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

Update at 11:30 a.m. ET: Oil giant BP has agreed to plead guilty to criminal misconduct related to the 2010 Gulf Oil spill and will pay a record $4 billion in criminal penalties, the company just confirmed. And it will pay $525 million in civil penalties in a resolution with the Securities and Exchanges Commission. BP will make the payments over six years.

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service has issued a freeze warning for Central Texas tonight.

Temperatures are expected to keep falling this evening into early Wednesday morning, leading the NWS to issue a freeze warning for Travis County and surrounding counties. It begins at 3 a.m. and currently runs through 9 a.m. Austin is expecting highs in the mid-to-high 60s tomorrow, according to AccuWeather.

You can stay up on current conditions through the NWS website.

Callie Richmond for Texas Tribune

Subjects like solar panels and smart-grid technologies become a topic of discussion at plenty of Austin happy hours. But when dozens of people gathered at a lakeside bar earlier this month, the talk drifted toward oil prices, shale plays and hydraulic fracturing.

“When you think Austin, you don’t think oil and gas,” said David Tovar, a geoscience technician at Three Rivers, an oil and gas company based in Austin, as he held a pint of Texas brew. The native Texan ended up at Three Rivers after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a geological sciences degree.

Despite its “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and passion for clean energy, Austin is increasingly attracting oil and gas companies like Three Rivers, a small firm founded in 2009 that focuses on oil development in West Texas and New Mexico, aided by the high oil prices of recent years. Austin’s oil industry, about 4,000 workers strong, is still dwarfed by Houston and Dallas. But the city’s entrepreneurial bent and reputation as an attractive place to live, along with the top-tier petroleum engineering program at UT, have trumped the fact that Austin is far from the oilfields.

courtesy flickr.com/jonathanyoungblood

Austin’s commitment to becoming a “zero waste” city by 2040 came into question today, as the City Council approved adding exemptions to the plastic bag ban that takes effect in March 2013.

Restaurants will now be exempt from the bag ban. Some citizens expressed that the exemption deviates from the goals of the original ban and provides too big of a loophole. (Whole Foods, Central Market and Wheatsville Co-op all serve hot dishes, for example.) 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell disagrees. "This is addressing in a meaningful way something that's a real problem," Leffingwell said, "and we've done that for other uses of plastic bags where we've seen that there's not a reasonable alternative – newspapers, dry cleaning for example. I think it's pretty obvious once you think about it – obviously we didn't think about it [then], but once you do think about carrying out a bag full of barbeque sauce in a paper bag, it's not a good idea."

National Weather Service

Areas east of I-35 and the Austin metro area may see some severe storms this evening as a cold front moves through.

Forecasters say the main threats are wind and possibly large hail.  Rainfall is expected to be light and spotty – although some areas may get up to one inch of rain.

The National Weather Service has a severe thunderstorm watch in effect for parts of the eastern Central Texas until 9 p.m.; no watch has been issued for Travis County, but the NWS has issued a “hazardous weather outlook.”

flickr.com/TooFarNorth

The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services department is warning drivers to be on high alert for deer in the road during November and December.

These two months are what’s known as the “rut,” or deer mating season. During this time, deer can be inattentive to their surroundings and are more likely to dart out into the road and into the path of an oncoming car.

According to data released by the City of Austin and APD, there were 50 deer-involved collisions in 2011.  There have been 11 so far this year. Nationwide, research has found that approximately 200 people a year in the United States die in deer-related car accidents. Eighteen percent of all accidents involving deer occur during November. December is the third most common month for accidents involving deer.

Following Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received good grades from politicians and even some survivors of the storm. In part, that's due to lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.

For Staten Island resident Deb Smith, whose house was flooded by the storm surge from Sandy, FEMA has been a savior.

Here are a few reasons government forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and emergency management officials are so concerned about Sandy:

1. Sandy is one of the largest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. Sandy's winds cover an area of more than 1,000 miles in diameter. That's enormous by hurricane standards. So instead of affecting an area a couple of hundred miles across, Sandy will cut a huge swath. That means many millions of people are probably going to be exposed to high winds, heavy rains, and, for those on the coast, powerful storm surge.

