Celebrating 10 years covering energy and politics in The Lone Star State. 

 

 “It’s government. It really is—it is this attitude that somehow, all of our nation’s problems can be solved in Washington D.C. It’s just not true….” 

— CERA founder Daniel Yergin on the biggest political threat to the new energy renaissance, quoted in World Oil

The TER Buzz:

Update: New Fires Mostly Extinguished at ITC Site in Houston After “Dike” Wall Collapses

March 22, 2019

 

Heavy smoke appears to have ceased from two fires at the site of a spectacular chemical fire earlier this week.

Firefighters worked for more than an hour to control one fire that reignited at two tanks at the Intercontinental Terminal Company in Deer Park southeast of Houston, and another fire in a ditch that resulted from runoff after a retaining wall around the tank farm partially collapsed, spilling a mix of chemicals into the ditch.

Residents and businesses in the area were deeply concerned about 4 pm Friday when new billows of black smoke reminiscent of this week’s earlier fire again began pouring from the ITC site.

Firefighters acted quickly, pouring water and foam on the two fires and within 90 minutes had the smoke and fire down to a smoldering point.

Flare-ups are expected as chemicals are moved around, officials say, and as emergency management officials assess the site.

A key traffic artery, the Beltway 8 Ship Channel Bridge, was shut down temporarily because of reduced visibility caused by the smoke, but was reopened just before 5 pm.

Officials said late Friday afternoon that there are no unusual readings of air pollution, according to Harris County Emergency Management.

Just a few hours ago, businesses adjacent to and near the ITC site were advised to stay indoors after a wall at the ITC partially collapsed.

The warning came from ITC, officials say, not from a government entity such as Deer Park, which has called two precautionary warnings over the past week.

Officials emphasize that the “shelter in place” orders from the City of Deer Park and others on Sunday and Tuesday were not because of any dangerous levels of chemicals found in the air but out of an “abundance of caution” until air pollution readings were released that showed little danger to residents.

Included among those places advised to “shelter in place” on Friday afternoon was the San Jacinto Texas State Historic Site, which is nearby to ITC Deer Park, but the advisory was precautionary and voluntary and came from ITC itself .

Hazardous materials teams have been working to drain the tanks at the yard where seven tanks caught fire earlier this week, while investigators roam the property, but the amount of chemicals to be drained could reach two million.

Also earlier today, the Houston Ship Channel was partially closed (between Light 116 and Tucker Bayou) because of evidence that some chemicals from the burn site spilled into the channel.

 
 

Natural gas generates the most electricity

March 21, 2019

By Alex Mills

 

Natural gas continues its streak as the leading fuel to generate electricity across the U.S.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports natural gas accounted for 62 percent of the new utility-scale additions in 2018 followed by wind with 21 percent and solar photovoltaic with 16 percent.

Overall, 31.3 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity was added last year, which had the largest additions since 2003 with 48.8 GW.

EIA said almost 90 percent of the 19.3 GW of the natural gas-fired capacity in the United States added in 2018 were combined-cycle generators, the most efficient natural gas-fired generating technology.

Most of the additions came in the eastern U.S.

Pennsylvania accounted for almost 25 percent (4.4 GW) of all 2018 domestic natural gas additions, and three other states—Maryland, Virginia, and Florida—accounted for about 30 percent.

New additions powered by wind accounted for 6.6 GW. Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma added a combined 4.0 GW (61 percent) of wind capacity….
 

The ITC Incident Could Have Been Much Worse; O&G and the TCEQ Should Have Local and Vocal Public Representation In These Things: Mike Shiloh

March 21, 2019

 

The news media struggled to explain the use of naphta and Xylene to the petrochemical process but it’s much easier to emphasize their danger than their usefulness; with government and industries in low esteem, rumors and conspiracies rampant, shouldn’t there be a higher profile for state jurisdictional agencies and the oil and gas industry as a whole?

 

An abundance of caution surrounds the alarming fire incident at the Intercontinental Terminals Company and there’s every indication that the aftermath is going smoothly, but there are two important takeaways:

The circumstances under which the inferno happened were actually fortunate for the public considering the height of the toxic plume of smoke — and the petroleum industry together with government should take a moment to note the public interest deficiencies.

