Author Archives: Damien Brockmann

Lone Star Chapter Issues Statement on Seismic Activity Related to Oil and Gas Extraction

Austin – Saying it was “time to act,” Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club told the House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity today that induced seismic activity resulting from oil and gas activity is real and the public needs protection.

“We can’t keep pretending that we do not understand what is causing earthquakes in North Texas,” Reed told the special committee. “These statewide elected officials have been sitting on this issue for years, and it is time for our political leaders to act to prevent future induced seismic activity from oil and gas waste injection,.”

In his testimony, Reed pointed out that since November of 2013, Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than any other continental state, including California, and the majority of these quakes have been linked to underground injection of oil and gas wastes. Other known activity that has been linked to waste injection includes Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado and Texas. In Texas alone dozens of incidences of seismic activity has occurred over the last year, particularly in North Texas.

Reed called on the Legislature to put specific requirements in Texas statute to require a seismic analysis of any major injection well, require pre-monitoring and post-monitoring seismicity of injection wells, and create specific permit conditions that would allow for both mitigation and stopping injection if seismic activity occurred.

Reed added, “Other states like Arkansas and Ohio have already acted to protect the public. Let’s let Oklahoma be No. 1 in earthquakes. Texas should be No. 1 in protecting the public.”

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National Climate Assessment Shows Urgent Need for Action to Protect Texas Families

Austin — A national committee of experts in agriculture, climate science, commerce, and disaster relief released its National Climate Assessment (NCA) today. The report is the nation’s foremost comprehensive, peer-reviewed analysis of the impacts of climate disruption, showing us the effects of climate change in Texas and across the country.

The NCA explains what many Texans already know far to well: “Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy.”   Communities across the state are scrambling to secure their water supplies for future growth; our agriculture production is yielding less, while prices are soaring; water customers are watching their bills creep up even as they use less water. According to the report, this will inevitably constrain development in many parts of the region, stress natural resources, and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs.

The Texas coast is also heavily impacted by climate disruption, averaging about three tropical storms or hurricanes ever four years. According to the NCA, all of the Gulf Coast states “already face losses that annually average $14 billion from hurricane winds, land subsidence, and sea level rise.”

“This report clearly lays out the threats to our children’s health and the economic security of Texas families who are already dealing with the impacts of man-made climate disruption,” commented Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter Director Scheleen Walker. “The well-financed nay-saying by climate-change deniers must stop.  Humans are the primary cause of climate disruption, and it is up to us to take responsibility for it. We must do so for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”

“The need to move away from dirty fossil fuels such as coal and fracked gas, the leading sources of climate-disrupting carbon pollution, could not be clearer or more urgent,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “It’s time that we as a nation end our dependence on fossil fuels and hasten the shift to readily available, cost-effective clean energy sources, like wind and solar. Today’s climate report shows the cost of inaction is far too great.”

More than 240 authors from across the country with diverse expertise helped create the National Climate Assessment. The findings are considered conservative estimates of the impacts of climate disruption. The full report including details of the cost to Texas’ families of climate disruptions can be found at http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report

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Multiple New Reports Show Energy Efficiency Can Save Texas Businesses and Families More — Much Less Costly Than New Electric Power Sources

efficencyThis past month, Texas’ investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities filed their annual energy efficiency reports with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) reporting on the savings produced through the state’s energy efficiency program. The results demonstrated that the programs are reaching their potential, but much more can be done.

The filings indicated that the 10 utilities reduced over 415 megawatts (MW) of peak electric demand in 2013, while saving Texas consumers nearly 550,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy through energy efficiency programs. The utilities reported that their 2014 program offerings are expected to produce a similar, but slightly lower amount of additional peak energy demand reduction and energy savings.

One MW is enough to power about 200 homes during periods when electric use is highest and about 500 homes during mild weather when less electricity is being consumed.

Furthermore, the 10 utilities only spent $136 million on these programs in 2013, meaning that the average cost per kilowatt of demand reduced was $328 and the average cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) saved was less than 3 cents per kWh, based on the 11-year average lifespan of the programs. Instead of the average home/business having to pay 8 cent to 12 cent for a kWh, these energy efficiency programs enabled the average home/business to avoid using that energy at a cost of less than 3 cents per kWh, while also reducing peak demand at a fraction of the cost to build new generation to meet that peak demand.

