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

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

Almost two weeks after Austin implemented Stage II water restrictions, water usage has dropped across the city. Since the new rules took effect on September 6, Austin has been using about 179 million gallons of water a day. Before Stage II restrictions, our water usage was averaging closer to 203 million gallons a day. That’s a decrease of about 12 percent.

Photo courtesy of the Texas General Land Office

The Christmas Mountains, near Big Bend National Park in West Texas, will stay in public hands.

This morning Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced the remote 9,200-plus acre tract of land is being transferred to the Texas State University System.  It will be used for research and as an outdoor classroom for students.

Lower Colorado River Authority

Fearing that this drought could reduce lake levels lower than ever before, the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the wholesale supplier of water to Austin and other Central Texas cities, plans to meet next week to discuss reducing or ending its water sales to downriver farmers next year.

Photo by Mikey Tapscott

With wildfires scorching thousands of acres of Central Texas, people have been particularly sensitive to the danger of a wildfire. Especially the danger posed by drivers tossing lit cigarette butts out the windows of their cars.

“I'm okay with smokers, but watching someone flick a cigarette out of the car window makes me want to force them to eat it,” Michael Burnett Tweeted this week.

“I might start tweeting license plate numbers of people who throw cigarette butts out. Been seeing it more than ever,” wrote Michael Vilaythong.

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News.

Texas cities and counties will have more time to cut down on air pollution before new ozone standards come into effect in two years. President Obama pulled the plug on proposed ozone standards that were supposed to be announced today after multiple delays.

The decision could be considered a win for businesses that have argued that the federal government was going to revisit ozone standards in 2013 anyway. This is part of the statement the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality put out in response to the delay.

Photo by Tom Pennington via the Texas Tribune

In a report released this morning, the Texas electric grid operator warned of "risks of outages for Texas power users" if a federal pollution rule takes effect as scheduled in January.

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

The ongoing drought has been hurting Central Texas endangered species. Threatened salamanders, beetles, fish and other animals may be evacuated from the San Marcos River and Comal Springs. But that wouldn't happen until at least next year, if it happens at all.

Bill Seawell is a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Austin. He says the evacuations have happened before, in 1989 and again in 1996, and they're hoping they don't have to do it again.

Photo by KUT News

Central Texas is under an Orange ozone alert, meaning the air is unhealthy to people who have breathing difficulties. It happens on the day a report is issued that claims the state could see more ozone action days in the future.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News.

Better restrooms, an educational water feature, and maybe a few more parking spaces could come to Auditorium Shores in the future. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has awarded the City of Austin a $1 million urban park grant to make improvements to the Austin’s most popular trailhead.

Austin Parks and Recreation is updating the master plan for Auditorium Shores and Butler Park. The grant will be used to complete projects in this master plan. The City of Austin is matching the TPWD grant.

Image courtesy National Weather Service

The sweltering heat in Texas has taken Austin past an important milestone: We have set a new record for the number of days with triple digit temperatures in a single year.

At 2:00 this afternoon, thermometers at Camp Mabry registered 100 degrees, making it the 70th time this year that has happened. It breaks the previous record of 69 days set in 1925.

“This is just one way to measure the absolute severity of the summer,” Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist Bob Rose told KUT News. “We’ve had a lot of days at 99 as well, and they’ve felt every bit as hot.”

Photo by Hill Country Conservancy

Eastern Travis County may be on the cusp of a development boom, but a new 285-acre swath of land will be off-limits to developers. The Brockenbrough Ranch (pronounced BROE-ken-broe) has been placed under a protected conservation easement.

Image courtesy of University of Texas, Bureau of Economic Geology

After yesterday’s panic on the East Coast over a 5.8 earthquake, we wondered what the odds were of a similarly sized tremor hitting us.

Turns out, the odds are pretty slim. University of Texas seismologist Cliff Frohlich has studied earthquakes for 39 years. He says West Texas had earthquakes in 1931 and 1995 that were near a magnitude 6.0. The 1995 quake was even felt by some people in Austin.  Central Texas had its own 4.0 earthquake in 1902.

Photo by Michael Stravato/The Texas Tribune

Citing falling lake levels amid the driest nine-month period in state history, the chair of the Texas Senate's Natural Resources Committee is calling on the Lower Colorado River Authority to take emergency actions that would suspend the release of water from the Highland Lakes for interruptible customers downstream.

Photo by CaliforniaDFG at

The Associated Press is reporting the investigation into an oil sheen that was spotted off the Gulf of Mexico last week. Various oil companies, including BP, are trying to figure out where the sheen came from.

An oil sheen (not the same as a spill) happens when a thin layer of oil settles on top of the water shimmering in different colors and can come from leaks or spills.

Photo by Jessie Wang for KUT News

The number of venomous bites and stings has increased since last year as the drought sends snakes and other wild animals searching for food and water.

Kelly Conrad Bender, an urban wildlife biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, came to the University Medical Center Brakenridge to explain the changes in wildlife.

“Wildlife, these individual animals, has not experienced this kind of drought, but their species has. They are the result of thousands of years of adaptation to our climate and these droughts do happen occasionally, maybe once every 50 to 100 years. So the species, given appropriate habitat and given a good balanced stable habitat, they will survive and they’ll come out stronger,” Bender said.

Illustration courtesy of Texas Tribune

A Department of Energy subcommittee is recommending steps for restoring  public trust in the natural gas extraction process known as hyrdaulic fracturing or "fracking," an important part of the Obama Administration's energy policy.

Over the last few years, public concern over the process has grown with the release of documentaries like Gasland and reports of possible connections between fracking and contaminated ground water. You can watch the trailer to Gasland here to get a sense of the film's story arc and tone:

Yesterday, a group of 28 scientists representing 22 universities sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, "expressing concern over the lack of impartiality on the Natural Gas Subcommittee."  The group criticized what they called "advocacy based science" and pointed out that six of the seven members of the subcommittee "have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry."

The group called for greater impartiality and asked that "at a minimum" subcommittee chairman John Deutch, an MIT professor and former CIA director,  leave the subcommittee and be replaced by "a person with no financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry."

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

You don’t see many plug-in vehicles on the roads these days. But Austin Energy expects one in ten cars in Central Texas to be electric by the year 2020.

That’s why it announced today more than 100 new charging stations at 53 locations across Austin.

The rise of fracking as a method for extracting natural gas from shale rock has triggered demand for a key ingredient in the process: silica sand. In parts of the upper Midwest, there's been a rush to mine this increasingly valuable product.

Callie Hernandez/KUT News

A plastic grocery bag ban proposed by elected city leaders last month could be changed to require a surcharge for both paper and plastic bags, such as five or ten cents. 

During a work session today, several city council members expressed concern that banning only plastic bags might not necessarily be any better for the environment.

“If we ban plastic, we force paper,” Council Member Mike Martinez said.