It’s my contention that state agencies such as the TCEQ should have vocal representatives to inform the public during petrochemical incidents such as this one.

It’s also my contention that the oil and gas industries should have their own representative at worrisome scenes such as the ITC fire, not for public relations but for public comfort and information.

 

We Were Lucky

 

The weather was with us: The Harris County Meteorologist Jeff Lindner admitted that while the toxic smoke from the tank farm at ITC (owned by the Japanese industrial giant Mitsui) was being carried high above the Houston area, had winds and weather been different it might have been a disaster for people in the path of the smoke, especially the young, the elderly and the infirm.

People who live in the vicinity of the Houston Ship Channel petrochemical complex have always been aware of their vulnerability to the industry that surrounds them and they take incidents like the Saturday fire (extinguished quickly) at a Baytown facility in stride, and there are extraordinary precautions in place for all nearby residents, but even those protocols would have been severely taxed had there been the kind of weather that keeps the winds at ground level.

 

There Was Good Information Flow

 

At the scene of the fire there was no shortage of rumors floating like the billowing smoke: It was arson, some said, terrorism (because of the ExxonMobil fire the day before), there were unattended safety systems, there was outright carelessness, others said, none of these rumors proved to be true.

And there were the usual sensational headlines: “Massive Houston chemical fire burns indefinitely, spreading smoke across Texas” was among the more exaggerated (it would take a lot of smoke to spread across the whole state, and the ITC smoke didn’t even “cover Houston,” as some said), and there are those who said the fire burned for four days (how can you squeeze four days between 10 am Sunday and 2 am Wednesday?).

As late as Thursday there were rumors that winds had shifted and there was danger for those in fast-growing Pearland and points south of the tank farm, also not true.

But county and local officials and especially ITC kept the information flowing: Pollution monitors showed no real short-term danger, monitoring was continuous and there was the needed caution.

No one said everything’s wonderful, just that it appears to be under control, as the firefighting continued.

As with Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County Judge, in this case Lina Hidalgo, made frequent appearances, if only to be a comforting presence and to restate the opinions of experts.

The Railroad Commission’s Ryan Sitton was there to affirm the air safety pronouncements and the ITC spokeswoman, Alice Richardson, appeared prepared for questions and forthright with what answers she had.

 

“There Must Be Some Kind of Coverup”

 

But the lack of confidence in the wider scope of government and the oil and gas industry was palpable for those of us who were there: There must be a coverup of some kind, people kept saying, the smoke is too rancid-looking and the air too thick with chemical smell.

It would have helped, perhaps, to have an outspoken representative from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at news conferences to give comfort to residents, and it just seemed like there should have been some representation from the oil and gas industry to help calm fears and answer questions about the nature of the materials that were going up in flames.

News media struggled to explain the uses of naphta and Xylene in the industry and how exposure to it might affect those who might breathe the charred fumes — and the resulting warnings inevitably made the chemicals seem deadly.

The press conferences could have used a cool-headed expert, which both the TCEQ and the US Environmental Protection Agency could probably have provided, if not the oil and gas industry, but there was no one to reassure folks that there was no coverup underway.

 

It Could Have Been Worse, So Where Were Jurisdictional Agencies?

 

Yes, polls indicate a suspicion among most people of government and big corporations, but there’s no way of restoring faith among the public without concern, reassurance and cooperation.

The TCEQ has been under fire for some time by critics who claim it’s in cahoots with big industries,but again it’s a big state with a lot of territory to cover and the agency has a lot of responsibilities.

Public confidence in the EPA is also ebbing, especially in the era of President Trump simply because it appears the administration is weakening environmental protections, but the EPA appeared weak during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 when it, according to the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago, refused “Houston’s own” NASA’s attempts to fly a pollution-measuring plane over the city in the aftermath of Harvey.

With low confidence in public agencies such as these, it would seem intuitive to send knowledgeable representatives to help calm public fears at times of potential crisis such as the ITC fire, which could have been so much worse that the EPA and TCEQ absence from the public discourse could have been anger-provoking.

 

Please Send Experts to the Scene to Give the Public Better Answers

 

And it could have been worse — the plume of smoke was already circling south of Houston and up northwest into the Brazos Valley and to Austin, where an accumulation of smoke would have been hard for lawmakers in session to ignore.