Cory John O'Quinn via Texas Tribune

In recent years, Texas’ state parks havestruggled with falling visitor numbers and budget cuts. These days, in their quest to lure people back, the parks are promoting opportunities for night-sky viewing, away from city lights.

flickr.com/pyxopotamus

The State of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency have been battling over air permits for years. But now it looks like there's an official agreement between the two.

This week the EPA announced its final approval of revisions to the state's permitting program for "major air pollution sources." But "final" may be something of a misnomer, because the two sides actually announced an agreement on the program way back in June.

KUT News' pals at StateImpact Texas covered the announcement then. Here's a little bit from their report:

So what are the changes exactly? Under the PALS program, emissions monitoring is done on specific units at each site under an overall emissions cap, as opposed to a blanket site-wide cap with no specific unit monitoring as before. “Even though they create some flexibility for those units, they don’t allow you to cover an entire site with pollution limits,” Soward says. The EPA also says the new program requires continuous monitoring.

Jason French, Texas Tribune

It might not be the safest week to mention this, but here goes:

The Texas longhorns owe their survival in large part to Oklahoma.

Oklahoma and the federal government, that is.

We’re talking cattle, of course, not football. Here’s what happened: A century ago, the longhorn breed teetered on the edge of extinction. After the Civil War, the great herds that had lumbered up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to the railways depots in Kansas for shipment east had suddenly fallen out of favor. Texas ranchers had become enamored with Herefords and Angus, which grew faster and were often less cantankerous than the lean, hardy longhorn, which was descended from Spanish and Anglo cattle and had sometimes roamed wild.

flickr.com/a_siegel/

Mincheol Kwon is a visiting reporter at KUT. He hails from CBS-Christian Broadcasting System, a South Korean radio station in Seoul. He is also studying audio journalism at the Journalism School of Texas State University at San Marcos.

Planning a summertime trip to Texas? It makes sense to worry about the heat. But you might also give some thought to exactly the opposite.

“I have to live with the cold!” said UT graduate student Taehyun Cho on a recent afternoon.

He’s talking about Texans’ tendency to crank up the AC to near-arctic levels.

"Exposed to the heat [outside] and then suddenly to the cold, my biological rhythm has broken,” said Cho. “Today I was in class shivering."

The extreme fluctuations between indoor and outdoor temperatures may seem normal to many locals, but it strikes people from other cultures not just as strange, but as unhealthy. In Korea, they even have a word for it. It roughly translates as “air conditioning-itis.”

KUT News

New recycling rules, aiming to divert 90 percent of waste from Austin landfills by 2040, go into effect today.

The new ordinance requires more office buildings and apartments to provide recycling opportunities to employees and tenants. Apartments with 75 or more units, and commercial buildings 100,000 square feet and larger, now have to offer recycling in addition to waste disposal.

Each year, this ordinance will tighten to include smaller properties. By October 2013 it will encompass apartments with 50 or more units, and commercial properties of 75,000 square feet and larger. By 2014, it will include apartments with 26 or more units and properties 50,000 square feet and up.

sustainability.gov/

A series of small earthquakes in the Dallas region over the weekend are reviving discussion of the link between quakes and the oil and gas industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Fracking is the practice of pumping hydraulic fracturing fluid into wells to break up and extract oil shale and natural gas deposits. Just how fracking is linked to earthquakes is a hot topic around the country, Texas especially.

The Dallas Morning News reports two quakes rattled the Dallas region on Saturday, followed by another quake on Sunday. Both quakes were in the Barnett Shale, which is rich in natural gas.

StateImpact Texas writes that it’s not the actual act of fracking itself that leads to earthquakes, but rather the disposal of the fracking fluid remaining after the process, which is usually shot into disposal wells deep underground.

National Weather Service

The Central Texas area is expecting heavy rainfall and flash flooding this evening, with rain continuing over the next few days. Forecasters predict rainfall totals will average three to four inches, and could reach six to eight inches in some areas.

