Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

December 21st, 2014 by John Tedesco

If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

Sunday’s story is based on a fresh batch of flaring figures obtained by Express-News Data Editor Joseph Kokenge, who scraped the data directly from the Railroad Commission’s website.

The new numbers for 2013 and 2014 show that flares burned and wasted even more of the fossil fuel. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 20 billion cubic feet of gas went up in smoke — enough to fuel CPS Energy’s 800 megawatt Rio Nogales power plant during the same time frame.

Have you been asked to donate to Shop with a Sheriff? Call me.

November 19th, 2014 by John Tedesco

If you live in Bexar County, someone claiming to be with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County might have called you recently, asking for money.

The caller probably promised that every penny of your donation stays in Bexar County. You were probably told that it all goes to a worthy cause.

Like most sales pitches, it wasn’t entirely true.

Offices of the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County

The Deputy Sheriff s Association of Bexar County has offices in this building near the San Antonio International Airport.

Last year the union representing Bexar County sheriff’s deputies hired a telemarketing firm called PFR Promotions to raise money for a charitable program called “Shop with a Sheriff.” Also called “Shop with a Cop” in other cities, it’s a holiday shopping spree for poor kids.

The event is real. But most of the money from donations goes to PFR Promotions, not the kids.

I started looking into Shop with a Sheriff after receiving a tip from someone who read our stories about the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, another telemarketing entity that relied on the credibility of law enforcement officers to raise money. The small San Antonio museum actually employed hundreds of telemarketers across Texas who raised millions. Yet only a fraction was spent on charity. Executives squandered donations on luxury vehicles and junkets. In December 2011, the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit and successfully shut down the operation.

Shop with a Sheriff is a real event that helps children. But most of the money raised — 67 percent — goes to PFR Promotions, a telemarketing firm based in Arizona. Only a third trickles down to the charitable cause.

Donors aren’t being told that vital information. In Texas, the law requires telemarketers who are raising money for law enforcement organizations to disclose their overhead before any donation is made. The law applies to companies located outside Texas. Organizations are also required to report that information to the Texas attorney general, which the union had failed to do.

Union President Juan Contreras acknowledged that he wasn’t aware of that legal requirement and pledged to take care of the problem immediately. He said the union might sever its relationship with PFR Promotions.

But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from potential donors whether PFR’s telemarketers are complying with the law.

If you’ve received a phone call, feel free to contact me and let me know if the caller is disclosing who he works for — and where your money is really going.

John Oliver digs up IRS tax records, finds comedy gold

September 22nd, 2014 by John Tedesco

This must be the first time in history when a comedian analyzed IRS tax records for nonprofits, uncovered unflattering news about the Miss America pageant, and boiled it all down in hilarious fashion.

John Oliver is amazing.

New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

July 14th, 2014 by John Tedesco

I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

Go back in time

One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

Gallery of Google Map Mashups

The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

Wildcards in Google Maps

Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.

For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

Force Google to search for certain words

By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.

And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.

That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?

Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.

If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

Customized site searches

Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.

This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

Control F is your friend

Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

Mayor Julián Castro leaving San Antonio?

May 19th, 2014 by John Tedesco

How Castro went from having “zero interest in Washington” to being a possible contender for vice president.

Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

April 20th, 2014 by John Tedesco
Sarah Brasse

Sarah Brasse

In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

Her name was Sarah Brasse.

It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
Read the rest of this entry »

San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

March 19th, 2014 by John Tedesco

Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

“In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

San Antonio lawyer AcevedoThe clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

“There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

“That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

“Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.


Check out the San Antonio bars and restaurants that raked in the most money in alcohol sales

February 20th, 2014 by John Tedesco
Jen at Bohanan's

Date night with no kids. Look how happy this woman looks.

Last night Jen and I enjoyed a rare date night at one of our favorite restaurants downtown, Bohanan’s, a swanky oasis of cocktails, jazz — and no screaming Tedesco children.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much money your favorite haunt makes in alcohol sales, there’s now an easy way to find out.

Joe Kokenge, the Express-News’ database editor, put together this interactive data viz that shows total alcohol sales for San Antonio bars and restaurants last year. Some of these numbers are mind-blowing.

The top seller in San Antonio was the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa — the same project that sparked years of controversy for seeking exemptions from city taxes and for building on the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The resort raked in more than $11 million in alcohol sales in 2013. That’s more than the second-place venue, the AT&T Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs and overpriced macro brews.

The sales data comes from the Texas Comptroller’s office, which doesn’t offer the information in a very user-friendly format. Joe combined a year’s worth of data and put together an interactive, easy-to-use table that you can sort and search.

It doesn’t show who sold the most alcohol, only how much revenue was generated in alcohol sales. So expensive drinks might move a company up in the rankings.

Out of curiosity, I checked Bohanan’s and learned it generated a whopping $2.2 million in alcohol sales in 2013.

That’s a lot of fancy cocktails.

‘San Antonio 4′ set free after doubts raised in bizarre criminal case

November 18th, 2013 by John Tedesco

Anna Vasquez, right, embraces her brother David Vasquez, as family and friends of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh gather in the 175th District Court in the Cadena Reeves Justice Center to hear that the 3 women will be released from prison. Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. The fourth women, Anna Vasquez, was released on parole from prison just over a year ago.Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo spent 18 months investigating the bizarre case of the “San Antonio Four” — four women accused of sexually assaulting two girls over the course of a weekend filled with debauchery and Satan worship. Michelle’s meticulously researched article raised questions about the evidence and the credibility of the accusers, who might have made up the whole sordid story.

Since then, one of the accusers recanted, and one of the accused was released on parole. Today, the remaining members of the San Antonio Four were set free on bond.

Amazing.

(Photo credit: Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News)


Former San Antonio official Fernando De Leon faces federal charges in alleged bribery scheme

September 23rd, 2013 by John Tedesco

Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioIn March 2010, San Antonio police detectives and FBI agents visited the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, the place where real estate projects go to live or die based on whether the necessary permits are approved.

One of the officials who signed off on those permits was Fernando De León, the department’s friendly, soft-spoken assistant director. Investigators headed to his office. De León wasn’t there, but they seized his computer and files. City Manager Sheryl Sculley later fired him, but De León wasn’t arrested.

Until last week.

A federal indictment made public Thursday sheds light on the case against De León:



Longtime readers of the Express-News might remember some of the details we had discovered about the case through public records and lots of digging:

  • Authorities were scrutinizing De León and a permit-expediting company called Rapid Permit Services. Federal officials subpoenaed records at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in town, to gather information about Rapid Permit Services and possibly others. Pape-Dawson was not the target of the inquiry;
  • Rapid Permit Services got a plum job at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center;
  • De León reviewed and approved some of the paperwork for the Rim that had been filed by Rapid Permit Services;
  • De León’s sister and possibly his mother were tied to Rapid Permit Services;
  • At Pape-Dawson, the point of contact for Rapid Permit Services was a project manager named Oscar Rodriguez.
  • For the first time, the indictment lays out the actual allegations against De León, and describes how he is accused of teaming up with Rodriguez to defraud Pape-Dawson and the firm’s clients.

    Check out the most recent story here, and if you want to learn more, here are past posts about the case.