )

So is there reason to be concerned about damage from these earthquakes? And what can drillers do to stop the tremors? Continue Reading

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