A Year After Blackout, Texans Navigate Climate Trauma in a Failing Fossil State

State residents are struggling with climate PTSD after last week’s freeze as Big Oil maintains its grip on state politicians.

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Photo credit: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

This piece is being published in collaboration with Truthout.

Like millions of Texans who lost power and water for days during last year’s Winter Storm Uri, Houston native and writer Willow Curry found herself making preparations ahead of last week’s freeze. She filled up containers with water and stocked up on non-perishable foods—hard lessons learned from last year’s statewide blackout, which led to at least 246 deaths, and perhaps as many as 700.

Curry grew up in the city’s historically Black Kashmere Gardens neighborhood, whose residents have contracted cancer at disproportionate rates due to industrial rail-related creosote contamination. Curry, who was rescued alongside her two aunts from Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters in 2017, told Truthout and the Texas Observer that her experiences of prior climate-related traumas, including Harvey and Uri, heightened her sense of anxiety ahead of the recent freeze, especially as someone suffering from a neurological conversion disorder that manifests as diagnosed dystonia—her body’s response to the complex trauma of losing both her parents from cancer at a young age.

Another reason she was more anxious this time around, Curry said, was that she no longer has the housing connection that kept her warm last year, when she was able to stay with a friend’s landlord whose power stayed on. 

“I didn’t know where I might be able to go if the power did go out, and my dystonia is always negatively affected by the cold,” she said. “I just felt so much frustration with people like [Governor] Greg Abbott and [Senator] Ted Cruz…. It makes you question, like fundamentally what democracy is for, what civil society is for, if we can’t even have basic infrastructure to keep us alive, and that isn’t a priority to our elected officials.”

While Texas’ energy grid mostly held up this time around, as many as 70,000 Texans lost electricity during last week’s cold snap due to localized issues, including downed power lines and isolated supply losses. On February 5, Austin residents received a notice directing them to boil their water before drinking it, although the city’s utility, Austin Water, said the issue wasn’t due to the recent freeze or a power outage but “an internal treatment process issue” that resulted in high turbidity, or cloudiness in the water, which shut down service at the city’s Ulrich Water Treatment Plant. 

But the details of these outages’ specific causes may be less important than their lasting emotional and physical impact: Much like a year ago, Texans are once again navigating the lingering effects of climate trauma and even working through post-traumatic stress disorder-like responses to the recent freeze. 

Austin residents wait in line at St. Elmo Brewery for free potable water during last year’s unprecedented winter storm, when many citizens lost electricity and water pressure. Cal Sport Media via AP Images

Curry, who has worked with several Houston-based grassroots organizations—including the Northeast Action Collective; Houston Complete Communities; and Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience—said Governor Abbott’s reversal of his promise that there wouldn’t be any outages this month, combined with his continual downplaying of the outages and failures that did occur last week, felt insulting and dismissive of Texans’ collective trauma. 

“The experience of going through these things over and over and over again, in so many different ways, whether it’s the water or the air quality, or, you know, there being a cancerous plume under where you live … It gives you a much different perspective about the urgency of what needs to be done,” Curry said.

In Austin, the recent freeze and three-day boil-water notice are something Texas Sierra Club Chapter Director Dave Cortez said reopen old wounds from last year, when he struggled to keep his then-2-year-old daughter warm, fed, and distracted. A year later, he’s still watching his now 3-year-old have to adapt to rapid changes in their daily lives. 

“She remembers living through Winter Storm Uri and knows exactly what to do when the power and water go out, and is always insistent about asking, ‘Why, Papa?’ It’s surreal and maddening, but we’re raising a child of the climate crisis,” he said. “It’s still hard to talk about, thinking back to a year ago. And it’s hard now because we just went through it again.”

Cortez knew feelings of fear and anxiety from last year’s storm would linger for some time, even though, during the crisis itself, he really didn’t have time to reflect on what his family was going through. “For a lot of [marginalized Texans], whether it was Halloween floods that happened in 2013 and 2015 in Austin, or the drought and fires in Bastrop in 2011, or big hurricanes that hit Houston, … they don’t have a lot of ability to adapt or flee, or count on their home insurance,” he said. “They don’t get that time to feel and reflect.”

For Cortez, centering everyday Texans’ collective climate trauma and memories of surviving six or more days without power and water is necessary to mobilize toward people-centered solutions to state failure, and to combat Governor Abbott and other political leaders spinning this year’s less-severe outages as a “victory.” Moreover, he said, it’s necessary to actively politicize that trauma and turn it into leverage against those in power who continue to refuse to fix the systemic problems that led to last year’s blackout as well as those who profited from it.

