Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


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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Regional Haze, The ‘War on Coal,’ and How Environmental Policy Is Made

Everyone’s heard of the War on Drugs. There’s also, of course, the War on Terror. And as presidential election season heats up – we can expect to hear more about another war.  For years some politicians have accused President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency of waging a “war on coal.”

For StateImpact Texas, KUT’s Mose Buchele reports on the legal push and pull over environmental regulation.


How Denmark and Texas Became Wind Energy Kings

Standing on the shore of the Baltic sea a few miles outside of Copenhagen, Denmark, the view’s about what you’d expect. Rocky shore, grey horizon, a boat here or there. But this shore is special. Look up, and you’ll see — and hear — three giant offshore wind turbines cutting through the air. Each stands 500 feet tall, with three blades (each close to 200 feet long), spinning non-stop.

“The blades look quite thin, but don’t be cheated,” says Rune Birk Nielsen, with DONG Energy, which runs the turbines. “They each weigh about twenty tons. They are massive.” Each turbine has a capacity of 3.6 megawatts, or enough to power 3,000 Danish homes.

Nielsen guides me through the small offshore wind park — well, technically it’s offshore. The turbines aren’t actually too far from land — each is connected to the shore by a short footbridge about ten yards long.

“For us, it’s kind of a demonstration park,” Nielsen says, “where we are able to test all sorts of things.” With turbines close to shore, they’re easier to fiddle with or repair. The company can safely train their workers without sending them far out to sea, where most of the country’s offshore turbines are.

Denmark is booming when it comes to wind energy. To understand how and why, you have to go back a few decades. Continue Reading

What Spain Can Teach Texas About Solar Energy

About an hour’s drive outside of Sevilla, Spain’s old city, past grazing black-footed pigs and olive orchards, sits the Abengoa Solucar complex, and it’s truly a sight: Imagine cresting a hill and then all of the sudden seeing several large towers, over 500 feet high, with hundreds of beams of light striking them — solar rays from an army of mirrors arrayed in a circle on the ground below. They’re called heliostats.

“These heliostats are reflecting solar radiation toward the receiver that we have at the top of the tower,” says Valerio Fernandez, manager of the complex. The rays from the heliostats strike the top of the towers, like hundreds of magnifying glasses focused on one point in mid-air. The top of the tower shines so bright, you can’t look at it without sunglasses.

Once the solar radiation gets to the top of the tower, it’s used to heat up water. And it’s at this step that innovation turns to a technology that’s been around for well over a century: turbine technology. The solar radiation creates heat, that heats up water, which creates steam, which moves the tubines, which generates energy.

In the summer, there’s enough sun for 12, sometimes 13 hours of energy that can power up to 100,000 homes. And the towers can keep providing solar energy for several hours after the sun goes down, by heating and pressurizing steam for later.

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Months Behind Schedule, New Water Well Finally Arriving For Spicewood Beach


Behind the counter of a general store just off Highway 71, Kim Clifton, the cashier, shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head when asked about the lingering drought. “We just need more rain,” she says. She rolls her head back to let out an exasperated laugh, “Bring the rain! Bring it!”

It’s something you hear all the time these days across Texas, but chances are you’ll hear it the most in Spicewood Beach, Texas, a Lake Travis community about 40 miles from Austin. Just a little over two years ago, it made headlines as the first community in Texas to run out of water during the current drought.

In early 2012, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which owns and manages the community’s water system, announced that groundwater levels were falling, leaving its well useless.

Those levels got so low LCRA began trucking in water five to six times a day as a temporary solution. Each load costs LCRA about 200 dollars.

Now, over two years later, LCRA plans to put the finishing touches on a new well system costing over a million dollars. The system was supposed to be completed last summer, but construction began just last month.

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This is What the Oil Spill Looks Like on Matagorda Island

Weeks after a large oil spill in Galveston Bay, it’s still having an impact on sensitive wildlife habitats along the Texas Gulf Coast. On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took reporters to see the impacts on Matagorda Island, an important wildlife refuge for migratory birds and several endangered species. Workers are now busy cleaning up tons of oil from the Island’s beaches.

Mose Buchele took the photos above of the spill’s impact on Matagorda Island. Check back tomorrow for his story on how the cleanup effort istelf could disturb the delicate ecosystem and endangered wildlife of the Gulf Coast.

Here’s What The Galveston Bay Oil Spill Looks Like

Responders are scrambling to contain the slimy mess left by an oil spill in Galveston Bay.

After a barge carrying tar-like heavy fuel collided with a vessel in the Houston Ship Channel on Saturday, cargo exports and imports have been put on hold. That’s raised concerns about the impact on Texas’ oil-dependent economy. The Coast Guard says parts of the channel have been re-opened to limited traffic, but the spill is also expected to have an environmental toll.

Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel report that the spill occurred at a particularly bad time for Gulf wildlife – birds, specifically. As of Tuesday morning, the department says eight birds have been captured for treatment, and 10 birds have been found dead covered in the oil. Continue Reading

Exploring the Science Behind Man-Made Quakes in Texas

The North Texas towns of Reno and Azle have seen over thirty earthquakes since November, sometimes more than one a day. It’s been unsettling for residents like Barbara Brown.

“Damage to my home, sinkholes on my property. Nerves! And a lot of angst,” she said. “Because you just don’t know when they’re going to happen again.”

And it’s not the only town in the state that’s been hit with tremors. Texas has seen the number of recorded earthquakes increase tenfold since the drilling boom began several years ago. While studies have linked the quakes to oil and gas drilling activities, but state regulators and politicians say the science is far from settled.

So what does the science really say? Take a listen to the radio story:

For Clues to Texas’ Climate Future, Scientists Look Deep Underground

Paleo ‘Rain Gauges’ in Texas Caves Help Show How Our Climate is Changing

It’s easy to imagine that attitudes towards climate change would be different if everyone owned a device like the one Dr. Jay Banner showed me this winter in Georgetown, Texas. It’s a small instrument, about the size and shape of a walkie talkie, that measures carbon dioxide wherever you go.

“You can see that outside here, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 403 parts per million,” Banner says, holding it up for inspection on a frigid morning. “That’s a number we’re really worried about in our society today. Because, at the onset of the industrial revolution, we were at about 280 parts per million. We’re on our way towards doubling it.”

Scientists agree that carbon dioxide contributes to climate change. What researchers like Banner, a Professor of Geological Science at the University of Texas at Austin, want to understand is what climate change means for the world around us. That search has put him in some tight spots during his career, often deep underground, in the caves of Central Texas.  Continue Reading

‘Like A Bomb Went Off’: Scenes from the Halloween Flood Recovery

After the floods on Halloween morning destroyed their home in Bluff Springs, a community just across the Austin city line in unincorporated Travis County, Debbie Lozano and her boyfriend slept in a tent in their yard.

“We got this creek right here, Boggy Creek, and then it runs in the back of the property into Onion Creek. So we got it double wammied!” she says, remembering a frantic escape in the night, the water rising to her chest.

They had no transportation, and didn’t want to leave their dogs behind. So when the flood receded they lit a campfire to stay warm, and began hauling their waterlogged possessions, what they could salvage, into the yard to dry.

Saturday, nine days after the flooding, volunteers arrived to rip out sheet rock and insulation from the house, clear debris and saw apart trees the waters had pushed against the property. Lozano said it was the first time anyone had come to help clean. She called the assistance a “miracle.”

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