If the Houston Chronicle reporting is true that the cause of the ITC blaze was a malfunctioning manifold at one tank that erupted in fire because of a spark, then ITD’s dispatch of a special firefighting team from Louisiana, which apparently resulted in a more aggressive stance against the fire, was a prudent move, if perhaps late, and the Red Adair method of fighting wellhead fires using dynamite would have been out of place in hot zones such as the ITC fire.

But when all measurements are taken and the investigation into the cause of the fire is finished, it would also seem necessary for the oil and gas industry and its representatives to consider an emergency dispatch for an on-call expert who can be there when potential disasters such as the ITC fire occur.

It’s not enough for an industry so vital not only to Texas but, considering the world economy is based on petrochemicals, for the world that local officials try to assuage public fears during petrochemical emergencies.

The lack of an expert opinion in these situations only drives suspicion, conspiracy theories and outrage.

 

“Do You Want to Negotiate a New Deal? Perhaps a Green One?”

 

The ITC fire was visually spectacular, an invitation for video news, image addicted as it is, to spread the story around the world, and we all know that as stories are spread details are embellished and facts can get mangled.

This would not be a time to call for better public relations for the oil and gas industries, but it certainly would be time to call for an industry-wide decision to take better control of the industry as a whole during the inevitable disasters when human error or the unknown or even failing equipment can bring unforeseeable environmental disaster.

A breach by an outlying company such as ITC can easily reflect on the industry as a whole, and in this case it probably has.

As Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson pointed out, the thick black smoke is a reminder that we have to get our nail polish remover and gasoline processing chemicals somewhere, and the bargain the world has made for cheap gasoline and natural gas includes the occasional problem — sometimes huge — that makes the “Green New Deal” look better to some, possibly including Tomlinson.

 

Perhaps the greatest single lesson for the oil and gas industries and the agencies that oversee them, in this case, is that it doesn’t take another Macondo Prospect-Deepwater blowout to spell public relations disaster — it could be a blown manifold at a chemical tank farm.

Or some other small thing, until it’s not so small anymore.

 

— Mike Shiloh

 

 

Brannon, Welch: Conservatives continue to lead the way on clean energy issues

March 21, 2019
 
By Kevin Brannon & Matt Welch

 

Successful clean energy efforts in Texas have largely been and will continue to be the result of strong conservative Republican leadership.

In 1999, while still Governor of Texas, George W. Bush signed legislation that deregulated the state’s power market and set the state on a path to becoming a leader in generating electricity from carbon-free electricity.

That policy has now become a national model and roadmap for economic success…..
 

Update: City of Deer Park Shelter In Place Lifted

March 21, 2019

 

An earlier order by the city of Deer Park for residents to “shelter in place” has been lifted.

The order was issued this morning out of what officials called an “abundance of caution,” after elevated levels of the commonly-used but dangerous chemical benzene were found at the site of Intercontinental Terminals Company.

The company reported the levels to city officials, who ordered residents to stay at home or at their businesses until further notice.

The city rescinded the order a little before noon today……
 

After Headlines About Accidents, Americans Are Skeptical About Self-Driving Cars: AAA

Increased exposure to the new automation systems available may ease public anxiety; Americans willing to take “baby steps” toward sophisticated driving technology

 

March 20, 2019

 

Americans are slowly embracing the next generations of transportation, but the very public rollout of the vehicles isn’t helping according to a new study from the American Automobile Association….
 

Voters Like Parts of Green New Deal But There Is Sticker Shock

Poll indicates immigration is top security issue; 44% favor 10-year phase-out of fossil fuels, 48% oppose; when not prompted, only 1% of likely voters listed climate change as top priority issue

 

March 20, 2019

 

Likely voters like portions of the “Green New Deal” but there is a resulting sticker shock according to a new poll commissioned by the conservative American Energy Alliance, which is headed by former Koch lobbyist Tom Pyle…..
 

Postcards from the Lege: What Did She Say?

March 20, 2019

 

She may be a former district court judge, but state Sen. Joan Huffman is a practitioner of the language of the people.

When standing in for Lt. Governor Dan Patrick following the passage of important disaster planning and response legislation Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Huffman was presiding before the Senate in procedure for a bill from Sen. Kirk Watson on the floor.

When Sen. Huffman made a procedural proclamation, she appeared to gavel too soon.

“Oh sh–,” she said, her voice dropping off-microphone.

Spectators might not have heard the word.

After mild laughter from the floor, she said, “I think I just lost my job.”

“You’ve certainly made this bill more exciting,” Watson quipped.

 

She recovered quickly, got through the procedure, then introduced a bill to protect free speech and assembly rights “central to the mission of public institutions” that Sen. Paul Bettencourt called a “model for the nation.”

 

 
 

Update: Deer Park Fire Is Out But Flare Ups Continue

Storage site fire is out, owner says, but flames erupted again late in the afternoon; foam still being sprayed on tanks to prevent re-ignition; cause still undisclosed; damage claims website established; all monitoring continues to show little or no change in air quality since fire ignited Sunday morning

 

March 20, 2019

 

A fire that burned for three days at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) is out and cleanup has begun, interrupted by flames that erupted from one of the storage tanks holding petroleum components, according to ITC.

The company was unable to say which of the tanks flared, but the flames were put out within a few minutes….
 

New TIPRO Analysis Details Texas Oil and Gas Workforce Trends

March 19, 2019

 

Rising production of oil and natural gas in the Lone Star State is opening new doors for Texans seeking employment opportunities with energy companies. A new analysis released today by the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) indicates the Texas oil and natural gas industry had approximately 90,700 job postings so far this year during the months of January and February, of which 15,375 job listings were unique. Employment opportunities for the state’s oil and gas industry have been most concentrated in the cities of Houston and Midland, which are central to much of the energy activity and business engagements for the Texas oil and gas industry.

 

According to TIPRO, industry employment postings have held a posting intensity of 6-to-1, meaning that for every six postings, there has been one unique job posting. This is close to the posting intensity for all other occupations and companies in the region (5-to-1), indicating an average effort toward hiring for these positions. The posting intensity for the upstream sector is 7-to-1, which suggests more difficulty in filling positions.

 

TIPRO’s new analysis also lists the highest number of open industry positions, as posted by occupation, so far in 2019, which have been heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers (1,020), retail salespersons (775), accountants and auditors (603). TIPRO’s latest report also shows leading skills sought for open jobs in the energy sector, which include oil and gas expertise (19 percent), followed by valid driver’s license (15 percent), and accounting (10 percent).

 

Other highlights from TIPRO’s employment analysis include:

  • From January through February, the Crude Petroleum Extraction sector posted the highest number of open positions (3,980).
  • The city of Houston had the highest number of unique positions posted for the industry (4,973), followed by Midland (1,019) and San Antonio (684).
  • The highest number of open positions by job title was customer service associates (734), followed by truck drivers (383).
  • The top hard skill listed for open oil and gas positions was oil and gas (19 percent), followed by valid driver’s license (15 percent), and good driving record (10 percent).
  • The top common skill listed for open oil and gas positions was management (42 percent), followed by operations (32 percent), and communications (29 percent).
  • The top qualification sought for listed open positions was commercial driver’s license (979), followed by Master of Business Administration (226), and Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) Card (181).
  • The leading posting source for open oil and natural gas positions was Nexxt.com (6,491), followed by Workintexas.com (5,218), and My.jobs (3,170).

 

As the leading organization in Texas representing independent producers and royalty owners in Texas, TIPRO regularly tracks and analyzes a broad array of data for the state’s E&P sector, including industry employment and workforce trends. Ed Longanecker, president of the association, described the organization’s engagement efforts helping to connect Texas oil and gas companies with prospective employees, commenting: “Our goal with TIPRO’s workforce analysis, reporting and related advocacy is multifold. By promoting the available positions and positive contributions from the Texas oil and gas industry, we hope to make a connection between employers and available talent. Our work is also intended to identify the challenges facing employers and how we can effectively address those challenges through collaboration, funding, and training at the local and state levels to prepare, attract and retain talent. TIPRO continues to support workforce development efforts by promoting existing training programs, facilities and related resources and working with the Texas legislature and state agencies to advance policy initiatives that will help support the long-term workforce needs.”