Abbott is already doing said victory lap, arguing that the grid’s performance last week should give Texans more confidence that the system is working. “The Texas electric grid is more reliable and more resilient than it has ever been,” he said. 

But the fact that the state’s grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), didn’t completely fail this time doesn’t mean that Texans should feel reassured that the issues that led to its February 2021 collapse have been addressed, experts say. In fact, many of them haven’t.


A Failing Fossil State

Not only did tens of thousands of Texans still experience power and utility services outages during the recent cold snap; fracked gas production saw its biggest dip in production last week due to freezing valves, air systems, and other equipment in the Permian Basin, marking its lowest level since the February 2021 grid failure. On top of that, the Permian freeze-offs also sent oil prices to a multiyear high as extraction sites remained shuttered.

As many Texans now understand all too well, last year’s crisis was spurred by the power supply chain being cut off during Uri, with the biggest losses coming from the fracked gas sector. Governor Abbott and other Texas Republicans falsely claimed at the time that the state’s renewables were to blame. While wind and solar also suffered losses, breakdowns in the state’s gas supply far outpaced renewables and were the leading factor in the blackout.

“The thing about last week[‘s freeze] is, we passed the test, but it was also a really easy test, and we didn’t pass it with perfect scores,” said Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas. “There’s a lot of people who had problems with their power, and there was still the gas production drop, so I think we shouldn’t take away too much false confidence that we’re all good now.”

Even prior to last week’s freeze, the fracked gas industry experienced another dip in early January as “instruments froze, output plunged, and companies spewed a miasma of pollutants into the atmosphere in a bid to keep operations stable,” Bloomberg reported. The freezes mark two episodes in the span of just four weeks, laying bare the industry’s continued vulnerability to the kind of extreme weather shaping the state’s present and future climate. 

While the state has made upgrades to infrastructure that have left it somewhat better prepared for extreme cold, bureaucratic, regulatory, and legislative loopholes have allowed oil and gas companies to remain immune to real consequences for their catastrophic failures and devastating price-gouging during the disaster last year while maintaining their vise-like grip on the state’s regulators and politicians.

Heads rolled at the Public Utility Commission of Texas and ERCOT, but state officials gave the fracked gas industry—ostensibly regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission—what amounts to a slap on the wrist, allowing the industry to avoid the most burdensome and necessary changes. Namely, Senate Bill 3, passed last summer, required power plants to “winterize” their equipment to withstand extreme cold, but the regulations do not apply to oil and gas extraction and distribution facilities, including wellheads and pipelines that serve as the fuel supply chain to the power plants. Some deadlines to implement winterization changes where they do apply have been delayed until next winter.

DeAnn Walker, former chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, testifies at a public hearing in Austin to consider the factors that led to statewide electrical blackouts in February 2021. Walker resigned the following month. AP Photo/Eric Gay

“The lack of oversight over gas is something that keeps us vulnerable today,” Professor Webber said. “Gas really wasn’t put under pressure to improve its reliability, to winterize, to act in a more transparent manner. There’s all sorts of problems with gas that I think the legislature was aware of, but decided to ignore for a variety of political or other reasons.”

To get an idea of just how emboldened oil and gas companies remain a year after their greed and malfeasance helped lead to exorbitant bills and the deaths of hundreds of Texans, just look at the recent dispute between two of the state’s largest fracked gas suppliers, Kelcy Warren’s Energy Transfer Partners (of Dakota Access Pipeline infamy)  and Luminant Corporation, a subsidiary of Vistra Corporation.

Energy Transfer, which made billions amid the chaos of Uri, threatened to stop providing fracked gas to Luminant’s power plants over $21.6 million in fees that the company said Luminant owed in connection with the blackout last year. Luminant’s five fracked gas-fueled plants provide electricity to about 400,000 Texas homes. In other words, less than a year after the biggest energy crisis in the nation—caused in part by oil and gas companies’ failure to supply the state’s power plants—and just weeks before another major winter freeze, Energy Transfer threatened to hold 400,000 homes hostage in order to extract money from a corporate competitor. 

After Luminant asked the Railroad Commission to intervene, Energy Transfer backed down, telling the commission that it will continue to supply Luminant’s plants while it tries to work out the fee dispute, and asking the commission to delay any ruling. While news of the episode reportedly reached Governor Abbott’s office, neither Abbott nor the commission seriously intervened. Commissioner Wayne Christian simply tweeted that he was “paying close attention to this” and encouraged the companies to “come together to resolve this issue.” 

