A barge hit a bridge in Galveston, resulting in an oil spill. No injuries were reported. Photo via portofgalveston.com

A barge slammed into a bridge pillar in Galveston, Texas, on Wednesday, spilling oil into waters near busy shipping channels and closing the only road to a small neighboring island. No injuries were reported.

The impact sent pieces of the bridge, which connects Galveston to Pelican Island, tumbling on top of the barge and shut down a stretch of waterway so crews could clean up the spill. The accident knocked one man off the vessel and into the water, but he was quickly recovered and was not injured, said Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ray Nolen.

Ports along the Texas coast are hubs of international trade, but experts said the collision was unlikely to result in serious economic disruptions since it occurred in a lesser-used waterway. The island is on the opposite side of Galveston Island’s beaches that draw millions of tourists each year.

The accident happened shortly before 10 a.m. after a tugboat operator pushing two barges lost control of them, said David Flores, a bridge superintendent with the Galveston County Navigation District.

“The current was very bad, and the tide was high," Flores said. “He lost it.”

Pelican Island is only a few miles wide and is home to Texas A&M University at Galveston, a large shipyard and industrial facilities. Fewer than 200 people were on the campus when the collision happened, and all were eventually allowed to drive on the bridge to leave. The marine and maritime research institute said it plans to remain closed until at least Friday. Students who live on campus were allowed to remain there, but university officials warned those who live on campus and leave “should be prepared to remain off campus for an unknown period of time.”

The accident came weeks after a cargo ship crashed into a support column of the Francis Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26, killing six construction workers.

The tugboat in Texas was pushing bunker barges, which are fuel barges for ships, Flores said. The barge, which is owned by Martin Petroleum, has a 30,000-gallon capacity, but it's not clear how much leaked into the bay, said Galveston County spokesperson Spencer Lewis. He said about 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) of the waterway were shut down because of the spill.

The affected area is miles away from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which sees frequent barge traffic, and the Houston Ship Channel, a large shipping channel for ocean-going vessels. Aside from the environmental impact of the spill, the region is unlikely to see large economic disruption as a result of the accident, said Marcia Burns, a maritime transportation expert at the University of Houston

“Because Pelican Island is a smaller location, which is not in the heart of commercial events, then the impact is not as devastating," Burns said. “It’s a relatively smaller impact.”

At the bridge, a large piece of broken concrete and debris from the railroad hung over the side and on top of the barge that rammed into the passageway. Flores said the rail line only serves as protection for the structure and has never been used.

Opened in 1960, the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge was rated as “Poor” according to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2023 National Bridge Inventory released last June.

The overall rating of a bridge is based on whether the condition of any of its individual components — the deck, superstructure, substructure or culvert, if present — is rated poor or below.

In the case of the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge, inspectors rated the deck in “Satisfactory Condition,” the substructure in “Fair Condition” and the superstructure — or the component that absorbs the live traffic load — in “Poor Condition.”

The Texas Department of Transportation had been scheduled in the summer of 2025 to begin construction on a project to replace the bridge with a new one. The project was estimated to cost $194 million. In documents provided during a virtual public meeting last year, the department said the bridge has “reached the end of its design lifespan, and needs to be replaced.” The agency said it has spent over $12 million performing maintenance and repairs on the bridge in the past decade.

The bridge has one main steel span that measures 164 feet (50 meters), and federal data shows it was last inspected in December 2021. It’s unclear from the data if a state inspection took place after the Federal Highway Administration compiled the data.

The bridge had an average daily traffic figure of about 9,100 cars and trucks, according to a 2011 estimate.

___

Lozano reported from Houston. Associated Press reporters Christopher L. Keller in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas; Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas; and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

The Austin, Texas, company supposedly fixed its self-driving software for more than 2 million vehicles, but the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still has concerns. Photo courtesy of Tesla

US wants details on Tesla's fix from recalled automated driving system

looking under the hood

Federal highway safety investigators want Austin-based Tesla to tell them how and why it developed the fix in a recall of more than 2 million vehicles equipped with the company's Autopilot partially automated driving system.

