Energy & Environment

Water, energy, conservation, sustainability, WTP4, pollution, oil and gas, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), recycling, and other environmental issues related to Austin and the Central Texas counties of Travis, Hays, Caldwell, Bastrop and Williamson

National Weather Service

A powerful storm system is headed into Austin, projected to bring the area its heaviest rainfall in six months. A low-level pressure system rolling in from California is expected to combine with moisture generated from the Gulf of Mexico. That means Austin can expecting three to five inches of rain, with isolated spots possibly receiving even more.

Scattered showers are expected to begin overnight, building in intensity Tuesday afternoon and lasting through Wednesday afternoon. And damaging winds, hail and flash flooding are all a possibility.

Insurance companies doing business in Texas have counted their losses after reviewing the state’s  catastrophic weather events last year.

According to the Insurance Services Office, a catastrophic event is a weather or man-made event that causes at least $25 million or more in insured property losses and affects a significant number of people. Texas had seven catastrophic events in 2012, and it cost insurance companies some $2.3 billion in losses.

Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News

After tonight and tomorrow’s wintry weather passes through, we’re not expected to see a lot of moisture.

The National Weather Service updated its 3-month drought outlook this morning. It shows the drought will likely continue in Central Texas and the Hill Country… at least through March.

National Weather Service

Update: (Jan. 3, 5:31 p.m.) National Weather Service reports temperatures in Austin will get down to around 39 degrees tonight. Chance of precipitation is 30 percent with little or no snow accumulation expected.

The National Weather Service has issued a hazardous weather outlook for Travis County.

Parts of Central Texas have already seen some sleet today. And scattered patches of light rain, occasionally mixed with light sleet are expected to blow into Travis County this afternoon. But the wintry weather isn’t expected to really make an impact until later tonight and into tomorrow morning.

The wind energy industry is dependent on something even more unpredictable than wind: Congress. Hidden in the turmoil over the "fiscal cliff" compromise was a tax credit for wind energy.

Uncertainty over the credit had lingered long before the last-minute political push, causing the industry to put off further long-term planning. So while the now-approved tax credit revives prospects for an industry facing tens of thousands of layoffs, don't expect to see many new turbines coming up soon.

Growing Uncertainty

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig where 11 men died in April 2010, has agreed to pay $1.4 billion in criminal and civil penalties to resolve Justice Department allegations over its role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Natural gas may have reshaped the domestic energy market in 2012, lowering energy prices and marginalizing the coal industry, but America's shale boom hasn't undermined renewables.

In fact, while analysts were paying attention to fracking this year, a record number of solar panels were being slapped on roofs — enough to produce 3.2 gigawatts of electricity.

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

Is the electric grid ready for an influx of electric cars?

That’s one of the topics under discussion Tuesday at a discussion on electric vehicles at the University of Texas.

The university’s Electric Vehicle Transportation and Electricity Convergence Center (EV-TEC) is hosting a panel discussion at the Blanton Museum with engineering and electromechanical experts, plus auto industry representatives. (Nissan and General Motors are listed as event sponsors.) The event begins at 4 p.m. this afternoon with a screening of “Revenge of the Electric Car.”

University of Texas Energy Institute

Update and correction: In a press release, UT announced that ​Dr. Raymond Orbach had “resigned.” It did not say, however, that Orbach will be staying at UT as a tenured professor. Orbach has only resigned as head of the Energy Institute, effective Dec. 31. This post has since been corrected. 

Original post: One University of Texas professor has retired and another has stepped down from a leadership role after a review found a conflict of interest in a controversial report on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

As KUT News previously reported, the report from the UT Energy Institute, “Separating Fact From Fiction in Shale Gas Development,” stated that fracking, when executed properly, doesn’t contaminate groundwater. But StateImpact Texas reported that the study's leader failed to disclose financial ties to the drilling industry, including a seat on the board of a drilling company.  

Daniel Reese for KUT News

It didn’t rain at all in Austin this month, making it the driest November in more than 100 years. Only three other years on record show no rainfall for the month, all in the 1800’s: 1861, 1894 and 1897.

In fact, it hasn't rained 0.03 inches or less in Austin in November since 1950.

So will the dry weather stick around? The latest forecasts don’t indicate either an unusually dry or an unusually wet winter for Texas.