Critics argue the non-response may be in part because Energy Transfer’s Warren is not only one of Abbott’s biggest individual donors, having given the governor $1 million just last year, but the company also contributed at least $10,300 to Christian in 2020, according to Texans for Public Justice.

The fact that the political climate in Texas remains so captured by oil and gas that a single billion-dollar company can hold 400,000 Texans’ power hostage is why it’s so important, as Texas Sierra Club’s Cortez puts it, to continue building mass political power from below. That’s why he and other climate-justice advocates across the state remain focused on harnessing the power of Texans’ collective climate trauma to build support for candidates campaigning heavily on the 2021 grid failure—candidates like Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott for the governorship, and Luke Warford, who is vying for Christian’s seat on the Railroad Commission.

Warford has homed in on the 2021 grid failure, hammering the Railroad Commission’s complicity in the blackout. In a statement to Truthout and the Texas Observer, Warford said last week’s freeze, just like the one last February, not only proved a major threat to the state’s fracked gas supply, but also proved that the commission is failing to do its job. 

“Almost a full year after Winter Storm Uri, the Texas energy grid is just as vulnerable to collapse. The commissioners, whose campaign coffers are filled by the rich executives they regulate, are to blame for the fear and anger millions of Texans feel,” he said.


Greening the Grid

Still, Cortez and Webber agree that candidates, legislators, and advocates need to push beyond the most obvious fixes to the state grid, emphasizing demand-side solutions such as energy efficiency and stricter building codes. These types of changes would, according to Webber, reduce demand during extreme weather and retain desired temperatures in homes for longer in the event of a power failure. 

If the state combined its massive clean energy resources with investments in weatherization and demand-side policies such as offering people credits on their utility bills to reduce their energy use, the state wouldn’t see anywhere near the kind of demand that led to outages this year and last.

The reason why Texas Republicans and state regulators won’t invest in that approach, however, is simple, Cortez said: “Because they want to make as much money as possible, and their interests want to make as much money as possible. Politicians depend on [oil and gas executives] donating to their campaigns. [Oil and gas executives] who donate to their campaigns depend on people consuming their products.”

State lawmakers have also largely skirted the issue of ERCOT’s isolated structure—the fact that Texas is its own, separate power grid. In addition to winterizing the state’s power supply, Webber argues it’s essential that ERCOT be connected with the country’s two other national grids, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection, which would allow the state to import power during extreme weather events to shore up its supply. Not only that, but connecting the grids could help spur a desperately needed transition to renewable energy.

Texas currently leads the nation in renewable energy generation, having added 8,139 megawatts of energy in 2021, with 42 percent coming from wind and 40 percent from solar. Connecting up the state’s power grid would boost the market value of wind and solar, making it more competitive against oil and gas.

“If we connect to other grids, then we can sell clean electrons to other states to help them reach their decarbonization goals, make money in the process and improve our reliability,” Webber said. “It’s one of those things like, this is so good for reliability, economics, and the environment, why aren’t we doing it? And we aren’t doing it mostly for political, philosophical reasons, which is that [Texas Republicans don’t] want to deal with the feds.”

The renewable sector’s performance during last week’s freeze may prove his point. Wind power far exceeded ERCOT’s forecast during the freeze, at times providing nearly a third of all the power Texans used last week—more than making up for the losses it experienced last year.

Research overwhelmingly shows that a just transition to renewable energy and a managed decline of the state’s oil and gas extraction along a science-based timeline is necessary to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of planetary warming, the point at which climate scientists say natural systems begin to reach critical tipping points. Keeping the state’s fossil fuels in the ground is especially critical in the Permian Basin, where fracked gas extraction is expected to increase 50 percent over the next decade—the exact opposite of the 40 percent decline climate scientists say is needed to stay under 1.5 degrees.

For climate-justice advocates like Cortez, a just transition must be paired with a more radical move toward a system of energy democracy, where working-class people are actually able to shape decisions around how they get their power and water. After all, Texans’ collective trauma is partly a result of the ability of the state’s oil and gas companies to operate with nearly total impunity.

“That level of wealth, that level of power only separates those actors from the rest of working, everyday Texans,” he said. “There’s no way they can understand what people are going through. There’s no way they understand what the hardships people are struggling with.”