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In the Spotlight: Texas State Climatologist

Public Citizen News / July-August 2021

By Michael Coleman

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

After Winter Storm Uri walloped Texas in February and the state’s failed power grid left millions freezing in the dark for days, Public Citizen and other advocates went to work in the Texas Legislature to convince lawmakers to strengthen the grid and protect ordinary Texans.

With the climate crisis worsening and storms like Uri becoming more common, the work was urgent and critical. Uri was the most costly winter storm in U.S. history. The failure of Texas’ largely unregulated energy grid left 70% of Texans without power in subfreezing temperatures for days. The storm’s official death toll surpassed 150, and some estimates put the number at more than 700 dead.

Not surprisingly, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott resisted attempts to hold the oil and gas industry and state energy regulators accountable for the catastrophe. But after months of wrangling and pressure from Public Citizen and other advocacy groups, Texas lawmakers approved several bills that took modest steps to improve the grid and make the state’s power infrastructure more resilient.

One notable change is a directive requiring the newly created Texas Reliability Council to take into consideration the projections of the Texas State Climatologist when planning for the resiliency of the grid and its fuel supply. Specifically, the law says regulators should “take into consideration predictions on severity of future weather events over the next 15 years produced by the state climatologist.”

The climatologist’s predictions about the likelihood of extreme weather during the next 15 years must also be considered by gas supply chain facility operators, electric cooperatives, municipally owned utilities, and transmission and distribution utilities” to “maintain service quality and reliability during a weather emergency.”

Public Citizen’s Texas Office Director, Adrian Shelley, worked with Texas Sen. Donna Howard (D-Austin) on the specific language of the climatologist amendment. After Howard introduced it, Public Citizen successfully lobbied the legislature – especially members of the relevant committees – to attach the amendment to a larger grid resilience bill during the final days of the legislative session.

“Texas lawmakers have ignored climate change for decades,” Shelley said. “Texans have paid the consequences. How many more crises must pass until we see real action?”

John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist for two decades, said that there may be a link between climate change, disruption of the polar vortex, and extreme cold weather events in Texas. Nielsen-Gammon told the Associated Press in May that Texas lawmakers did not ask him to testify after the blackout but he did provide information to offices that requested it.

“The cold wasn’t unprecedented, but the combination of extreme cold and widespread snow was extremely unusual,” Nielsen-Gammon told the Associated Press. Howard, the state representative who introduced the climatologist amendment, praised Public Citizen’s work on the issue.

“I appreciate advocates like Public Citizen, who provided valuable suggestions throughout the legislative session regarding SB 3, a major energy bill for Texas,” Howard said, adding that her amendment will “ensure those responsible for managing the electric grid don’t just rely on historic trends to project energy demand, but also incorporate future predictions based on changes to the climate.”