The utility reports confirm data from two recent national reports from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that found that statewide utility energy efficiency programs continue to save energy and peak demand at a fraction of the price of generating additional electricity through traditional means. At about three cents per kilowatt hour, Texas programs are in the middle of the cost of programs throughout the nation.

“Once again, the utility energy efficiency programs continue to be a great value for Texas consumers, helping to reduce energy costs while helping meet energy demand through weatherization for working Texans, incentives for green homes, better windows, better air conditioners, better pool pumps and better insulation, as well as demand response to reduce loads during periods of peak demand,” said Cyrus Reed, Chapter Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The average cost of a peak kilowatt reduced was much less than would be required to build a new power plant, while the average kilowatt hour of energy saved over its lifetime was far lower than the average cost for the same amount of energy that would be generated by a traditional power plant.”

While the utilities’ energy efficiency programs continued to grow slightly in 2013, expected demand reduction and energy savings is actually expected to shrink slightly to about 350 MWs of demand reduction and 545,000 MW hours, in the next two years. Two factors are constricting the ability for energy efficiency to realize its full potential.

The Public Utility Commission set strict cost restrictions on the amount of money utilities are allowed to charge the public for the programs, even though the programs themselves must be shown to be cost-effective and save more money than they cost. Thus, utilities can not raise their “Energy Efficiency Cost Recovery Factor” above the cap – except by inflation – set by the PUC in 2012 to pay for the programs, in essence putting an upper limit on the amount of peak demand and energy savings they can help customers achieve.

The second factor is the result of a controversial rule established by the PUC in 2012 allows commercial customers who are connected to an industrial facility to opt out of the programs, which means they neither pay for nor participate in any of the programs, even though they benefit, along with all customers, from lower overall prices and increased reliability because of reduced demand and system benefits. However, as the numbers of participants is lowered, the utility budgets and goals for the programs have shrunk.

“It’s time for the PUC and the Legislature to revisit our cheapest form of meeting our electrical demand, and raise our energy efficiency goals to at least 1 percent of peak demand, raise or eliminate the artificial cost caps and require all commercial and residential customers to participate in the programs,” noted Reed.

Earth Day 2014: Keep the celebration going!

household_cleanersHappy (belated) Earth Day! Some celebrate the entire month of April as Earth Month, but we at the Lone Star Chapter would like to think that we work to protect the environment every day of the year (minus holidays and weekends, of course.)   In an effort to educate the public how each one of us can lessen our impact on the Earth’s resources every day of the year, the EPA has released its list of tips to act on climate change. Here’s a sampling of their tips, with some our own staff picks added to the mix for good measure:

1. Compost your food scraps and yard waste
Composting reduces the amount of waste sitting in landfills by nearly 34%. Everything from your vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, grass clippings, to dryer lint can be composted. Composting can be as simple as throwing your scraps into a well shut container in your kitchen or you can build your own outdoor compost, check out this website to learn how to cheaply build your own.

2. Consider some new options before you clean out that garage or closet.
Before you throw something away to be hauled off to a landfill, consider your options. You could give it away to Goodwill or your local thrift store or post items on websites like Freecycle or Craigslist.  It is also possible to swap your belongings for something new by earning points with Yerdle. Or you could use your creativity to make it into something new.  Check out sites like Pinterest for ways to look at your old unwanteds in a whole new light.

3. Change your light bulbs
Have you not changed all of your light bulbs to Energy Star bulbs yet? According to the EPA, if you and four of your friends replaced five 60-watt light bulbs with 13-watt Energy Star bulbs, it would save over 50,000 pounds of carbon pollution over the life of the bulb. That’s equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 5 passenger vehicles; the carbon pollution associated with 2,780 gallons of gasoline; or 3.4 homes’ electricity use for one year.

4. Bring your reusable bags
Some Texas cities already have or are working towards banning plastic bags. No matter where you live, you can do your part by bringing along a reusable bag when you go shopping. To further cut down on plastic waste, avoid buying bottled water on the run, and instead fill up your own reusable bottle at home to bring with you wherever you go. Don’t forget that you bring along your own coffee mug when going to a coffee shop. Places like Satrbucks will even give you 10% off.

5. Bike!
Ok. We know. In Texas, it’s usually either too dang hot or too dang cold to be outside for more than a nanoescond, but it’s Spring!  Take some time to enjoy the weather while you still can.  If you need to run down to the corner store or gym, how about keeping the car in the garage, and taking the bike out for a spin instead? If your community is not very bike-friendly, get involved with your local government and promote an urban trails program.  Your community will thank you later.

