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Public Citizen’s Texas Office Works Through Blackout Disaster

Public Citizen News / March-April 2021

By Michael Coleman

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

When Texas weather services began predicting freezing temperatures over Valentine’s Day weekend, it seemed life could get uncomfortable for Texans, but no one could have predicted just how bad it would get.

As Texans struggled to stay warm amid subfreezing temperatures beginning Feb. 14, electricity demand skyrocketed. At the same time, the amount of available electricity plummeted, with almost 90% of the loss coming from coal, natural gas, and nuclear sources. The resulting strain on the state’s largely unregulated power grid led to rolling blackouts designed to keep the entire grid from crashing. At least 4 million Texans lost power – some for four days or more. Water treatment plants also lost power leading to water shortages and warnings to boil water.

At the same time, frozen and bursting water pipes prevented the flow of clean drinking water to about 13.5 million residents of the state and flooded thousands of homes. Meanwhile, Covid-19 relief efforts – including testing and vaccinations – were postponed.

Even as the crisis worsened, Public Citizen’s Texas team worked from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth on behalf of Texans. Public officials seeking credible information called on our expertise in energy and climate policy, and dozens of members of the local and national media sought interviews with the Public Citizen staff.

“Those of us who could – who had power and water during the disaster – were sharing information about the ongoing crisis with everyone we could,” Shelley said.

Shelley wrote an op-ed published in the state’s largest newspaper – the Houston Chronicle – that countered a false narrative that wind turbines were to blame for the crisis. Shelley noted that all energy sources struggled in the freezing cold, but gas and nuclear accounted for the largest percentage of the failure.

“Transitioning to clean, renewable energy and away from dirty, polluting fossil fuels was always going to be difficult in Texas, where oil and gas have long reign,” Shelley wrote. “But this week has shown that providing reliable power isn’t a clean energy problem. It’s a Texas energy problem.”

Public Citizen’s Texas staffers fielded a deluge of interview requests ranging from CNN to Reuters to energy trade publications to local TV and newspapers. Our San Antonio Climate Organizer DeeDee Belmares testified at a Monday board meeting of San Antonio’s municipal utility – CPS Energy – to demand answers about their power failures. Stephanie Thomas, Public Citizen’s Houston-based climate organizer, quickly convened a virtual town hall with state lawmakers from the Houston area to inform the public on the coming legislative response to the crisis. Kaiba White, Public Citizen’s energy policy specialist in Austin, worked to identify the root causes of the energy crash and begin putting together proposals to help ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

Our social media accounts (including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @PublicCitizenTX) shared up-to-date information on the disaster, including public aid resources and news updates. We also generated commentary on social media calling out Republican officials in Texas – including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton – who were responsible for failed policies, spreading misinformation, or missing in action when Texans needed them most.

Public Citizen’s Energy Program Director in Washington, Tyson Slocum, also jumped in to help. Slocum told the New York Times it was unfathomable that the Texas energy grid regulator – the Public Utility Commission – had approved licenses for energy distributors whose variable rates had suddenly led to utility bills of thousands of dollars for residential Texas consumers.

“What are you thinking, allowing the average type of household to sign up for this kind of program?” Slocum asked the Public Utility Commission of Texas in the Times. “The risk-reward is so out of whack that it never should have been permitted in the first place.”

In the weeks and months ahead, Public Citizen’s Texas office will work to ensure that policies that led to the Texas blackout are changed, and that public officials responsible for the crisis are held responsible.