Investigators with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have concerns about whether the recall remedy worked because Tesla has reported 20 crashes since the remedy was sent out as an online software update in December.

The recall fix also was to address whether Autopilot should be allowed to operate on roads other than limited access highways. The fix for that was increased warnings to the driver on roads with intersections.

But in a letter to Tesla posted on the agency's website Tuesday, investigators wrote that they could not find a difference between warnings to the driver to pay attention before the recall and after the new software was released. The agency said it will evaluate whether driver warnings are adequate, especially when a driver-monitoring camera is covered.

The agency asked for volumes of information about how Tesla developed the fix, and zeroed in on how it used human behavior to test the recall effectiveness.

Phil Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies automated driving safety, said the letter shows that the recall did little to solve problems with Autopilot and was an attempt to pacify NHTSA, which demanded the recall after more than two years of investigation.

“It’s pretty clear to everyone watching that Tesla tried to do the least possible remedy to see what they could get away with,” Koopman said. “And NHTSA has to respond forcefully or other car companies will start pushing out inadequate remedies.”

Safety advocates have long expressed concern that Autopilot, which can keep a vehicle in its lane and a distance from objects in front of it, was not designed to operate on roads other than limited access highways.

Missy Cummings, a professor of engineering and computing at George Mason University who studies automated vehicles, said NHTSA is responding to criticism from legislators for a perceived lack of action on automated vehicles.

“As clunky as our government is, the feedback loop is working,” Cummings said. “I think the NHTSA leadership is convinced now that this is a problem.”

The 18-page NHTSA letter asks how Tesla used human behavior science in designing Autopilot, and the company's assessment of the importance of evaluating human factors.

It also wants Tesla to identify every job involved in human behavior evaluation and the qualifications of the workers. And it asks Tesla to say whether the positions still exist.

A message was left by The Associated Press early Tuesday seeking comment from Tesla about the letter.

Tesla is in the process of laying off about 10% of its workforce, about 14,000 people, in an effort to cut costs to deal with falling global sales.

Cummings said she suspects that CEO Elon Musk would have laid off anyone with human behavior knowledge, a key skill needed to deploy partially automated systems like Autopilot, which can't drive themselves and require humans to be ready to intervene at all times.

“If you're going to have a technology that depends upon human interaction, you better have someone on your team that knows what they are doing in that space,” she said.

Cummings said her research has shown that once a driving system takes over steering from humans, there is little left for the human brain to do. Many drivers tend to overly rely on the system and check out.

“You can have your head fixed in one position, you can potentially have your eyes on the road, and you can be a million miles away in your head,” she said. “All the driver monitoring technologies in the world are still not going to force you to pay attention.”

In its letter, NHTSA also asks Tesla for information about how the recall remedy addresses driver confusion over whether Autopilot has been turned off if force is put on the steering wheel. Previously, if Autopilot was de-activated, drivers might not notice quickly that they have to take over driving.

The recall added a function that gives a “more pronounced slowdown” to alert drivers when Autopilot has been disengaged. But the recall remedy doesn’t activate the function automatically — drivers have to do it. Investigators asked how many drivers have taken that step.

NHTSA is asking Telsa “What do you mean you have a remedy and it doesn’t actually get turned on?” Koopman said.

The letter, he said, shows NHTSA is looking at whether Tesla did tests to make sure the fixes actually worked. “Looking at the remedy I struggled to believe that there’s a lot of analysis proving that these will improve safety,” Koopman said.

The agency also says Tesla made safety updates after the recall fix was sent out, including an attempt to reduce crashes caused by hydroplaning and to reduce collisions in high speed turn lanes. NHTSA said it will look at why Tesla didn't include the updates in the original recall.

NHTSA could seek further recall remedies, make Tesla limit where Autopilot can work, or even force the company to disable the system until it is fixed, safety experts said.

NHTSA began its Autopilot investigation in 2021, after receiving 11 reports that Teslas using Autopilot struck parked emergency vehicles. In documents explaining why the investigation was ended due to the recall, NHTSA said it ultimately found 467 crashes involving Autopilot resulting in 54 injuries and 14 deaths.

