Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


There Was Enough Profit in Texas Market Last Year to Build New Power Plants

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

As things heat up in Texas, everyone's wondering where more power is going to come from.

Everyone’s wondering where Texas is going to get more power.

On Tuesday, Texas hit another record. The grid became stretched, as the heat index rose and air conditioners worked overtime. And before long electric demand hit a record for the month of July, peaking at 65,790 megawatts. (To put that into perspective, one megawatt is enough to power some 200 homes in the state during times of peak demand, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the state’s grid.)

And the previous month was no different. On June 25, the grid hit record demand for that month. Then it broke that record the next day. That’s more than the previous record last year, which happened to be our hottest summer ever. And as this week is expected to get hotter, ERCOT is asking consumers to cut back on energy use during the late afternoon and early evening.

What’s going on? Well, to boil it down, we have more people and less power.

So why aren’t we building any new power plants? There’s a common answer: energy companies don’t want to build new power plants because fuel prices are too low. They can’t make enough profit with natural gas prices so low to make back the big investments required to build generating plants.

But according to a new independent study commissioned by the Texas grid, that dog don’t hunt. Continue Reading

Why the Las Brisas Coal Plant Air Permit Was Reversed

Photo by StateImpact Texas

Piles of petroleum coke sit uncovered on the ship canal in Corpus Christi.

Update: The company financing the project said on Jan. 23, 2013 that they are going out of business and suspending the plant

In May, a Travis County District judge sent a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) saying that he intended to revoke an air permit for a proposed coal plant in Corpus Christi. This week Judge Steven Yelenosky of the 345th Judicial District Civil Court made the order official, setting back construction on one of the few coal plants still being planned in Texas.

The plant, called Las Brisas, would use petroleum coke — carbon solids left over from refining — for power generation in a way much like coal, with much the same emissions. It was first proposed in 2008, and is the only proposed coal plant within a city’s limits in the entire country, according to the Sierra Club. It would sit on the northern side of the Corpus Christi ship channel, across from a residential area known as “Refinery Row,” which already sits in the midst of six major refineries.

The plant was given an air permit in January 2011 by the TCEQ. A challenge to that permit was brought by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Corpus Christi Clean Economy Coalition, and several Texas cities. Now Judge Yelenosky has ruled in those groups’ favor, reversing the air permit.

In his May letter, the judge found several things wrong with how the TCEQ processed the permit, and said it failed to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, among other issues. Tuesday’s order lays out in detail what the TCEQ did wrong. The TCEQ would not agree to an interview about the ruling, and would only give StateImpact Texas a prepared statement. Continue Reading

Fracking Company Paid Texas Professor Behind Water Contamination Study

Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat, who led a study on fracking and groundwater contamination, didn't disclose over a million dollars in compensation and stock from a drilling company.

Earlier this year, a study led by Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat for the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin made headlines for saying there was no link between fracking and groundwater contamination. (When we reported on the study in February, we noted that the study also found some serious issues around the safety and regulation of fracking that weren’t getting much press coverage.)

But according to a new report out today by the Public Accountablitiy Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit watchdog group, the conclusions in Groat’s report aren’t as clear cut as initially reported. And Groat himself did not disclose significant financial ties to the fracking industry.

Groat, a former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, also sits on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a Houston-based company that conducts drilling and fracking in Texas and other parts of the country. According to the new report (and a review of the company’s financial reports by Bloomberg) Groat received more than $400,000 from the drilling company last year alone, more than double his salary at the University. And one of the shales examined in Groat’s fracking study is currently being drilled by the company, the report says.

Since 2007, Groat has received over $1.5 million in cash and stock awards from the company, and he currently holds over $1.6 million in company stock, according to the PAI report. (Update: we clarified with PAI, and that $1.6 million in stock comes from the stock awards over the years. PAI says Groat’s total compensation from the company is close to $2 million.) Continue Reading

Railroad Commission Takes a Step Towards Closing the Revolving Door

Photo courtesy of RRC

Barry Smitherman is Chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which, despite its name, actually oversees oil and gas drilling in the state, enacted a new “revolving door” policy this week.

Up until now, the commission had followed what’s already in the state employee ethics handbook. The new rules, proposed by commission chair Barry Smitherman, take things a bit further. “Adopting this policy is an important step to maintaining the public trust,” Smitherman said in a statement.

“Since [Smitherman] became chair, he’s been reviewing all the policies and procedures at the commission, and this is one that he found was deficient,” says Casey Haney, the chairman’s chief of staff. “So we thought it was important to address it sooner rather than later.”

Under the new policy, for the first two years after leaving the commission, former commissioners and executive directors must send all of their communications with the agency through the open records coordinator at the commission, just as any outsider would. The idea is to set up a more formal barrier. Continue Reading

What We Learned About Water in Texas at the ‘Life By the Drop’ Panel

Photo by Wyman Meinzer/Texas Monthly

The carcasses of two Hereford cows that perished on the Patterson Ranch.

On Thursday evening, Texas Monthly magazine hosted a panel from our Life By the Drop series, which looks at the history and impact of drought and water issues in Texas. The panel, led by Texas Monthly senior editor Nate Blakeslee, was a “dream team” of water experts from the state. They all took questions about the ups and downs of the state water plan, how agriculture and cities will work out their water differences, and some of the intricacies of Texas law that are holding us back.