6. Make Cleaners from Home
Household cleaners often contain toxins that are bad for your health and the environment. Instead of spending money on chemical ridden cleaners you can beat the system by making cleaners right in your own kitchen. In fact, chances are pretty good that you already have all of the supplies! Most household cleaners can be made from basic ingredients such as: baking soda, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, fresh herbs and citrus, olive or vegetable oil, and water. For a full  list of how to make everything from bathroom cleaners to laundry detergent to wood polish and beyond, click here.

7. Eat more vegetarian meals
The United Nations reports that 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions results from the livestock supply chain. Feed production and processing, methane produced during animal digestion, manure decomposition, and processing and transporting livestock all factor into this equation. The amount of water used in producing  meat is also thousands of times greater than in vegetable production. By increasing your vegetarian intake you can reduce greenhouse emissions and help save on water.

8. Use Water Sense Showers
Water is becoming an ever more precious resource in Texas. If every home in the United States replaced existing shower heads with WaterSense-labeled models, we could save more than 2.2 billion in water utility bills, prevent carbon pollution and save more than 260 billion gallons of water annually.

9. Fill your dishwasher
You don’t need to jump the gun on washing a half-empty load of dishes. Wait until it’s full. Filling the dishwasher can prevent 100 pounds of carbon pollution and save you $40 per year on your water bill.

10. Use a smart thermostat
A programmable thermostat can save you about $180 every year in energy costs. Some models, allow you to warm and cool your home remotely before you return from a long workday. Check with you utility provider to see if rebates are available in your area.

11. Be a better driver!
Why stop at ten items, when we can add an eleventh?   This one is for you – bad drivers of Texas. (Of course, we’re not talking to you, dear reader.) It turns out that being an overly aggressive, angry driver is not only bad for your mental health (and those around you), it’s not that great for environment either. Aggressive driving can reduce your gas mileage by 33% on the highway and 5% in the city.   That can be a expensive hissy-fit, so invest in some meditation tapes and take the anger off the roads.

An Electric Car Company Makes a Proposition to the Big Oil State

Tesla-gigafactoryTesla, the electric car manufacturer led by Silicon Valley billionaire, Elon Musk, is considering four locations for what would become the world’s largest battery factory, producing 30 gigawatt hours of energy per year. Among the prospective hosts for the gigafactory are Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. The factory is projected to provide $5 billion in direct investment and create approximately 6,500 jobs to the lucky community chosen to host the site.

Wherever the new Tesla plant is built, the factory itself will represent a giant step forward in the effort to create new technologies that reduce our carbon footprint. While adding more fuel-less cars on our roadways would reduce our mobile emissions, Tesla seems to also be mindful of the impact that production of such vehicles can have on the environment and climate. Tesla plans to source only North American raw materials for battery production, and post-production of the battery will only need to be transported to their headquarters in California. The factory itself will be run on solar and wind sources operated at the plant, while using batteries to store excess generated energy.

The plant is projected to increase the company’s production from 35,000 vehicles a year (2013 production) to 500,000 cars a year by 2020. The cost of the battery will be reduced by 30%, eventually allowing Tesla to not only sell luxury vehicles costing over $70,000 but to also sell a sedan at a mere $35,000, the average price for a vehicle.

The timing of this cheaper sedan couldn’t be better for Tesla. The Obama administration has declared that all tailpipe emissions must be reduced by 80% by 2018. If mainstream car companies are forced to compete with a low-cost, zero-emissions alternative, in the not too distant future, an 80% reduction goal might seem conservative in retrospect.

Texas, specifically San Antonio, is one of the most desirable sites for the gigafactory. By placing the factory in Texas, Tesla would extend its influence from California to second largest state in the union. Texas has an ample number of skilled workers available to fill positions at the new plant, and it is also the only state that isn’t landlocked which makes it perfect for exporting new goods. Despite the significant benefits of placing the factory here in Texas, there is a major legislative roadblock preventing Tesla from selecting the Lone Star state.

The greatest threat Musk sees to the success of his electric cars is selling them through a traditional dealership. “Existing franchise dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between selling gasoline cars, which constitute the vast majority of their business and selling the new technology of electric cars,” Musk wrote. For the success of Tesla, Musk sees no other option than direct sale to consumer.

