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 Teresa Vieira for KUT News

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took aim at the Obama administration this morning, with a call for the president to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would end at the Texas Gulf Coast.

Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue claimed in his annual “State of American Business” address that “This project has passed every environmental test. There is no legitimate reason—none at all—to subject it to further delay.”

But the National Resources Defense Council says the Chamber is waging a “disinformation campaign” on the pipeline’s behalf.

The largest solar farm in Texas is now pumping power to homes across Austin. The $100 million facility was switched on last month and city officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony today.

The solar farm is located about 20 miles east of Austin in Webbervile. Its footprint covers 380 acres, which is about the size of Zilker Park. And it has 127,000 solar panels that slowly shift to follow the sun’s path.

The solar farm can generate up to 30 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes. The energy is being dispersed throughout Austin Energy’s grid. While the solar array can't provide power all the time, it could provide big benefits during the hot, sunny days of summer. 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has warned that Texas could have a hard time meeting energy demand if the summer of 2012 is the summer of 2011, when the state was brought to the brink of rolling blackouts. And ERCOT chief Trip Doggett couldn’t say the Webberville solar farm would be able to solve those challenges.

Photo by KUT News

A federal appeals court in Washington, DC granted the State of Texas a stay today against new EPA air pollution regulations that take effect next year.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule would require some coal plants in Texas to retrofit their equipment or to switch to a higher-grade coal fuel, in order to meet new sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission rules.

The injunction sets the stage for an court hearing in April.

Now that BP is resuming oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the energy giant is looking to revive its image among those who remember the tragic Deepwater Horizon leak that spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in 2010.

BP won eleven tracts in the latest lease sale in the Gulf, which was the first since the well blowout that caused eleven deaths, Forbes.com reports.

Photo by Tom Pennington

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule on Wednesday aimed at reducing the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. It is unlikely to improve Texas officials' low opinion of the agency.

"This is a victory for public health, especially the health of our children," said Lisa Jackson, the EPA's head, as she announced the rules at a children's medical center in Washington, D.C.

The rules will take full effect in 2016, Jackson said. "Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases," she said.

Photo by Keystone Pipeline System

Protestors gathered in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Austin this afternoon to denounce a deal struck in Congress that would extend a payroll tax cut by two months in exchange for a measure to speed up a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. The transcontinental pipeline would transport oil from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.  

One of the major sticking points between the House and the Senate as they face off over end-of-year legislation is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The bill the House passed Tuesday contains a provision forcing President Obama to decide on the pipeline within 60 days.

Republicans say this project should move ahead quickly because it will create thousands of jobs. But just how many jobs would be created is a matter of contention.

Photo by I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News

Representatives from Austin Energy met with the City Council today to discuss a 12.5 percent rate and fee increase to be implemented in April of next year. Much of the discussion centered on how churches and schools will pay for the rate increase. 

In a report released Thursday, the state's electric grid operator indicated that next summer could see a repeat of the rolling blackout threats that plagued Texas past summer. The reason: rising demand for electricity and some power plants going offline.

"If we stay in the current cycle of hot and dry summers, we will be very tight on capacity next summer and have a repeat of this year's emergency procedures and conservation appeals," Trip Doggett, chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), said in a statement.

If crazy weather — like the deep freeze in February that caused large numbers of power plants to break down — hits again this winter, outages could also result then, the report said. But Doggett put the risk of this happening in the wintertime as "very low."

Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hamilton Pool, Stillhouse Hollow, and Bull Creek near Loop 360 have all tested for levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria that exceeded both state and federal standards, according to an analysis of government data by Environment Texas. Some strains of E. coli can make adults sick and cause kidney failure among young children and the elderly.

The Environment Texas report released today – What Else is Swimming in Your Favorite Texas Swimming Hole? – used data from the City of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority and other official sources to draw these conclusions:

We’re not sure if there’s any timely reason for the University of Texas to warn people not to touch bats, but it’s probably a good reminder: 

Environmental Health and Safety and the Office of the Vice President for University Operations want to remind you that Austin has a significant bat population. Bats are considered a high-rabies risk species and like all wildlife, should never be touched.  

Photo by FLC http://www.flickr.com/photos/flc/

If you’ve been wanting to pitch a tent and light a campfire, or burn off some of the brush on your property, you've got about seven days to get ‘er done. Travis County Commissioners unanimously voted to lift the burn ban for a week on the advice of the county Fire Marshal Hershel Lee.

“I reviewed the forecast, took into account the recent rains, spoke with most of the local fire department fire chiefs, and taking all that information together, made the recommendation to the court to lift the burn ban for one week,” Lee told KUT News.

Photo by Anne Lise Norheim, Halliburton http://www.flickr.com/photos/olfnorge/

Natural gas extraction on the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas has developed to the point that the oil field services company Halliburton has decided to build a $50 million operations base in San Antonio.

The Houston-based company announced yesterday that it is looking to hire 1,500 people to staff the center. Annual salaries will average $70,000, the Houston Chronicle reports.

When Halliburton reported its quarterly earnings last month, it announced record breaking profits at its North American operations: more than $1 billion. Much of that was on the back of the booming natural gas industry, which has taken off with technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – a practice that allows access to natural gas stored in shale rock 5,000 feet underground.

Adam J. White is an attorney and journalist living in Arlington, Virginia.