A flash flood watch for Travis County goes into effect at 6 p.m. tonight, and will remain in effect through Saturday evening. Bob Rose, chief meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, predicts the heaviest rain will begin to fall after dark and will continue through the morning.

You can learn more from the National Weather Service and the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which is monitoring the flooding risks.

The city is also preparing for a flood of a different sort: the deluge of lost pets that end up in animal shelters after a storm.

flickr.com/sarah_mccans/

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 2012 is SXSW Eco's first year. KUT News regrets the error. 

SXSW Eco will kick-off next week. But it's a niche that the Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair in Fredericksburg first tapped into 12 years ago.

The 2012 festival is this weekend, from Sept. 29 to 30.

The roundup will concentrate not so much on policy but on practice —what Texans can do everyday to make the world a little greener. Panels include "How to Grow Your Own Groceries," "Growing Herbs and Making Your Own Vinegar,"  "Hot Attics: Turning a Problem into a Resource," and even "Green Smoothies."

There are also hands-on workshops about collecting rainwater and solar energy.

Balcones Recycling

Austin is another step closer to its goal of reaching Zero Waste by 2040, with the opening of a new facility to handle over half the city’s recyclables.  

Austin has banned the use of single-use shopping bags, allowed residents to opt out of excessive mailing programs, and tried to educate the youth. And now, starting in October, 60 percent of Austin’s recycling will be funneled through Balcones Resources.

In the spring of 2011, the Austin City Council unanimously agreed to sign a 20-year deal with Balcones Resources to sort, bundle and sell 60 percent of Austin’s recyclables at its newly-built plant in northast Austin.

The new $25 million facility is a single-stream recycling center – which means it sorts and processes all the various recyclables (paper, glass and plastic) commingling in Austin Resource Recovery bins. Balcones says the center will be capable of processing 25 tons of single-stream recyclables.

flickr.com/usfwsmidwest

You might see and smell smoke near Kyle and Buda this afternoon.

Austin Water's Wildland Conservation Division is planning to conduct a prescribed burn at the Onion Creek Management Unit off FM 150 west of Kyle.

The burn will cover more than 500 acres and should go on between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Kevin Thuesen is the Environmental Conservation Program Manager for the City of Austin. He says people shouldn’t be concerned.

flickr.com/chimchim

Central Texas is under an Ozone Watch today and tomorrow.

Watches are usually issued during the summer months when the temperatures are higher and humidity is lower.  And so far this year the area is already dangerously close to exceeding EPA standards. Austin sits at a 74 parts-per-billion average for ozone. If that average jumps to 75 PPB, the area will be in non-compliance. 

“If we get one day at one site in particular, like our Northwest Austin site which has a 79 parts-per-billion eight-hour average … one more at that level will throw us into non-compliance," says Bryan Lambeth, senior meteorologist at Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Deana Altenhoff, Executive Director of the CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas, agrees. "Ozone season ends October 31st," Altenhoff says. "This is our most critical time of the year because historically this is when we see our highest levels of ozone." 

flickr.com/garthimage

The weekend rain may have killed off some adult mosquitoes. But now it means a potential boom for mosquito breeding as standing water collects.

Experts say it’s a good idea to dump any standing water around your home—especially as West Nile virus continues to be a problem in the area.

“One thing that we may have going for us right now is that the temperature has dropped which will take a longer period for those mosquitoes to develop and so the water might dry up in time so that we don’t have quite as many emerging out,” Texas AgriLife Extension Office Program Specialist Wizzie Brown says.

LCRA

Recent rainfall is helping to fill the Highland Lakes—at least a little bit.

Parts of Central Texas received more than two inches of rain on Sunday. Combined with rainfall from earlier last week, rainfall totals for some areas topped nine inches.

The Lower Colorado River Authority says the water level of Lake Travis is up a little over a foot. Lake Buchanan only saw a gain of a few hundredths of an inch.

"The location of the rain makes all the difference and, in this case, the vast majority of the rain fell over the Highland Lakes basin," LCRA river operations center supervisor Dan Yates says.

National Weather Service

With Travis County receiving several inches of rain in the last 24 hours, a burn ban for the county is no longer in effect. 

