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 CaliforniaDFG at http://www.flickr.com/photos/californiadfg/4899552970/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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.

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

Crack open an ice cold drink and give yourself a pat on the back: you just survived the hottest month in Austin history.

The average daily temperature for July 2011 was 89.7 degrees. The previous record for the hottest month was set in July 2009, when the average daily temperature was 89.5 degrees.

Don't expect it to get cooler anytime soon. The National Weather Service forecasts highs of 104 degrees or higher all week long.

Eddie Seal/Texas Tribune

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new air pollution rules for oil and gas production today. The regulations are the first national standards for emissions from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a controversial practice used to extract natural gas in the Barnet Shale and in South Texas, among other places.

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News.

The EPA has once again delayed releasing stricter ground-level ozone standards. Those were supposed to be issued on July 29. This is the fourth time the EPA has delayed releasing exact standards.

The Bush Administration set the ozone standard at 75 parts per billion in 2008 even after EPA scientists had recommended a more stringent standard. The EPA has indicated that the new standard would fall between 60 to 70 parts per billion.

EPA press secretary Brendan Gilfillan issued this statement in announcing the delay.

Photo by alumroot http://www.flickr.com/photos/alumroot/

For many Austinites, watching a swarm of bats fly out from underneath the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge at sundown is a favorite summer pastime. But this year's drought is taking a toll on that tradition.

Forty plus days of 100 degree weather and no rain have the Mexican free-tailed bats of Central Texas a little stressed. The drought has made it harder for them to find food. Bats are exiting their roosts earlier in the evenings and coming back later in the morning.

Photo by KUT News

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley  announced a proposal this morning to phase out free plastic bags at retail stores.

They criticized plastic bags for littering rivers and streams, harming wildlife and too often ending up in landfills.  Consumers who reuse the bags to carry their lunches to picking up after their pets disagree.  At a news conference this morning, Mayor Leffingwell acknowledged it’s going to take some convincing to get people to change their habits.

Photo courtesy of Lower Colorado River Authority

Despite some recent light rain, the Lower Colorado River Authority continues to urge Texans to conserve water. Central Texas' rainfall levels are 17 and a half inches below average.

LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose said it could be months before lake levels return to normal, if past droughts are any indication.

Photo by EPI2oh http://www.flickr.com/photos/epi2oh/

To feed its energy demands, the United States is looking for energy in increasingly far-flung environments such as: Ultra-deep offshore oil wells, the Arctic, shale rock formations 20,000 feet underground. The risks involved are often greater, but the industry lacks a set of “best practices” for these new frontiers of energy exploration.

That's a need that researchers at the University of Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hope to fill. Scientists at both colleges are teaming up to create some guidelines for industry. Their focus would range from guiding principles to government policies to the engineering needs required to reduce environmental impact.

Photo by three_sixteen http://www.flickr.com/photos/three_sixteen/

Republicans in the US House could vote as soon as today on a measure sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) that would repeal laws on light bulb efficiency.  Texas has already adopted a law that exempts incandescent bulbs made in Texas from the federal regulations.

Photo coutesy Galveston.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/galvestonisland/

A new Schiltterbahn water park will open in two years in Cedar Park. It’s slated to be smaller than the New Braunfels location. Officials say plans for the park take into consideration frequent drought conditions in Central Texas, much like the region is experiencing now.

Photo by Prashant Maxsteel http://www.flickr.com/photos/prashantmaxsteel/

The drought presents both good and bad news for Austinites struggling with insect and pest populations. Ants and mosquitos are in decline right now, while spider mites and chinch bugs are thriving.  

Texas Agri-Life entomologist Wizzie Brown says that hot dry conditions are good for some insect populations and bad for others. She says the number of fire ants at ground level and mosquito populations drop during droughts.

Photo by PaddyMurphy http://www.flickr.com/photos/paddymurphy/

There's a glimmer of hope for the Llano water supply. The city's primary water supply, the Llano River, was about to dry up. Emergency reservoirs would have enough water to supply the city for between 60 and 90 days. But officials have located an underground water source that could ease the water situation.

Llano City Manager Finley deGraffenried says water from a 200-foot-deep well struck yesterday is yielding about 100 gallons per minute, which will help a little.

Photo by KUT News

"I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree," wrote Joyce Kilmer almost a century ago. The City of Austin is taking nominations for the loveliest of trees to honor as the 2011 "Tree of the Year."

