Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Better Batteries Might Hold Enough To Power Your Neighborhood

James Tour leads research at Rice University to develop smaller, more powerful batteries.

Davew Fehling

James Tour leads research at Rice University to develop smaller, more powerful batteries.

One of the nation’s leading researchers who’s trying to make batteries better is James Tour and his colleagues at Rice University.

“Everybody’s investing billions. If you say millions they scoff at you,” Tour told News 88.7.

Tour says there are three categories of things that need better batteries: portable electronic devices, electric vehicles, and a use we wanted to learn more about: batteries to store huge amounts of electricity to power homes and businesses.

“We are not there yet to be able to store large amounts of electricity. So in other words you have huge banks where you can store electricity at night while people are sleeping.”

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NASA Satellite Will Improve Drought Forcasting With a Little Help From Texas

The SMAP satellite will monitor drought levels around the globe.

Courtesy of NASA

The SMAP satellite will monitor drought levels around the globe.

A satellite launched by NASA over the weekend could help people around the world tackle the challenges of drought. Researchers at the University of Texas will play a part in that mission that could also help forecast flooding and allow officials to better manage reservoir water supplies.

The SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite that launched on Saturday will carry two devices to track drought. One to measure heat from the earth’s surface and the other a radar sensor to help pinpoint the location of the land surveyed. Researchers say that by using the two different technologies, they will get a clearer understanding of where the soil is parched and where it is well-saturated around the globe.

That information will be complimented with data gathered by soil moisture monitors, some of them installed around the Texas Hill Country by UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology. These on-the-ground sensors will help validate and improve the satellite’s readings.

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It Looks Like Financial Markets Are Betting On Keystone XL

Ehud Ronn directs the Center for Energy Finance Education and Research at UT Austin.

Mose Buchele

Ehud Ronn directs the Center for Energy Finance Education and Research at UT Austin.

The financial markets may be betting that the Keystone XL pipeline is a done deal.

The U.S. House and Senate have now both passed bills to force approval of the controversial pipeline.  The southern leg of the project already delivers oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast. But approval of the full build-out would link existing pipe to the Canadian border, allowing more crude from the tar sands of Canada to reach Texas refineries via Cushing.

President Obama has vowed to veto the bills, but one expert says the fate of the project may already be written in futures contracts for crude oil.


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How Hill Country Grazing Led to Cedar Fever in Texas

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

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

This story originally ran in 2013, but judging from the tickle in our throats, it seems appropriate to post again. 

Your Grandpa’s Cheeseburger Might Be Making You Sneeze

For many Texans, ‘Cedar Fever’ has its own place in the region’s pantheon of demons, alongside the likes of the Chupacabra, Yolanda Saldivar, and chili with beans. If you’re one of those Texans, the onset of winter, when male mountain cedar plants release their pollen and set the world a-sneezin’, is cause for dread.

It is not unheard of for mountain cedar pollen to amass in the air and create a haze in the Hill Country sky. We’ve been conditioned to look upon a cloud of pollen with unease, but this does little to explain the link between pollen and ‘Cedar Fever.’ Just what is it about this speck of plant material that brings misery to some people? More importantly, how did it become so problematic in Central Texas?

Dr. Edward Brooks researches allergy at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio. While admitting that establishing true causality for cedar pollen allergy is “scientifically tricky,” he reveals that scientists have identified certain correlations that suggest some explanation. So far, it appears that incidence of allergy is determined by several factors coming together: an individual’s genetics, the structure of the pollen grain, and how much of that pollen is around. And one of the key factors for that last one is the result of specific land use and management practices by Texans in the late 19th century. If you want to blame someone for cedar fever, you could start with them.  Continue Reading

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 Crude Oil Prices Drive the Cost of Gasoline

An exploratory oil well in California. Oil companies base their decisions to drill around the "benchmark price" of crude oil.

Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters/ Landov

An exploratory oil well in California. Oil companies base their decisions to drill around the "benchmark price" of crude oil.

If you’ve followed the drop in oil prices over the last few months you might have noticed the words “Brent” and “WTI” being thrown around without much explanation. The price of these benchmark crude oils influences everything from how big oil companies invest in drilling, to the amount you pay to fill up your car. So what exactly are they?

The first thing to remember is that the crude oil we refine into gasoline comes in a lot of different varieties from all over the world. They have different names and some of them, like Tia Juana Light sound more like a refreshing beverage than an oil.

To make buying and selling all these different crudes simpler. People in the industry use benchmark oil prices. Brent crude, and West Texas Intermediate (or WTI) are the two big ones.

“So somebody will write a contract that says, I will sell you Crude X from the gulf of Mexico at WTI plus a dollar,” says Tim Hess, lead analyst for the US Energy Information Administration’s short term energy outlook.

He says WTI is the price marker for American crudes, “particularly on the Gulf Coast where the petroleum industry is centered.”

For most of the rest of the world, it’s Brent.

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US Geological Survey to Increase Earthquake Risk Levels in Texas

A current earthquake hazard map on the USGS website.

Courtesy of the USGS.

A current earthquake hazard map on the USGS website.

A seismic hazard map is essentially what it sounds like – a map that shows the potential for earthquakes in certain areas.  The maps give people a sense of the likelihood of earthquakes occurring, where they might occur, and how strong they might be.  The maps can influence everything from public policy to building codes to insurance rates.

“They govern hundreds of billions of dollars in constructions and insurance cost every year,” says Mark Peterson, project chief of the USGS’s National Seismic Hazard Mapping project.

So it’s worth noting that the USGS plans to update the maps for Texas (and other parts of the country) to account for an increase in man-made earthquakes.

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From Pipeline to Pump, How Gasoline Gets to Your Car

Johnny Herrera is a dispatcher for Tex Con Oil. A company that distributes fuel around the Austin area.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Johnny Herrera is a dispatcher for Tex Con Oil. A company that distributes fuel around the Austin area.

By now, the initial surprise over low gas prices has worn off. But people looking for the very best deals might have noticed a trend: small, unbranded gas stations are often the first to cut prices. Many of them continue to stay competitive even when larger brand-name stations cut their prices as well.

To understand why stations offer different prices for essentially the same product, it helps to take a trip from the pump back to the pipeline, to see exactly how gas is bought, sold and transported.

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What’s Behind the Earthquakes in Dallas?

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.


A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

Tremors on the Rise Across Texas

People in Dallas were surprised by a swarm of small earthquakes that started shaking the city a couple of days ago. There have been a dozen by the latest count.  And the quakes, though new to the Dallas area, are just the most recent in a major upsurge in earthquakes in Texas over the last few years.

Earthquakes were pretty much unheard of in the Dallas area until 2008. Since then there have been a lot of these swarms of quakes. In Irving, Texas, where this new cluster is located, there have been more than 50 in the last several years, according to the city manager. This current swarm started around September.

Possible Explanations

This all started happening in 2008, a year that also marked a boom in oil and gas exploration in Texas. A lot of people say there’s a link there. Not just in Texas, but across the country, studies have shown how injecting fluids into the ground can cause quakes. In the oil and gas business, people use injection wells for disposing of drilling wastewater. Continue Reading

Environmental Group Wants Loophole Closed On Oil And Gas Pollution

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

Lawsuit Filed in Washington Hits Home With Houston’s Biggest Industry

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the biggest source of air pollution in Texas are oil and gas wells, emitting far more pollution than petrochemical plants or refineries. Yet, federal law exempts those drilling operations from having to report all their chemical releases to a publicly accessible national database called the Toxics Release Inventory.

“That would be very useful to an average citizen in Texas to know that they can go and find out the whole picture,” said Adam Kron, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project. Continue Reading

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