There's a developing story this morning from Paulsboro, N.J., south and across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, where several railroad tank cars have derailed and fallen into a creek after a bridge collapse.

It's being reported that the cars were transporting vinyl chloride, which could ignite and would be highly irritating if breathed in. There are local reports of about 18 people being treated for breathing problems.

A new peer-reviewed study by climate scientists finds the rise in sea level during the past two decades has been 60 percent faster than predictions from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The scientists also found that IPCC's estimates for warming temperatures was just right.

NBC News explains:

City of Austin Watershed Protection Department

The City of Austin and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are asking the public to come out tonight to be involved in finding solutions for cleaning up four Austin streams.

Walnut Creek, Waller Creek, Taylor Slough and the Spicewood Tributary of Shoal Creek all exceed the acceptable standard for E. Coli. The high levels of fecal bacteria make the streams potentially unsafe for people to get in the water.

Scientists who study forests say they've discovered something disturbing about the way prolonged drought affects trees.

It has to do with the way trees drink. They don't do it the way we do — they suck water up from the ground all the way to their leaves, through a bundle of channels in a part of the trunk called the xylem. The bundles are like blood vessels.

When drought dries out the soil, a tree has to suck harder. And that can actually be dangerous, because sucking harder increases the risk of drawing air bubbles into the tree's plumbing.

City of Kyle

More than 100,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater, which contained solids, was discharged from the City of Kyle wastewater treatment plant.

Aqua Texas, Inc. operates the plant. The company said in a press release that it’s still reviewing the conditions that caused the spill but "an upset of the sludge blanket in the clarifier" occurred.

The company is trying to clean up Plum Creek downstream of the spill using mobilized vacuum trucks.

So far, the company says, no fish kill has been seen, and live fish have been observed.

A small quake rattled the Fort Worth area last night – the latest North Texas quake to occur in proximity to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” sites and their disposal wells.

Fracking is the practice of pumping hydraulic fracturing fluid into wells to break up and extract oil shale and natural gas deposits.  StateImpact Texas writes that “while it’s difficult to link any individual quake to a specific cause, North Texas has seen a significant uptick in seismic events since hydraulic fracturing technology opened up the area to widespread oil and gas drilling.”

Update at 1:26 p.m. ET. No Confirmed Deaths:

The U.S. Coast Guard tells WWLTV that 11 people have been sent to hospital but no deaths have been confirmed in a oil rig fire off the coast of Louisiana.

WWLTV, KHOU and Reuters were reporting two deaths earlier.

Our Original Post Continues:

A fire on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana has killed two people, Louisiana's WWLTV is reporting.

Update at 11:30 a.m. ET: Oil giant BP has agreed to plead guilty to criminal misconduct related to the 2010 Gulf Oil spill and will pay a record $4 billion in criminal penalties, the company just confirmed. And it will pay $525 million in civil penalties in a resolution with the Securities and Exchanges Commission. BP will make the payments over six years.

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service has issued a freeze warning for Central Texas tonight.

Temperatures are expected to keep falling this evening into early Wednesday morning, leading the NWS to issue a freeze warning for Travis County and surrounding counties. It begins at 3 a.m. and currently runs through 9 a.m. Austin is expecting highs in the mid-to-high 60s tomorrow, according to AccuWeather.

You can stay up on current conditions through the NWS website.

Callie Richmond for Texas Tribune

Subjects like solar panels and smart-grid technologies become a topic of discussion at plenty of Austin happy hours. But when dozens of people gathered at a lakeside bar earlier this month, the talk drifted toward oil prices, shale plays and hydraulic fracturing.

“When you think Austin, you don’t think oil and gas,” said David Tovar, a geoscience technician at Three Rivers, an oil and gas company based in Austin, as he held a pint of Texas brew. The native Texan ended up at Three Rivers after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a geological sciences degree.

Despite its “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and passion for clean energy, Austin is increasingly attracting oil and gas companies like Three Rivers, a small firm founded in 2009 that focuses on oil development in West Texas and New Mexico, aided by the high oil prices of recent years. Austin’s oil industry, about 4,000 workers strong, is still dwarfed by Houston and Dallas. But the city’s entrepreneurial bent and reputation as an attractive place to live, along with the top-tier petroleum engineering program at UT, have trumped the fact that Austin is far from the oilfields.