The Sky Isn’t Falling, and That’s A Problem

“I think we all accept we have a crisis on our hands,” Jake Silverstein, editor of Texas Monthly, said in his introduction. “But the silver lining is that it has focused more people.” The question before us, he said, is will the great drought of 2011 have the same stimulative effect as the drought of record in the 1950s?

For the rest of the evening, the panel attempted to answer that question, and many related to it. The first hot topic that came up was where exactly all of our water in Texas is going. Continue Reading

Why a Bunch of Kids Are Suing the TCEQ

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An oil refinery blow off stack in Texas City, Texas.

Last week, a Travis County district judge ruled in favor of a bunch of kids suing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Three environmentally-minded minors and a young adult argued that Texas’ air should be protected under the public trust doctrine much like Texas’ water, and the Judge agreed.

In 2011, the youths drafted a petition alongside Kids Versus Global Warming, Our Children’s Trust, and other environmental groups in a national campaign to improve air quality in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In Texas, they requested that the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) adopt a plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions to reduce climate change by making air part of the public trust. (The public trust doctrine says that certain resources should be protected by the government for public use.) When the TCEQ turned them down, saying that the proposed rules were a misreading of the public trust doctrine and would stifle business and industry in Texas, the kids sued.

Some of the children behind the suit are quite young. When the lawsuit was first brought against the TCEQ last July, one was in her mid-twenties, another was a teenager, and the other two were three and five. But Adam Abrams, an attorney at the Texas Environmental Law Center representing the minors, brushes this fact aside, claiming that the minors aren’t simply suing at the behest of their parents, Brigid Shea and Karin Ascot, who are prominent environmentalists.

“They’re not acting as proxies for their parents,” Abrams said in an interview with StateImpact Texas. “The parents are essentially asserting the rights of the children … If anything, the parents are just acting on behalf of the children and asserting the childrens’ right to a healthy, liveable planet.”  Continue Reading

While Profits Are Up in the Eagle Ford Shale, So is Road Damage

Photo courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

Truck traffic on FM 81 in the Eagle Ford Shale formation area.

The Eagle Ford shale’s development in Texas is growing stronger from increasing production, as crude oil growth overtakes natural gas production. And with more production comes more profitability, according to a new report by GlobalData, a business research company.

The shale’s liquid production has increased nearly sixfold, going from 10.8 million barrels of oil in 2010 to 57.5 million barrels in 2011. With almost 6,000 drilling permits distributed since the beginning of 2011, the total gross production from the Eagle Ford shale is expected to reach 207.3 million barrels in 2012, and stabilize at 1,386.3 million barrels in 2020, according to the report. But with that growth comes a price.

Drilling trucks are doing their damage on Texas roads, especially on highways, bridges, or other roads not designed for heavy loads. The Texas Department of Transportation said Monday that damage from those trucks is at two billion dollars.
Continue Reading

Rolling Blackouts: a Black Eye For Texas?

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

There’s fear in Austin over what could happen if the state runs short of electricity and has to use rolling blackouts to keep the statewide electrical grid from collapsing.

The fear is for the state’s image.

At a meeting of the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) June 13th, Chairman Donna Nelson expressed concern that pleas to the public to conserve electricity during the late afternoon when demand is greatest might also send a message that Texas was running out of power and therefore was no place you’d want to do business. Continue Reading

Court Upholds EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The court upheld an EPA regulation aimed at curbing emissions linked to global climate change.

Today a federal appeals court upheld the first ever federal regulations aimed at reducing emissions of gases blamed for global warming. The unanimous ruling came over challenges from industry groups and around a dozen states, including Texas.

Environmental groups lauded the decision. In a statement released early this afternoon, the Environmental Defense Fund singled out one section of the ruling that appeared to chastise the petitioners for downplaying the science behind climate change research.

Opponents of the regulations had claimed that the EPA had “delegated” the responsibility of proving that emissions were linked to climate change by relying on information from third parties. In it’s ruling the court called such a claim “little more than a semantic trick.”

The ruling continued “this is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.” Continue Reading

With a Letter to the TCEQ, the Battle for Colorado River Water is Rejoined

Photo by Mose Buchele/KUT News

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the state agency with final say in the new water management plan.

The Colorado River provides water to cities, towns, industry and agriculture from West Texas to the Gulf Coast. After 18 months of often bitter disagreement, representatives of those interests (referred to as stakeholders) reached a consensus last year for how that water should be managed from the Highland Lakes on down. After further tweaks, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved that Water Management Plan early this year.

Most stakeholders felt short-changed by the final Water Management Plan. But at the time of the LCRA‘s vote, many seemed relieved, at least, that a plan was finally complete.

Then, late last month, a letter arrived at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that could throw everything back into question. That letter includes greivences from downstream rice farmers over how the plan was developed, and changes they would like to see.

Opponents are calling it a “rice farmer manifesto,” but Ed McCarthy, a lawyer representing Lower Colorado rice farmers, describes it differently. Continue Reading

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