ExxonMobil got initial approval of its $60 billion deal to buy Houston-based Pioneer Natural Resources. Photo via ExxonMobil.com

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.

Chinese officials told Tesla that Beijing has tentatively approved the automaker's plan to launch its “Full Self-Driving,” or FSD, software feature in the country. Photo via tesla.com

Texas-based Tesla gets China's initial approval of self-driving software

global greenlight

Shares of Tesla stock rallied Monday after the electric vehicle maker's CEO, Elon Musk, paid a surprise visit to Beijing over the weekend and reportedly won tentative approval for its driving software.

Musk met with a senior government official in the Chinese capital Sunday, just as the nation’s carmakers are showing off their latest electric vehicle models at the Beijing auto show.

According to The Wall Street Journal, which cited anonymous sources familiar with the matter, Chinese officials told Tesla that Beijing has tentatively approved the automaker's plan to launch its “Full Self-Driving,” or FSD, software feature in the country.

Although it's called FSD, the software still requires human supervision. On Friday the U.S. government’s auto safety agency said it is investigating whether last year’s recall of Tesla’s Autopilot driving system did enough to make sure drivers pay attention to the road. Tesla has reported 20 more crashes involving Autopilot since the recall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In afternoon trading, shares in Tesla Inc., which is based in Austin, Texas, surged to end Monday up more than 15% — its biggest one-day jump since February 2020. For the year to date, shares are still down 22%.

Tesla has been contending with its stock slide and slowing production. Last week, the company said its first-quarter net income plunged by more than half, but it touted a newer, cheaper car and a fully autonomous robotaxi as catalysts for future growth.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives called the news about the Chinese approval a “home run” for Tesla and maintained his “Outperform” rating on the stock.

“We note Tesla has stored all data collected by its Chinese fleet in Shanghai since 2021 as required by regulators in Beijing,” Ives wrote in a note to investors. “If Musk is able to obtain approval from Beijing to transfer data collected in China abroad this would be pivotal around the acceleration of training its algorithms for its autonomous technology globally.”

The Spring, Texas-based company's revenue totaled $83.08 billion, down from $86.56 billion a year earlier. Photo via exxonmobil.com

ExxonMobil profit declines in Q1 as natural gas prices fall

trending down

ExxonMobil's profit declined in its first quarter as natural gas prices fell and industry refining margins dropped.

The energy company earned $8.22 billion, or $2.06 per share, for the three months ended March 31. A year earlier it earned $11.43 billion, or $2.79 per share.

The results didn't meet Wall Street expectations, but Exxon does not adjust its reported results based on one-time events such as assets sales. Analysts polled by Zacks Investment Research were expecting earnings of $2.19 per share.

Shares declined slightly before the market open on Friday.

The Spring, Texas-based company's revenue totaled $83.08 billion, down from $86.56 billion a year earlier. Wall Street forecast revenue of $86.6 billion.

Production in Guyana reached more than 600,000 oil-equivalent barrels per day, a higher-than-expected level, the company said.

Exxon went on a bit of a shopping spree last year when oil prices were surging.

In July, the company said it would pay $4.9 billion for Denbury Resources, an oil and gas producer that has entered the business of capturing and storing carbon and stands to benefit from changes in U.S. climate policy.

In October Exxon topped that deal by announcing that it would buy shale operator Pioneer Natural Resources for $60 billion. Two months later, the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces federal antitrust law, asked for additional information from the companies about the proposed deal. The request is a step the agency takes when reviewing whether a merger could be anticompetitive under U.S. law. Pioneer disclosed the request in a filing in January.

Elevated levels of cash for all big producers drove a massive consolidation in the energy sector. In October Chevron said it would buy Hess Corp. for $53 billion.

Oil markets are being stretched by cutbacks in oil production from Saudi Arabia and Russia, and the war between Israel and Hamas still potentially runs the risk of igniting a broader conflict in the Middle East. While attacks on Israel do not disrupt global oil supply, according to an analysis by the U.S Energy Information Administration, “they raise the potential for oil supply disruptions and higher oil prices.”

