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

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.

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

Over the objections of Texas officials, the Obama administration on Wednesday proposed a long-delayed rule to slash levels of ozone – a smog-forming pollutant known to worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

The regulation is the latest example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's use of the Clean Air Act to crack down on the pollution wafting from factories, power plants and tailpipes.

Photo courtesy of Richard Casteel

From StateImpact Texas:

Stanley Rabke’s family has lived and worked on their Hill Country ranch since 1889. Generations of Rabkes have struggled with the extremes of Texas weather, but one storm sticks out in Stanley’s memory: it came after the drought of the 1950s.

“It rained and rained and rained,” he says. “Back then we raised turkeys, we lost thousands of turkeys that washed away in the creek.”

The disaster underscores an irony of life in Texas. “You hope and pray that you’re going to get a good rain, [but] on the other side of it, you hope you don’t get a flood,” says Rabke.

A quick walk from where the turkeys met their fate, some new technology that will help manage that risk is being installed — soil monitoring sensors in the ground.


Congress’ attempts to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline have re-ignited debate over the project, which would allow more crude oil to flow from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  It’s also re-ignited debate over what could happen to that oil once it gets to Texas.

President Obama and opponents of the pipeline say it will be used as a funnel to export Canadian crude to international markets. TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, has been unequivocal when asked about that.

Jonathan Warner/Flickr

The deal that the U.S. and China have struck to curb carbon emissions has been hailed as a breakthrough by many concerned with climate change, and panned by politicians opposed to President Obama. But it's also captured the interest of a group of researchers -- some in Texas -- who specialize in carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The deal is short on specifics. But it commits the U.S. and China to continue investing in carbon capture, use and storage. That’s technology that filters CO2 from coal power plants and then pumps the carbon underground. Texas has been doing it for decades to get oil out of the ground in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

“It’s always poor form for Texas to do too much boasting, but the source of expertise for injecting CO2 for enhanced oil recovery lies mostly in Texas," says Susan Hovorka, a senior researcher scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, who works on carbon sequestration.

Mose Buchele/KUT

  This week Denton, Texas became the first city in the state to ban fracking within its city limits. The ban passed with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

Many in Denton worry about how fracking and associated activities impact their health and quality of life.  But opponents say the ban is bad for the economy. The drilling industry, which pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign against the ban, is concerned with the precedent Denton could set for other Texas towns.

Just hours after the vote, the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TxOGA) filed a legal challenge to the ban, as did the Texas General Land office with a suit.

There may be more legal challenges on the way.

The TxOGA lawsuit asserts that "the public policy of Texas is to encourage the full and effective exploitation of our mineral resources," says Tom Phillips, a lawyer with Baker Botts who is working on the challenge.

Austin Monitor

From The Austin Monitor:

A key Austin Energy reserve fund that would be used to pay for the potential decommissioning of the Decker Lake gas generation plant has no money that could be used in that effort, according to Austin Energy.

Utility spokesman Carlos Cordova told the Austin Monitor in an email that a City Council-approved Austin Energy fiscal policy for funding such a decommissioning of a non-nuclear plant “should occur four years before the start of plant closure.”

Cordova continued: “The amount to set aside should be based upon a decommissioning study of the plant site. There are currently no funds in that decommissioning reserve and a decommissioning study has not been done. Council resolution 20140828-157, which includes replacing Decker with 600 megawatts of contracted utility-scale solar, will require funding of this reserve in the near future.”

Austin Energy officials would not hazard a guess at the full cost of decommissioning the plant. However, should the utility elect to replace the facility, it has estimated the cost of the construction of new transmission lines to be in the neighborhood of $150 million.

Mose Buchele/KUT

From StateImpact Texas:

For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community. The site is, however, not very close to any houses.

“I’ll show you where this exact same thing was sitting by someone’s home,” she says.

NASA, via Getty Images

From StateImpact Texas:

There’s a good chance of an El Niño weather pattern forming by the end of the year. That could be good for easing or even ending the Texas drought. But it’s not a sure thing.

Austin Monitor

Austin Energy officials presented City Council members Tuesday with a new proposal for a generation mix that would approach the renewable energy numbers suggested by a July task force report.

Though no solid generation plan has been presented — let alone approved — the utility’s latest suggestion would bring in 500 new megawatts of solar power, retire the coal-powered Fayette Power Plant by 2025 and retire the Decker gas generating facility by 2019, though a new gas facility could well replace it.