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Tina Casey headshot

The Texas Energy Crisis Brings Environmental Justice Issues Home

Energy is deeply entwined in matters of environmental justice, and the recent experiences of Texas underscore the high cost of injustice for all.
By Tina Casey
Environmental Justice

Photo: A car drives along a Dallas street during a February ice storm that has brought up many questions about the Lone Star States approach toward environmental justice, climate action and energy regulation.

While millions of Texas residents were still locked in a deep freeze without electricity or heat last week, fossil fuel stakeholders leaped to place the blame on the state’s renewable energy sector. The accusation was quickly debunked, but the entire back-and-forth missed the point: Regardless of the source, energy is a matter of community safety, public health and a reliable environment in which to do business. Energy is also deeply entwined in matters of environmental justice, and the experiences of last week underscore the high cost of injustice for all, businesses and residents alike.

The Texas energy paradox

According to the most recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Texas is by far the single largest energy producing state in the country, accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation’s total output.

That simple fact suggests that Texas would be the least likely state in the nation to suffer through a far-ranging energy disruption that impacted millions for days on end.

However, the Texas energy crisis of 2021 is not a one-off. The state has suffered through a string of weather-related energy supply disruptions in recent years, including heat waves, a major cold snap in 2011, and a long string of tropical storms and hurricanes.

To the extent that the latest series of weather events is a symptom of climate change, the current state of the Texas energy infrastructure is a harbinger of things to come: unstable, unreliable, and incapable of meeting the challenges of a warming planet or the need to confront environmental justice.

The free market fails on resiliency

Fortunately, most parts of the U.S. are better prepared for extreme weather events. The emerging consensus among energy experts is that Texas’s unique, deregulated energy market has raised the risk of widespread disruption, because it discourages long-term investment in weather proofing.

One leading example is the state’s sprawling natural gas infrastructure. It provides for the bulk of Texas’s electricity generation as well as a good deal of residential heating. The state’s refineries, petrochemical plants and other industrial facilities also rely heavily on natural gas.

“Officials for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages most of Texas's grid, said the primary cause of the outages Tuesday appeared to be the states natural gas providers,” the Texas Tribune reported last week. “Many are not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production.”

“By some estimates, nearly half of the states natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures, while freezing components at natural gas-fired power plants have forced some operators to shut down,” the report continued.

Frozen grasses after the February Texas ice storm. Image credit: M. Zane McClellan/Pixabay
Frozen grasses after the February Texas ice storm. Image credit: M. Zane McClellan/Pixabay

Although fossil fuel stakeholders were quick to blame wind turbines, they simply proved the overall point. Wind turbines function normally in cold weather all over the world, except in Texas, where developers failed to weatherize systems even after the cold snap of 2011 demonstrated the need.

As a deregulated market outside of the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Texas is also cut off from grid mutual aid systems. In other parts of the U.S., grid operators can count on regional assistance when power stations and other infrastructure go down. Texas was left to deal with the crisis on its own, for reasons of its own making.

The free market fails on reliability and public health

As of this writing the impact on public health is yet to be measured in numbers, but the images of human suffering have circled the globe. Some observers are also warning of a ripple effect on the business community.

Last week Texas Tribune analyst Ross Ramsey wrote that the energy crisis “could leave a lasting bruise on the Texas exceptionalism political and business leaders like to brag about,” undoing “years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.”

“Low energy prices attract business, and Texas has made a name for itself as a fast-growth, pro-business state,” Ramsey noted, but the 2021 energy crisis stripped the veneer off the rosy picture and exposed the high level of risk involved in deregulation.

Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we're rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn't poison us,” Ramsey observed.

As Ramsey pointed out, the deregulated Texas energy market favors refineries, petrochemical plants and other top industrial users in the state. These facilities can curtail operations in a weather emergency to avoid the energy price spikes that the deregulated Texas market allows. Many commercial users cannot do the same. Residential users are especially vulnerable because they demand more energy during heat waves and cold snaps, which are the very conditions that raise the risk of price spikes.

Texas at the crossroads: renewable energy, environmental justice and community resilience

The odds are that few, if any, lessons will be learned from the Texas energy crisis of 2021. After all, the 2011 cold snap was supposed to be a wakeup call for state legislators to fix the system, and they did not.

However, back in 2011 the renewable energy sector was not as competitive as it is today. If the Republican-led state government fails to take action, business leaders in Texas can seek other means of supporting new, weather-hardened renewable energy facilities that address both environmental justice and resiliency issues.

One area to watch is the popularization of microgrids alongside the growth of the community solar field, which focuses on local, resilient energy production.

Another potential area of progress is the rural electric co-operative field. Rural co-operatives are pivoting to renewable energy and resilience, and their community benefit mission supports investment in hardening energy infrastructure against weather emergencies.

The U.S. Department of Energy continued to promote growth in both of these areas during the Trump administration, despite the former president’s aim of supporting fossil energy. In all likelihood, the agency will redouble its efforts during the Biden administration, given the current president’s focus on environmental justice.

The strongest impact of President Biden’s environmental justice focus will likely be felt outside of Texas, where the FERC holds authority. If the community and economic benefits become apparent, that would provide Texas business leaders with support to lobby in favor of similar policies in their home state.

In addition, the Energy Department supports significant renewable energy demonstration projects and other clean tech R&D ventures in Texas, vehicle electrification and green hydrogen being two recent examples.

Warning signs of unsustainable growth and Texas’s fossil energy infrastructure were building long before the most recent crisis, especially regarding the impacts of oil and gas fracking and the disposal of fracking wastewater.

Texas has a major advantage over many other states because it has both wind and solar resources in abundance. During the Obama it won acclaim as a wind energy leader in the run-up to the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015.

Now that the Biden administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, business leaders in Texas have a chance to burnish the state’s reputation again, regardless of another failure to act by Republican leadership in the state legislature.

Image credit: Matthew T. Rader/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey