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February 1st, 2020:

A little national press for the Railroad Commissioner race

Bloomberg News notes that the Texas Railroad Commission could have a significant effect on climate change, if it wanted to.

Booming oil and gas production across the Permian Basin of West Texas has made this little-known regulator, with three voting members, a pivotal decision-maker for the American contribution to climate change. The reason for this comes down to natural-gas flaring. Drillers in Texas, as in other places, are allowed to burn off vast amounts of natural gas that is a by-product of oil production. This is done, in part, because of the expense involved in capturing the gas, putting it into pipelines, and moving it to processing facilities.

And it happens with permission from the Texas Railroad Commission.

Burning off the gas prevents the unchecked release of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that causes as much as 36 times more warming than carbon dioxide in the 100-year period after its release, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But allowing Texas drillers to burn their unwanted gas—something the Railroad Commission almost always does—is a harmful solution: Tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants enter the atmosphere, without yielding any useful energy.

Global gas flaring emits more than 350 million tons of CO2-equivalent each year, according to the World Bank. That’s equal to all the natural gas consumed in Central America and South America each year.

“This is the most important environmental race in the country,” says Chrysta Castañeda, 56, one of four Democratic candidates vying to become the first non-Republican commissioner in more than 25 years and the first Democrat to win statewide office since the 1990s. The commission “is not enforcing the laws” on flaring. “What’s going on in Texas is one of the biggest contributors to the issue worldwide.”

Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton said it’s “patently false” that the agency is not enforcing the rules on flaring. The state flares just 2% of its gas production, much less than most other major producing countries, according to a statement released by his office.

[…]

“It’s not an easy, black-and-white, ‘Well-why-don’t-you-just-tell-them-to-stop?’ kind of problem,” says Bobby Tudor, co-founder of Houston-based investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., which advises oil and gas companies. “But I think in general, a much firmer stand from the Railroad Commission and leadership from the most active companies can make a difference.”

Flaring is central to the campaign to unseat Sitton, and the issue is gaining more attention than ever. The race now includes Castañeda and three additional Democratic challengers: Dallas lawyers Roberto Alonzo and Mark Watson and San Marcos educator Kelly Stone. Watson and Stone both say they, too, want to crack down on flaring. Alonzo didn’t respond to requests for comment and does not appear to have a website.

“The prices paid for shale oil do not accurately reflect the true cost of production,” Watson says. “Flaring natural gas must be reduced very quickly, in a responsible manner.”

Stone takes it a step farther, siding with Democratic presidential candidates such as Warren and Sanders, who have come out in support of a ban on fracking.

“I’m a gal that wants to ban fracking,” says Stone, who taught at Texas State University until her class, Sexuality Across the Life Span, was canceled last year amid a spat with national conservative group Turning Point USA. “I realize that I’m saying that in the state of Texas, where people clutch their pearls when you say something like that.” (A spokesman for the university said it doesn’t comment on personnel matters, and Turning Point USA didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Castañeda says such a move would risk “huge disruption to our current economy and current lifestyle.” She accuses the Republican-dominated commission of failing to enforce the commission’s existing rules by putting limits on waste.

“If we are going to extract fossil fuels from the ground, we ought to use them productively and not wastefully,” says Castañeda.

Sitton frames the issue around preventing the economic waste of leaving oil in the ground. Halting flaring would “cost billions in terms of economic impacts and taxes to the state and Federal government” as well as raising energy costs, his office said in its statement. ​​​​“The energy produced in Texas provides affordable energy for people all around the world and it is produced more cleanly and responsibly than anywhere else in the world.”

Roberto Alonzo, who is a former longtime State Rep, does have a campaign Facebook page, which I was only able to find because he shared a post on his personal Facebook page, which I know how to find. Searching for “Roberto Alonzo” doesn’t get you there – you have to search for “Alonzo for Railroad Commissioner” or “Alonzo for Texas Railroad Commissioner”, neither of which gets auto-filled by Facebook. Once again, I never thought I’d be shilling for the joys of SEO, but here we are. Also, searching for either of those terms brings up Chrysta Castañeda’ campaign Facebook page as the second result. That, my friends, is how you do it.