Elsewhere in the sector, Chevron Corp. reported a first-quarter profit of $5.5 billion, or $2.97 per share. Its adjusted profit was $2.93 per share.

The results surpassed Wall Street expectations, but Chevron also does not adjust its reported results based on one-time events such as asset sales. Analysts surveyed by Zacks predicted earnings of $2.84 per share.

The oil company posted revenue of $48.72 billion, which fell short of Wall Street's estimate of $49.94 billion.

Chevron's stock dipped in premarket trading.

The lawsuits are Oklahoma's first against natural gas operators over earnings during the 2021 Winter Storm Uri. Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Oklahoma sues 2 Texas natural gas companies over price spikes during 2021 winter storm

taking action

Two Texas-based natural gas companies are being sued by Oklahoma, which alleges they fraudulently reduced gas supplies to send prices soaring during Winter Storm Uri, making huge profits while thousands shivered across the state.

The lawsuits are Oklahoma's first against natural gas operators over earnings during the 2021 storm. The suits were filed against Dallas-based ET Gathering & Processing, which acquired Enable Midstream Partners in 2021, and Houston-based Symmetry Energy Solutions.

Both lawsuits seek actual and punitive damages, as well as a share of any profits that resulted from wrongdoing. Oklahoma's Republican attorney general, Gentner Drummond, said his office intends to pursue additional litigation against other companies that may have engaged in market manipulation.

“I believe the level of fraud perpetrated on Oklahomans during Winter Storm Uri is both staggering and unconscionable,” Drummond said in a statement. “While many companies conducted themselves above board during that trying time, our analysis indicates that some bad actors reaped billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains."

A Symmetry spokesperson said in a statement that the company "adamantly denies the unfounded allegations in the lawsuit, which it will vigorously defend.” A message seeking comment left with ET was not immediately returned. The lawsuits were filed in Osage County, Oklahoma.

The devastating storm sent temperatures plummeting across the country and left millions of people without power.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in December against a natural gas marketer operating in that state. In Texas, which was also hit hard by the deadly storm, the electric utility Griddy Energy reached a settlement with state regulators over crushing electric bills its customers received.

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Houston company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

results are in

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

ExxonMobil, Intel eye sustainable solutions within data center innovation

the view from heti

Two multinational corporations have announced a new collaboration to create energy-efficient and sustainable solutions for data centers as the market experiences significant growth.

ExxonMobil and Intel are working to design, test, research and develop new liquid cooling technologies to optimize data center performance and help customers meet their sustainability goals. Liquid cooling solutions serve as an alternative to traditional air-cooling methods in data centers.

“Our partnership with ExxonMobil to co-develop turnkey solutions for liquid cooling will enable significant energy and water savings for data center and network deployments,” said Jen Huffstetler, Chief Product Sustainability Officer, Intel.

According to consulting firm McKinsey, “a hyperscaler’s data center can use as much power as 80,000 households do,” and that demand is expected to keep surging. Power consumption by the U.S. data center market is forecasted “to reach 35 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, up from 17 GW in 2022,” according to a McKinsey analysis. Artificial intelligence and machine learning, and other advanced computing techniques are increasing computational workloads, and in return, increasing electricity demand. Therefore, companies are searching for solutions to support this growth.

ExxonMobil launched its full portfolio of data center immersion fluid products last year. The partnership with Intel will allow them to further advance their efforts in this market.

“By integrating ExxonMobil’s proven expertise in liquid cooling technologies with Intel’s long legacy of industry leadership in world-changing computing technologies, together we will further the industry’s adoption and acceptance as it transitions to liquid cooling technologies,” said Sarah Horne, Vice President, ExxonMobil.

Learn more about this collaboration here.

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This article originally ran on the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative blog. HETI exists to support Houston's future as an energy leader. For more information about the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, EnergyCapitalHTX's presenting sponsor, visit htxenergytransition.org.