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee lifted the burn ban for the region today. It was initially scheduled to last until Oct. 3. The lift will be in effect until  at least Sept. 18, when the county commissioners court will consider the ban once more.

Officials still remind citizens to abide by state regulations when burning any materials outdoors. You can find more information on the fire marshall’s website

National Weather Service

More rain chances and cooler temperatures are on tap for Austin.

The National Weather Service predicts a cold front and continuing rain chances in South Central Texas tonight. By Friday, that will mean lows in the mid-60s and a high in mid-80s for the Austin region. The NWS predicts a high chance of rain for Central Texas as well – an inch to an inch and a half, with two to four inches possible in regions south of Austin. You can always check the latest rainfall totals here.

The rain chances and cooler temperatures are predicted to stick around all weekend.

National Weather Service

Much anticipated relief from triple-digit temperatures is coming Saturday – but at a cost.

As KUT News reported yesterday, a dry cold front blowing in tomorrow is creating an elevated wildfire risk.

While Saturday’s high temperature is expected to be a comparatively cool 92 degrees, wind is coming from the north at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.  Travis County Fire Marshall Hershel Lee says those conditions remind him of last year’s Memorial Day weekend, when wildfires broke out all over Central Texas.

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service is warning about dangerous fire weather this weekend – what it calls "near critical fire weather conditions" beginning Saturday.

Friday is expected to bring record highs to the region. Then a mostly dry cold front will bring strong winds on Saturday morning and the winds will get stronger as the day passes – 15 to 25 mph and gusty, the NWS says.

Some thunderstorms forecast for Saturday could produce dry lightning, which could cause wildfires to break out.

Burn bans are currently effect in Travis, Hays, Williamson, Burnet and Blanco counties. 

flickr.com/vabachi

Travis County commissioners voted unanimously this morning to extend the burn ban into October. The county is still in a moderate drought and we’ve had several days of record breaking temperatures and low relative humidity.

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee says the burn ban appears to be working. 

“I have spoken with several of the fire chiefs out west this morning where the county is the driest, and they are reporting very little activity other than a few runs for people who are burning when they should not have been, and between the fire departments and the sheriff’s office, they have taken care of those," Lee says.

Austin Water Utility

The City of Austin is implementing Stage 2 water restrictions starting Tuesday because of declining lake levels, but the rules will be slightly different than before.

“The combined lake levels between Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis has been the trigger,” Austin Water Utility spokesperson Jason Hill said. “It looks as if those two lakes combined will hit that 900,000 acre-foot trigger or go below it in the next week or so.”

The Lower Colorado River Authority says the lakes are currently 45 percent full and contain about 905,499 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre one-foot-deep in water. It amounts to 325,851 gallons, or enough to supply two to three households for a year.

Mark Dewey for KUT News

Central Texas remains ready to help out with potential evacuees, as Hurricane Isaac – which was just downgraded to a tropical storm – moves slowly through southern Louisiana.

It’s not yet clear if the Red Cross will need to provide storm shelter in Austin. "We have shelters identified and teams of volunteers prepared to manage those shelters, though we haven’t seen those evacuees yet,” American Red Cross Central Texas Region Spokesperson Sara Kennedy says.

Kennedy adds that in Dallas, Red Cross shelters are now open.  But she says they haven’t seen very many evacuees so far.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell says in a statement that the City of Austin will provide help too, should it be needed.  

The Latest at 10:20 p.m. ET. More Than 650,000 Power Outages In La.

That tidbit emerged in a letter from gov. Bobby Jindal to President Obama in which he requested expedited major disaster declaration for the state as a result of damage caused by Isaac.

Here's more from the letter:

The Latest At 11:06 P.M. ET Little Change In Strength

The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Isaac will continue moving near or over the southeastern coast of Louisiana on Tuesday night, and move inland during the next day or so.

"Little change in strength is forecast tonight," it said at 10 p.m. CDT. "Slow weakening is expected after that."

As we reported earlier, widespread flooding was expected. Isaac was moving toward Baton Rouge, La.

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