Be that as it may, I’m glad to see Mark Watson respond to a question from the media with a perfectly reasonable answer, thus offering me some reassurance that maybe there aren’t any goofy candidates on the RRC ballot this year. All four would be a clear improvement over Ryan Sitton.

County files lawsuit over Watson Grinding explosion

As well they should.

Harris County and state officials entered the fray Thursday, bringing civil charges against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in the explosion that left two dead and damaged 450 structures last week in west Houston.

The county has asked a judge to impose an immediate halt on all activity at the company until the site and surrounding area are deemed safe from fires and explosions. Officials also want a detailed inventory of materials on the premises as well as all air, water and soil samples and studies. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also a party to the suit, as required by law.

[…]

The county lawsuit says Watson violated environmental, regulatory, nuisance and common law following the explosion involving “ultra-hazardous chemicals” Friday at its Gessner facility. It says the company violated the Clean Air Act by exposing the public to unauthorized emissions, imperiling public health, general welfare, physical property, basic air resources and visibility. The county also states Watson created a public nuisance and violated Texas code by failing to report dangerous emissions and through unauthorized outdoor burning and air pollution.

Watson discharged air pollutants into the atmosphere including propylene and byproducts of combustion when a 2,000 gallon tank exploded, the lawsuit says.

“Flying glass and debris injured many residents while they slept,” court documents say. “As a result of the blast, many nearby residents cannot occupy their damaged homes while others now live in damaged structures.”

As of Thursday, the emission event had not been reported to the TCEQ or to Harris County Pollution Control, according to the county.

“Watson’s use of propylene was an ultra-hazardous activity and the company failed to exercise its duty of care to protect the public,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a draft of a news release, “particularly when the facility is located in a neighborhood.”

The lawsuit says Watson officials were negligent in failing to maintain equipment and properly store chemicals. Its failure to properly train, supervise and monitor employees endangered lives and damaged property, according to a draft copy.

“Due to the high degree of risk involved it Watson’s conduct, Watson’s actual and subjective constructive awareness of this risk, the fact that Watson had been made aware of the probability and extent of the potential harm that could result from engaging in such conduct on numerous occasions by numerous governmental regulatory authorities, Watson continued to operate in a reckless manner demonstrating a conscious indifference to welfare and safety of others, including employees and residents of Harris County,” the suit says.

The county will seek exemplary damages for gross negligence, according to documents.

See here for the background. Other lawsuits are being filed as well; the more, the merrier, I say. Part of this, as the County Attorney notes, is to ensure that all evidence is preserved. I’m sure we’ll find out that there were even more problems at this place than firsts reported. Harris County has invested more resources in environmental protection, and there may need to be more beyond that. For now, let’s do all we can to figure this one out, and hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions.

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Electric scooter injuries have surged along with their popularity in the United States, nearly tripling over four years, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Nearly 40,000 broken bones, head injuries, cuts and bruises resulting from scooter accidents were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 2014 through 2018, the research showed. The scooter injury rate among the general U.S. population climbed from 6 per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000. Most occurred in riders aged 18 to 34, and most injured riders weren’t hospitalized.

For the study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed U.S. government data on nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms.

“Improved rider safety measures and regulation” are clearly needed, the researchers said.

See here, here, and here for previous studies, and here to see this one. Clearly, helmets are going to have to be mandated, and from there it’s going to be up to cities to figure out how to safely incorporate these things into their transportation infrastructure. Bikes have been around for a long time and we’ve mostly figured them out, but scooters are new and sexy and are being pushed by Silicon Valley startups, so there are a lot of bumps in the road still to come. Hopefully we can begin to bend the curve on this. And no, I have no idea what the status of scooters coming to Houston is. Maybe that will be on an upcoming Council agenda. Assuming that scooter expansion is still the plan for these companies, which may not necessarily be the case any more. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any news lately. CNet has more.