In some states, including Texas, it is illegal for car companies to sell directly to consumers. Car dealers claim that the dealership model encourages a healthy auto market because dealers must compete with other dealers on pricing.  Tesla prefers to sell its products directly to consumers, cutting out the middleman and the additional cost to consumers.

Currently there are two Tesla stores in Texas, located in Austin and in Houston, with a third coming to Dallas. These stores operate legally as “showrooms” with a layout very similar to that of Apple stores. A model car sits on the floor with sales representatives waiting to assist customers. However, in order to comply with the law the salesperson cannot answer questions about leasing, financing, pricing, the reservation process, servicing or warranties; customers aren’t even permitted to test drive the cars.

Why would Tesla want to benefit a state that won’t even allow them to disclose the price of their vehicle? This is the major hurdle that the Texas legislature would have to address before Tesla would give Texas the thumbs up.

Amazingly, Governor Perry seems to side with Tesla, acknowledging that “the cachet of being able to say we put that manufacturing facility in your state is hard to pass up.” Perry believes legislatures need to have the discussion about whether the “antiquated” law still needs to exist, though he has opted to not bring the Legislature back for a special session to consider the issue. The question as to whether the company will wait until 2015 to decide on the location of the new plant – when the Texas Legislature comes back to Austin for its biennial regular session – remains to be seen.

Sierra Club’s Big Bend Grassland Restoration Trip

bigbendLast week, Sierra Club volunteers from across the state converged on Big Bend National Park to assist with the park’s ongoing grassland restoration efforts.   Grasslands in the low-lying flats of the park were devastated by over-grazing in the late 1800’s and early twentieth century when the park land was nothing more than ranch land on the border of Texas and Mexico. In recent years, park officials have been supporting a renewed effort to bring those grassland areas back, along with the flora and fauna that once inhabited it.

The trip was part of the Lone Star Chapter’s efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act by President Johnson in 1964. Under that Act, over 6.8 million acres of land has been established as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System by special Acts of Congress.

The Sierra Club volunteers camped out in the beautifully rugged Chisos Mountain region of the park, and spent their days cutting dead brush – vegetation that had died during the 2011 heat wave and currently presents a potential brush fire hazard to much of the upper basin. The brush was used to spread over swaths of low-lying dessert to protect carefully selected grass seeds spread over the areas where lush grasses once flourished.

In just one week, the group filled 10 truckloads of dead brush – enough to create over 500 feet of grass beds on two acres of land targeted for restoration. According to park officials, it would take over a month for the staff alone with their limited resources to accomplish the same amount of work.

Looking ahead, the Lone Star Chapter intends to work with the state’s Congressional delegation to bring additional funding to the park for its grassland restoration efforts after the initial pilot project and additional study is complete.

You can check-out photos from the trip in the photo album on our Facebook page.

One Year After the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Little has Been Done to Fix Regulatory Issues

west_anniversaryLast week marked one year since a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas killed 15 and injured nearly 180 people, causing an estimated $100 million in damages to local homes, schools and businesses. The accident was an example of a preventable, industrial incident, according to comments filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star of the Sierra Club.

In his remarks to the EPA, Carman emphasized that simple steps would have prevented the fire and subsequent explosion of ammonium nitrate at the plant, including “simply adding a limestone additive to the mixture that would have reduced the likelihood of a fire and explosion.” Carman explained, “Limestone is relatively inexpensive and it does not weaken the fertilizer. The West fertilizer plant already had blending equipment that could have been used for adding and mixing the limestone with the ammonium nitrate.“

In the absence of the EPA acting to address the regulatory issues surrounding Texas fertilizer plants, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) already has the authority to strengthen regulations, yet has not done so.

According to Carman, the TCEQ could take steps today to make fertilizer plants safer — such as requiring limestone to be mixed into the fertilizer, and if a company chooses not to make that decision, it could be required to maintain a quarter-mile perimeter around the facility to protect the public.

Coinciding with the anniversary of the West explosion, the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety held a hearing on the West explosion and considered regulatory options for preventing similar incidents. While many comments at the hearing suggested requiring fertilizers with volatile or explosive properties to be held in concrete or metal buildings to prevent fires, Carman said it is unclear that this would be sufficiently safe.

“Requiring that new warehouses and manufacturing facilities that house dangerous chemicals or fertilizers be constructed of non-flammable materials would be an improvement over current practice, but dilution, buffer zones, better reporting and more frequent inspections must also be considered,” Carman noted.