Today's the last day to nominate a tree to be this year's honoree. The tree can be in any part of Austin. It can be any species of tree, but there are some eligibility requirements.

Photo by agrilifetoday http://www.flickr.com/photos/agrilifetoday/

Calling it “one of the worst droughts in more than a century”, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has named 213 of Texas’ 254 counties as primary natural disaster areas. The measure allows farmers and ranchers to apply for federal disaster aid. The remaining 41 counties also qualify for assistance because they are contiguous.

What is SXSW Eco?

Jun 28, 2011

South by Southwest is adding another conference to its roster of music, film, interactive, and education forums.

It will be called SXSW Eco. The focus will be on finding ways to make humanity more ecologically sustainable. Unlike other SXSW forums, this conference will run from October 4-6. Early tickets are $800.

We called SXSW managing director Roland Swenson to find out more.

KUT News: What is this South by Southwest Eco conference?

Photo by hummyhummy http://www.flickr.com/photos/hummyhummy/

If you like Dillo Dirt, that repurposed sewer sludge used to condition soil, have we got news for you. The Austin Water utility says it will soon be able to create twice as much Dillo Dirt as before.

Austin Water says it completed a new 15-acre compost pad six months ahead of schedule and $6 million under budget. That will allow it to ramp up Dillo Dirt production from 40,000 to 80,000 cubic feet per year.

Graphic courtesy the EPA

The North Texas Barnett Shale has been added to an Environmental Protection Agency study. The congressionally mandated report will look into potential affects of hydraulic fracturing on water resources.

Photo by phault http://www.flickr.com/photos/pjh/

One of the great contradictions of Texas is that, while we are the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the United States, we also generate far more wind power than any other state. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, to find a company pushing to build the largest offshore wind farm in the country is based right here in Austin.

Technically, any offshore wind farm would be the largest in the U.S. That's because none exist yet, even though many projects are in the works. But Austin-based Baryonyx Corporation, with an office in the Littlefield Building on E. 6th St., hopes to construct a 200 turbine wind farm off the Gulf Coast with enough capacity to power 750,000 homes.

Image Courtesy of the Texas Office of the Attorney General

A statement issued today by Attorney General Greg Abbott says the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by “timing” and “tailoring” are unlawful and unconstitutional.

Photo by daver6@sbcglobal.net http://www.flickr.com/photos/daver6/

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro announced today that City Public Service's Deely coal-fired plant will be shut down by 2018.  CPS Energy, San Antonio's publicly-owned utility, will turn to solar power announcing agreements with five investment partners, committing to meet 20% of its energy needs through renewable energy by 2020. 

"Today is the beginning of San Antonio's effort to become the 'new energy economy' city," said Mayor Castro in a live webcast today.

The CPS Deely plant is the first publically-owned coal plant announced to retire in Texas.

Photo courtesy of the LCRA.

Remember those urban legends about about alligators in the sewers?

How about 'gators in Lake Travis?

A fisherman came across a dead alligator on the shores of Lake Travis Tuesday. A spokesperson for the LCRA said the creature measured three to four feet in length (other reports put its size at six feet). It looked as though it was struck by a boat propeller.

Photo by kjoyner666 http://www.flickr.com/photos/delusionary/

The city’s and county’s move to ban all fireworks, public and private, for the Fourth of July weekend seem like a bummer to some people, but when you examine at the local drought conditions, it’s hard to blame them.  The US Drought Monitor Map shows the entire region is in “exceptional” drought, which is the worst category they have.

Photo by jdeeringdavis http://www.flickr.com/photos/hayesandjenn/

Water fountains at the University of Texas at Austin will go dry on Monday as UT begins implementing voluntary Stage 2 water conservation measures. UT expects doing this will save more than 300,000 gallons each month on the 40 acres.

Photo by Mose Buchele for KUT News

Updated for Correction

Austin is one of ten model cities for environmentally friendly infrastructure, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Specifically, the EPA says the Lundelius-McDaniels Water Quality Pond – a natural water filter in South Austin that removes pollutants from storm runoff draining back into the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer.

Photo by Photography JW http://www.flickr.com/photos/zedekiah12/

The board of the Lower Colorado River Authority wasted no time in naming a long-time staffer to take over as the organization's general manager, following the resignation of Tom Mason (pictured) a week ago.

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