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

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.

As you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, consider this: how much energy it takes to produce and consume that food.

Throughout the year, transportation is responsible for 28 percent of our energy consumption. And there's a non-trivial bump right around Thanksgiving time. According to USA Today, more than 25 million people in the United States are expected to fly for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

There's an old joke that if Moses had turned right when he led Jewish tribes out of Egypt, Israel might be where Saudi Arabia is today — and be rich from oil. Consultant Amit Mor of Eco Energy says that joke is out of date.

"Israel has more oil than Saudi Arabia," he claims. "And it's not a joke."

But that oil will be difficult to reach, if it can be recovered at all. The oil he's talking about is not yet liquid but is trapped in rocks underground.

National Weather Service

Update: The National Weather Service has removed a winter storm warning from the Austin area forecast. It had been scheduled to go into effect Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. and last until Monday at noon. However, a winter weather advisory is now in effect for Central Texas until 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

The National Weather Service says we could get some light sleet through Monday evening and some light snow flurries from Monday evening into Tuesday morning.  The advisory area covers Comal, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties. A winter weather advisory is also in effect for the Hill Country until 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

Original story (Nov. 23): The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for the Austin region, beginning tomorrow. It's an upgrade from the winter storm watch the NWS previously forecast for the region.

Half of Texas is experiencing drought conditions, and for the third year in a row, rice farmers in Central Texas may be cut off from water supplies because of severe drought.

The Lower Colorado River Authority has asked the state to approve emergency plans to cut water to farmers in 2014 if reservoir lakes are at less than 55 percent capacity. The lakes are currently 36 percent full.

Homes and businesses would also face water restrictions.

National Weather Service

Austin is expected to get its first freeze of the season tonight, with temperatures dropping as low as the upper 20s overnight.

The National Weather Service says a strong Canadian cold front is moving across the Hill Country and the Austin metro area. A freeze warning has been issued for Austin, from midnight through 9 a.m. tomorrow.

“It’s not going to be that long-lived of a freezing temperature, maybe an hour or two, so I would not worry about pipes at this time,” says National Weather Service meteorologist Pat McDonald. “But if you have any tender vegetation, you may want to cover or cover them tonight.”

European Commission, Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection,

Update (Tuesday): A typhoon being called one of the  worst in recorded history has rocked the Philippines, with officials fearing as many as 10,000 people dead and  tens of thousands of homes destroyed.

The southeast Asian country is home to nearly 100 million people, and nearly one-in-four families live in poverty. Super-typhoon Haiyan reportedly destroyed between 70 to 80 percent of structures in its path. The destruction has caused many relief organizations to mobilize.

Make a Local Contribution:

Austin-based Circle of Health International works with women in crisis areas to provide access to family, newborn and reproductive care, ensure womens’ safety and combat sexual assault and sex trafficking. 

Circle of Health International founder Sera Bonds recently spoke with KUT about their plans to assist in the Phillipines following typhoon Haiyan.  You can donate here.

The vicious typhoon that raged through the center of the Philippines appears to have killed hundreds, if not thousands of people, and officials were reportedly struggling Sunday to distribute aid to survivors left homeless and destitute.

Deaths in the province of Leyte — mainly from drowning and collapsed buildings — could escalate to 10,000, the regional police chief told the AP. The administrator of the province capital, Tacloban, said the toll could climb that high in the city alone.

Mose Buchele, KUT News

This is part four of a series looking at the infrastructure of dams in Texas, and what can be done to improve it. You can find part one here, and part two here, and part three here.

In a peaceful, wooded corner of Bastrop County, Texas sits one of the unluckiest dams in the state. In 2011 the Labor Day Wildfires burned soil and vegetation around Clear Springs Lake and its earthen dam. Then, half a year later, a massive rainstorm hit. Water poured over the structure and wrecked havoc on an already crumbling spillway.

“Our poor little dam has gone between being scorched to being flooded in a matter of six months,” Bruce Bar, a floodplain engineer and the manager of the community’s dam told StateImpact Texas. “So it’s handled about as much as nature can throw at it.”