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

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Just days after a Texas farmer’s restraining order against Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada was lifted, the Alberta company announced it is starting work on a portion of the pipeline stretching from Oklahoma to Texas.

The company announced today it was reapplying for a permit to route the pipeline through Nebraska. Concerns over the route through Nebraska’s environmentally-sensitive Sand Hills region lead in part to rejection of TransCanada’s earlier application.

But TransCanada also announced it would commence building the southernmost portion of the pipeline -- from Cushing, Oklahoma to Texas ports at the Gulf of Mexico -- while it waits on permitting for the northern portion of the line, which requires presidential approval.

Image courtesy National Weather Service

We know the old adage about Texas weather: If you don't like it, just wait five minutes. 

But yesterday's unseasonably high February temperatures still came as a surprise to many Austinites, and more warmth is on the way today. 

The National Weather Service says the regional warming streak will continue. It predicts "partly sunny and unseasonably warm" weather and says "highs will be in the 80s" today. "Normal high temperatures for this time of year are generally in the 60s," the NWS notes. 

That said, today’s heat won’t last. NWS forecasts a cold front hitting the Hill Country this evening, with lows in the 40s and a cool, mild weekend. Guess there’s something to that old adage after all. 

Photo courtesy .facebook.com/pages/Skip-The-Plastic/242542302446854

In its short history, Austin’s proposed disposable bag ban has already seen its share of controversy:  A series of stops and starts, recent revisions, and more.   

But Austin’s far from the only city considering such a measure. In fact, the Texas town of Corpus Christi is also considering a similar proposal.

Image courtesy fossil.energy.gov

A newly-released report on fracking – the practice of pumping hydraulic fracturing fluid into wells to break up and extract oil shale and natural gas deposits – has caused something of a stir in Texas.

Image by National Weather Service

You may want to consider avoiding the roads tomorrow morning. The National Weather Service says a "wintry mix" of weather is in the forecast for much of Central and South Central Texas. The NWS says "no significant accumulations of ice or snow are expected" but that "model timing and precipitation amount uncertainties remain."

The worst single-year drought in Texas history has caused more than $5 billion in agricultural losses. Doris Steubing is a cattle rancher in Maxwell, about 30 miles south of Austin. We sent freelance videographer Jeff Heimsath to her ranch to ask how she's getting by.

The Austin City Council is holding a special-called work session this morning to tackle Austin Energy’s proposed rate increases.

Council got an earful from citizens opposed to the increase at their last meeting. Since then, Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said he too opposes the increase as drafted.

Photo by Teresa Vieira for KUT News

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took aim at the Obama administration this morning, with a call for the president to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would end at the Texas Gulf Coast.

Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue claimed in his annual “State of American Business” address that “This project has passed every environmental test. There is no legitimate reason—none at all—to subject it to further delay.”

But the National Resources Defense Council says the Chamber is waging a “disinformation campaign” on the pipeline’s behalf.

The largest solar farm in Texas is now pumping power to homes across Austin. The $100 million facility was switched on last month and city officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony today.

The solar farm is located about 20 miles east of Austin in Webbervile. Its footprint covers 380 acres, which is about the size of Zilker Park. And it has 127,000 solar panels that slowly shift to follow the sun’s path.

The solar farm can generate up to 30 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes. The energy is being dispersed throughout Austin Energy’s grid. While the solar array can't provide power all the time, it could provide big benefits during the hot, sunny days of summer. 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has warned that Texas could have a hard time meeting energy demand if the summer of 2012 is the summer of 2011, when the state was brought to the brink of rolling blackouts. And ERCOT chief Trip Doggett couldn’t say the Webberville solar farm would be able to solve those challenges.

Photo by KUT News

A federal appeals court in Washington, DC granted the State of Texas a stay today against new EPA air pollution regulations that take effect next year.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule would require some coal plants in Texas to retrofit their equipment or to switch to a higher-grade coal fuel, in order to meet new sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission rules.

