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

Eric Reyna/KUT News

You might have noticed gas prices inching up, but crude oil prices are still waaaay lower than they were a year ago – so what’s behind the jump in gasoline?  Usually, higher prices at the pump are linked to the higher cost of crude oil. But at this time of year, people blame refineries.  

"What we’re seeing is that strong relationship between gas and oil fade," says Patrick Dehane, an oil analyst with "It is… I wouldn’t say a nasty breakup. But the two are becoming more distant because of refining.” 

Philip Issa/KUT News

The earthquakes that have shaken Dallas and Irving, Texas the last several months have people looking into whether oil and gas activity in the area plays a role.  Some of those people work at the Environmental Protection Agency. But EPA researchers say they’re not getting the data they’ve requested from Texas state oil and gas regulators to investigate the link.

Philip Dellinger is head of the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Section in Dallas.  At a conference of the Groundwater Protection Council on Tuesday, he showed early results from a study his team conducted on earthquakes around Irving.

The group looked at the use of waste water disposal wells closest to Irving earthquakes. Dellinger does not necessarily believe the recent quakes are related to disposal wells, where waste water from oil and gas drilling is pumped underground. But these types of wells have caused other earthquakes, so his team wanted to see what wells were close to the Irving events.


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.


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.

Courtesy of USGS

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.

Mose Buchele/KUT News

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 when the price of crude oil falls. Many continue to stay competitive even when larger brand-name stations start cutting their prices as well.

Take Pronto Food Mart. It’s a tiny neighborhood gas station that was one of the first places in Austin to slash prices. It still offers the cheapest gas in Central Austin according to

Shopkeepers at Pronto pride themselves on being on the front lines of the war against high gas prices.


People in Dallas were surprised by a swarm of small earthquakes that started shaking the city a couple of days ago. There have been 11 by last 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.

Twelve earthquakes shook North Texas Tuesday and Wednesday -- and seismologists are intensifying their focus on all of the rumbling and rattling near the old Texas Stadium site.

Wikimedia Commons

The use of lead ammunition for hunting has long worried environmental groups. They've  even tried suing the Environmental Protection Agency to push it to regulate lead ammo. But some hunters have been resistant to using steel bullets, saying they are less effective.  A new study takes a look at whether that's backed up by fact. 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department looked at the effectiveness of lead versus steel shot in dove hunting in different parts of the state. 

The double-blind study suggested a switch from lead shot to steel shot wouldn’t limit hunters' dove season harvests. Corey Mason is a biologist with the department and – despite the study’s finding that nearly 73 percent of hunters couldn’t discern between the two ammunitions – he says he’s heard from hunters that steel shot doesn’t do the job as well as lead.

courtesy of USGS

Updated 1/6/14 with more comment from Railroad Commission and information on Tuesday January 6th earthquake.

A team of seismologists headed to the North Texas town of Irving Monday.  Like some other Texas towns, Irving has experienced scores of small earthquakes lately, 20 since last September, including a magnitude 3.5 quake that struck on January 6th. And the city is hoping to figure out what’s behind the shaking.

Lower Colorado River Authority

Texas is not doing a good enough job of tracking and managing its water resources, according to research from Texas A&M University.

Researchers looked at water used for the H2O-intensive drilling process called fracking in Texas, and how the practice could be draining resources. They found that only a small fraction of the state’s water supply goes to fracking, but tracking that water use itself is devilishly difficult. 

The annual Austin Christmas bird count is happening this Saturday, when bird enthusiasts, or birders, take a census of what birds they can spot across the entire Austin area. So far, 2014 has already been an unusual year for bird sightings in Texas.

Three species of birds never seen in the state before were spotted this year in Texas. 

Those were a red-legged honeycreeper, a gray-crowned rosy-finch and a pair of common cranes – which, as the name might suggest, are indeed common, but they’re typically a European species.


From StateImpact Texas:

Rain or shine, in the light of summer or the early afternoon darkness of winter, under heavy sleet, unrelenting winds or drifts of snow, people in Copenhagen just bike. They bike in fur coats, they bike in suits and ties. They bike old, they bike young. They wheel their kids around on a cargo bike with a wooden box carrying the children up front, taking them to and from school; this is Copenhagen’s take on a minivan. People just bike, and after arriving in the city myself, I soon found out why: it’s usually the fastest way to get around. So I rented a bike, too.

Today, 60 percent of people in the city’s core commute by bike. In the greater Copenhagen area, over 40 percent do. “We see the same numbers [of commuting by bike] all year round,” says Copenhagen Environmental and Technical Affairs Mayor Morten Kabell.

“It’s not something that’s in Copenhagen’s genes, or that we’re weirder or stranger than any other people on earth,” Kabell says. “Every city can do this.”

Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

From StateImpact Texas:

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.

Marcelo del Pozo/REUTERS

From StateImpact Texas:

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.

Courtesy of Louis Vest,

Officials from countries around the word have met for the last two weeks in Lima, Peru to talk global climate change.   At the heart of those talks is how to limit billions of tons of CO2 that are pumped into the atmosphere every year from coal burning power plants.  

But how do we keep track of the CO2 we’re releasing? And just how do we weigh something that floats in the first place? 

It turns out there is a venerable history to the science of weighing smoke.

Austin Monitor

One of the city of Austin's sustainability goals is pretty ambitious - to be a net-zero greenhouse emissions city by 2050. In order to get there, it would take a city-wide buy in and that's why the city wants to get the community's pulse through a survey.

The 10 question-long survey is in English and Spanish, asking things like "Would you e-commute, or ride a bus?" and "What about putting up solar panels?" The answers to those questions aim to help the city start crafting a plan.

Courtesy of UT's Cockrell School of Engineering

Ever since the technique known as fracking unleashed massive reserves of natural gas in the U.S., the environmental cost of gas as an energy source has been a hot topic. Today, a new study out from the University of Texas aims to shed some light on the subject. 



The Climate Prediction Center is out with an update on El Nino.  The weather pattern is often associated with heavy rains, so watching for its arrival has become something of an obsession in drought-stricken parts of the country like Texas.

Photo courtesy

With hundreds of thousands of customers, Austin Energy must rely on computer programs to filter through their customer database when it sends out bills. As intricately as some of these systems are designed, there are a few recent instances in which those programs have led to unintended consequences.

If you're an Austin Energy customer you may have noticed one item on your bill called a "Community Benefit Charge,” a fee which partly helps low-income Austin Energy customers pay their bills. Some of that money, however, is actually going to wealthy customers.