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

Austin area residents may see some smoke today as the result of a prescribed burn.

Officials warn that smoke may be visible west of Buda and south of FM 1826 from mid-morning until sunset. Citizens are urged to keep the prescribed burn in mind and exercise caution when contacting emergency services about any smoke.

Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

From StateImpact Texas: 

The North Texas towns of Reno and Azle have seen over thirty earthquakes since November, sometimes more than one a day. It’s been unsettling for residents like Barbara Brown.

“Damage to my home, sinkholes on my property. Nerves! And a lot of angst,” she said. “Because you just don’t know when they’re going to happen again.”

Could 2014 Be A Drought Buster For Texas?

Feb 13, 2014
Scott Olsen, Getty Images

From StateImpact Texas: 

In Spanish, El Niño means “the boy child.” But if El Niño predictions for late 2014 prove correct, winter rainfall in Texas could be anything but little.  The deceptively-named weather pattern generally brings rain. Lots of it.

El Niño occurs when warm water buried below the surface of the Pacific rises up and spreads along the equator towards America. It often causes storms that devastate parts of Latin America, Indonesia and Australia, but it could also bring relief to drought-stricken Texas.

Mike Lee, KUT

From StateImpact Texas:

He's run for office three times and lost. But here he is again, the novelist and troubadour that made a name for himself by turning country clichés into satiric social commentary, running for office. Richard "Kinky" Friedman (he got the nickname for his hair) is running as a Democrat for Agriculture Commissioner, and he has a plan to make Texas "greener." He wants to make hemp and marijuana legal in Texas.

“I’m not a dope smoker, okay?” he says with a point of his trademark unlit cigar. “Except with Willie [Nelson]. More as a Texas etiquette kind of thing.” First, his argument for hemp, which is in the same family as marijuana but in its industrial form doesn’t have the medicinal or recreational uses of marijuana. Friedman argues that if cotton farmers in Texas were allowed to grow hemp instead, the trade-offs would be attractive.

Unless you're a Seahawks fan, this year's Super Bowl was not so super. Seattle's blowout victory over Denver almost certainly inspired more than a few million viewers to tune out shortly after halftime. 

The real contest this year, as in years past, was among TV sponsors who paid approximately $4 million per half-minute to push their messages to viewers.  Much of the post-game commentary was devoted to who won bragging rights for 'best commenrcial'.  But Michael Webber, Deputy Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin saw much more than the usual ads for beer, soda, insurance and autos.  

Sure, the Super Bowl may be an American ritual.  But if you look a little closer, Webber says, the big game reveals a national obsession bigger than football: an insatiable appetite for energy.

National Weather Service

Update: As Austin's winter weather advisory is set to expire, Austin roads are all clear. (See an interactive map from TxDOT.) 

The National Weather Service says Saturday morning will be mostly cloudy, but skies clear and grow sunny during the afternoon. Warm winds will bring highs to up into the low 70s Saturday afternoon.

National Weather Service

Austin's looking at another chance of frozen precipitation Thursday morning.

Air temperatures are expected to go below freezing overnight in the wake of the region's latest cold front. National Weather Service forecaster Pat McDonald says there’s a chance of freezing drizzle. But the chance is low – about 10 percent, and accumulation isn't expected.

The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline is taking over national headlines again. 

Last week, the State Department released an environmental review of the pipeline, finding tar sands extraction would have little impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

As KUT's StateImpact Texas reports, "tar sands oil will be extracted regardless of whether or not the pipeline is built."

KUT's Mose Buchele talked with The Takeaway this morning about the impact that the largest oil producer in the world is having in Texas.

The State Department says that production of Canadian tar-sand crude, which has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than other types of oil, is unlikely to be increased if the Keystone XL pipeline goes ahead — and therefore would do little to contribute to climate change.

From StateImpact Texas:

For years, Texas has struggled with how to solve its energy crunch: forecasts said not enough power plants were being built to meet the demands of a growing population and a booming state. But it turns out the state’s supplies are likely adequate. Despite all the growth in Texas, peak power demand hasn’t increased as fast as expected.

To understand why, it helps to start with those long, hot Texas summer afternoons just six months ago.

A large section of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline went into official operation Wednesday, in a move that supporters say will help ease the flow of oil to refineries in the Gulf Coast region. The Obama administration has yet to rule on the project's northern portion.

Larry D. Hodge, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

As the invasive and annoying zebra mussel pops up in a sixth Texas lake, state wildlife commissioners are getting ready to vote on new rules that would require boaters in Central Texas counties to clean, drain and dry their boats whenever they take them out of the water, whether the boat has a motor or not. 

Texas Parks & Wildlife announced Tuesday that zebra mussels were found in  Lake Lavon, one of the largest lakes in North Texas. The invasive species was first discovered in Texas in 2006 and was already found in Lakes Texoma, Ray Roberts, Lewisville, Bridgeport and Belton.