The injunction sets the stage for an court hearing in April.

Now that BP is resuming oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the energy giant is looking to revive its image among those who remember the tragic Deepwater Horizon leak that spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in 2010.

BP won eleven tracts in the latest lease sale in the Gulf, which was the first since the well blowout that caused eleven deaths, Forbes.com reports.

Photo by Tom Pennington

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule on Wednesday aimed at reducing the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. It is unlikely to improve Texas officials' low opinion of the agency.

"This is a victory for public health, especially the health of our children," said Lisa Jackson, the EPA's head, as she announced the rules at a children's medical center in Washington, D.C.

The rules will take full effect in 2016, Jackson said. "Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases," she said.

Photo by Keystone Pipeline System

Protestors gathered in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Austin this afternoon to denounce a deal struck in Congress that would extend a payroll tax cut by two months in exchange for a measure to speed up a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. The transcontinental pipeline would transport oil from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.  

One of the major sticking points between the House and the Senate as they face off over end-of-year legislation is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The bill the House passed Tuesday contains a provision forcing President Obama to decide on the pipeline within 60 days.

Republicans say this project should move ahead quickly because it will create thousands of jobs. But just how many jobs would be created is a matter of contention.

Photo by I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News

Representatives from Austin Energy met with the City Council today to discuss a 12.5 percent rate and fee increase to be implemented in April of next year. Much of the discussion centered on how churches and schools will pay for the rate increase. 

In a report released Thursday, the state's electric grid operator indicated that next summer could see a repeat of the rolling blackout threats that plagued Texas past summer. The reason: rising demand for electricity and some power plants going offline.

"If we stay in the current cycle of hot and dry summers, we will be very tight on capacity next summer and have a repeat of this year's emergency procedures and conservation appeals," Trip Doggett, chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), said in a statement.

If crazy weather — like the deep freeze in February that caused large numbers of power plants to break down — hits again this winter, outages could also result then, the report said. But Doggett put the risk of this happening in the wintertime as "very low."

Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hamilton Pool, Stillhouse Hollow, and Bull Creek near Loop 360 have all tested for levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria that exceeded both state and federal standards, according to an analysis of government data by Environment Texas. Some strains of E. coli can make adults sick and cause kidney failure among young children and the elderly.

The Environment Texas report released today – What Else is Swimming in Your Favorite Texas Swimming Hole? – used data from the City of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority and other official sources to draw these conclusions:

We’re not sure if there’s any timely reason for the University of Texas to warn people not to touch bats, but it’s probably a good reminder: 

Environmental Health and Safety and the Office of the Vice President for University Operations want to remind you that Austin has a significant bat population. Bats are considered a high-rabies risk species and like all wildlife, should never be touched.  

Photo by FLC http://www.flickr.com/photos/flc/

If you’ve been wanting to pitch a tent and light a campfire, or burn off some of the brush on your property, you've got about seven days to get ‘er done. Travis County Commissioners unanimously voted to lift the burn ban for a week on the advice of the county Fire Marshal Hershel Lee.

“I reviewed the forecast, took into account the recent rains, spoke with most of the local fire department fire chiefs, and taking all that information together, made the recommendation to the court to lift the burn ban for one week,” Lee told KUT News.

Photo by Anne Lise Norheim, Halliburton http://www.flickr.com/photos/olfnorge/

Natural gas extraction on the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas has developed to the point that the oil field services company Halliburton has decided to build a $50 million operations base in San Antonio.

The Houston-based company announced yesterday that it is looking to hire 1,500 people to staff the center. Annual salaries will average $70,000, the Houston Chronicle reports.

When Halliburton reported its quarterly earnings last month, it announced record breaking profits at its North American operations: more than $1 billion. Much of that was on the back of the booming natural gas industry, which has taken off with technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – a practice that allows access to natural gas stored in shale rock 5,000 feet underground.

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