American energy policy is increasingly defined in terms of what is prohibited, not what is promoted. Coal, nuclear, and natural "shale" gas all have been hampered by the current administration. And the last three weeks have offered two more examples of how America's byzantine energy laws and policy deter innovation.

Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A federal judge has dealt oil giant BP a pair of setbacks in its efforts to shield itself from billions of dollars in damage claims related to last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, a judge ruled that BP is not covered under insurance policies worth $750 million held by the owner of the Deepwater Horizon, Transocean Ltd.

Photo by KUT News

According to a report published today – on America Recycles Day – a national investment in recycling would create more than 1.5 million jobs over the next twenty years. 

“More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S.,” compiled by the Tellus Institute for Blue Green Alliance, Teamsters, SEIU, NRDC, Recycling Works, and GAIA, says about 75% of the nation’s waste can and should be recycled and that environmental benefits like reduced pollution and energy savings will accompany bottom line growth.

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

When the temperatures drop and the skies become overcast, it might be easy to forget that we are still in the worst single-year drought in Texas history. But as the Lower Colorado River Authority points out, the cooler weather should not be mistaken for drought relief.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, our region’s water supply reservoirs, are 37 percent full. Lake Travis is 41 feet below its monthly average. Lake Buchanan is 23 feet lower than its average, causing a piece of land normally underwater to become visible.

Not only is “Sometimes Island” in plain view, the Statesman reports, but for the first time since the 60’s, you don’t even need a boat to get to it.

A final decision on building a new oil pipeline to connect Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries near the Gulf of Mexico will not be made until after the 2012 presidential election, the State Department said Thursday.

TransCanada's proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline had come under pressure from environmentalists, as well as government officials in Nebraska. It would cost an estimated $7 billion to build.

The 2012 presidential election could be close, with President Obama needing support from every segment of his political base to win re-election.

So the president's move (made through the State Department) to delay his controversial decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until beyond Election Day 2012 isn't really a shocker. The White House, for the record, denies that politics played a role in the decision.

Photo courtesy of the City of Austin by Mark Sanders.

A city biologist told the Austin City Council yesterday that the Jollyville Plateau Salamander has the potential to delay construction on the city's Water Treatment Plant Four.

At its work session Tuesday, city staff briefed the Council on what the construction and planning team of WTP4 is doing to lessen environmental impacts caused by the Jollyville transmission main and the four access shaft sites.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Voters have approved the controversial container ban in New Braunfels. Nearly 9,000 people – 27 percent of registered voters – cast ballots in Tuesday’s election.

Of those, 58 percent voted in favor of the ban on disposable containers on the Comal River and the Guadalupe River in the city limits.

Support The Ban PAC spokeswoman Kathleen Krueger is pleased with the outcome.

“I’m proud of New Braunfels,” Krueger said. “I’m not surprised that this is how the vote went, because I’ve lived in this community for 30 years. I know that we cherish our rivers and I’m proud that we have protected them for the next generation.”

Map created by NPR, CPI, and StateImpact

Today, NPR, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and StateImpact launched a new series investigating air pollution and regulation across the country. The series is entitled, "Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities." StateImpact has more on the project on its website.

Photo by Eddie Seal, Texas Tribune

An earthquake hit outside of Oklahoma City on Saturday night. The magnitude 5.6 quake was the strongest in Oklahoma history. The US Geological Survey has released an initial report on the quake, but has not yet given an official cause.

Photo by KUT News

This Wednesday, don't be alarmed if you turn on your radio or TV and hear an Emergency Alert System test. The test will be run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Photo by I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News

The Texas drought has been in effect for about a year now, give or take a month depending on whom you ask.

Thousands of demonstrators ringed the White House on Sunday afternoon, demanding that President Obama deny permission for a proposed pipeline to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas.

Business and labor groups support the Keystone XL project; many environmentalists oppose it. But deliberations in Nebraska may play a decisive role.

Part 1 of a four-part series, Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities

The system Congress set up 21 years ago to clean up toxic air pollution still leaves many communities exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals.

Photo by Muliadi Soenaryo for the Texas Tribune

In Texas House and Senate hearings this week, state lawmakers heard repeatedly about the crisis created by the record-breaking drought — and the need for Texans to conserve water.

One elected official who has lagged on this front is U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

From October 2010 through September 2011 — a time period that corresponds almost exactly to the first 12 months of the drought — a property belonging to McCaul and his wife was the sixth-largest water user among all Austin residential customers, according to records obtained from Austin's water utility. The McCauls' water consumption, 1.4 million gallons over those 12 months, comes to about 15 times the consumption of the average Austin home over that time.

Photo by Alan English http://www.flickr.com/photos/alanenglish/

Wild donkeys, also known as burros, are wandering into Texas from Mexico. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers about 300 burros in Big Bend to be destructive intruders that hog food and water needed by the park's native species.  

Brent Leisure with Texas State Parks and Wildlife says they’re dealing with the problem by hunting the burros.

“We’re managing for indigenous native plant and animal communities, and that not being a part of it, we do know that the burros have a negative impact and effect on native wildlife and plants,” Leisure said.

The City of Austin is still in the early design stages of a project to fix the eroding banks along Shoal Creek. KUT took a tour of the creek erosion in Pease Park this week with one of the city’s civil engineers.

“Probably 30 or 40 years ago, they used a lot of concrete or rock filled wire baskets, which also break down over time,” Morgan Byars with the City of Austin's Watershed Protection Department said. “We’re trying to use more sustainable solutions that can last centuries.”

Check out the video above for an example of what he’s talking about.

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