Environmentalists are giving cautious approval to a plan by the Lower Colorado River Authority to raise municipal water rates by 19.5 percent next year.

The increase would not affect Austin Water customers, because the city-owned utility has a separate deal with the LCRA. But it would affect people in other Central Texas cities such as Dripping Springs, Cedar Park and Leander. 

“Water in Texas is very cheap and by and large," says Ken Kramer with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, "price increases will, in the long term, at least have a positive impact in making us more efficient in the use of that valuable resource.”

But some Central Texas mayors are not enthusiastic about their constituents paying more for water, especially in some of the faster-growing Austin suburbs like Leander. That city partnered with Round Rock and Cedar Park to develop a $350 million regional water system that could accommodate their growing populations. 

Photo by KUT News

This is an excerpt from an article written by our Austin City Hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor (formerly In Fact Daily).

The City of Austin faces formidable legal hurdles and, potentially, significant costs if the City Council decides to sell or shut down the city’s share of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project, according to a new city Law Department memo.

Justin Dehn, Texas Tribune

As chilly weather grips much of Texas, the state's electricial grid operator is asking consumers to reduce their energy use, though it says a brief threat of rolling blackouts has been averted. 

In an alert sent at 8 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid covering 85 percent of the state, issued an emergency alert, meaning the grid's power reserves had dropped below a comfortable threshold. 

But the situation, ERCOT said, was improving.

From StateImpact Texas:

The promise of harnessing the power of the sun and turning it into renewable energy has attracted countless businesses, governments and environmental groups. But it might be a church here in Austin that ends up bringing one of the next breakthroughs in solar technology.

To understand the scope of this project, it helps to know that Saint David’s is no little roadside chapel. The Episcopal Church in downtown Austin fills up a whole city block. It provides your typical church services and then some.

“We have a coffee shop, we have a restaurant, we have a pre-school for children,” says Terry Nathan, the parish administrator. “The better part of our basement is dedicated to a homeless center." The Church keeps a staff of caterers for its side business hosting events, and has a bookstore and parking garage, which they make available for commercial use. All that takes a lot of electricity.

So about ten years ago, church members got the idea to put solar panels on the parking garage. But they didn’t take the plunge until last year. That’s when low interest rates, improved technology, and government rebates all came together.

The holidays are here and it might surprise people how energy-intensive they can be. Commentator Michael Webber is keeping a list - and checking it twice - on some ways we burn fuel this time of year.

For starters: There's the energy involved in travel to visit family – those long road trips over the hills and through the woods to visit Grandma, plane flights, even train travel.

Then there's the energy for heating our homes during cold weather. In the northeast that's likely fuel oil; gas in the Southwest; and electricity in the South. Then there are all those presents!

Austin Energy

From StateImpact Texas:

A lot of people who walk or drive past Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin probably assume it’s a natural feature. They appreciate the trails and parks that line the lake's 416 acres, unaware of the series of floodgates on the Longhorn Dam that hold its waters in. But recent flooding along the waterway has called attention to longstanding mechanical problems at the dam, problems that the City of Austin is aware of, but hasn't found the money to address.

While its been called the "jewel in the crown" of Austin, Lady Bird Lake was created to serve a utilitarian purpose: to provide water for a now-decommissioned gas power plant in the Holly neighborhood of East Austin. Because of its connection to the power plant, the dam is operated under the supervision of Austin Energy, the city's publicly-owned electric utility. Built in 1960, the floodgates on Longhorn Dam have stored and released water from the lake for over 50 years. Now that age is showing.

Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

From StateImpact Texas:

State Oil and Gas Regulator Says No Changes Needed After Latest Earthquake Swarm

After twenty minor earthquakes in a month, residents in the small towns of Azle and Springtown outside of Fort Worth are understandably confused about why their once-stable region is now trembling on a near-daily basis.

Teachers in the Azle school district are taking a page from the California playbook and holding earthquake drills for students. Inspectors are making regular visits to the earthen Eagle Mountain Lake dam, as well as others in the area, checking for damage. (So far they've found none.) And locals like Rebecca Williams are constantly looking at their own homes for damage. So far she's found cracks in her home, driveway and in a retaining wall in her backyard.

The quakes have been small, below the threshold that is known to cause significant damage. But they've unnerved residents like Williams, who moved out to Eagle Mountain Lake looking for some peace and quiet. "You can actually see my house rocking from side to side," Williams says. She was at home when the largest of the quakes (magnitude 3.6) struck on the evening of November 19th. "I tried to get up and run downstairs," she says. "And for a moment, I couldn’t run, because the house was shaking so bad!”

So what's behind the tremors? 

Updated at 11:30 p.m. ET: Cobalt-60 Found

Mexican officials say they've recovered the "extremely dangerous" radioactive cobalt-60 that was stolen last week, hours after finding its empty containter.

The Associated Press reports:

"A missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico, the country's nuclear safety director said.