Despite the horror of Winter Storm Uri, when many Texans froze to death of hypothermia in their own homes, the Legislature has not taken a full court press approach to preventing disaster in the future. It has moved forward Senate Bill 3, which intends to remedy the aspects of our energy infrastructure that failed us, yet the bill in its current form focuses only on the production side of the energy equation. There is no question that a lack of weatherization of power plants contributed greatly to the failure of the grid, and the provisions in SB 3 do make significant progress toward fixing this half of the energy equation.
What SB 3 is missing is the demand half of the energy equation that failed just as spectacularly as the supply side. Texas homes and businesses were ill equipped to deal with plummeting temperatures. The inefficiency of the aging Texas housing and commercial building stock wasted energy so badly that even if all the power plants that failed because of lack of weatherization had been protected, we still would have been far short of the power needed to prevent the extended blackouts.
Texas led the nation 20 years ago in energy efficiency when we were the first to adopt an energy efficiency standard, pushing our utilities to offer rebates and low interest loans to weatherize or install energy efficient appliances, but Texas has plummeted to 29th because the electric utilities have allowed these programs to lag far behind other states.
These same electric utility companies quietly opposed and killed Senate Bill 243 and House Bill 4556 which would have pushed them to grow the weatherization and energy efficiency programs they already have running to create energy savings of 1 percent over four years. It is a very modest proposal similar to legislation that kick-started energy efficiency standards and this new 1 percent increased efficiency could help up to a million Texans use mostly their own money to weatherize their homes or housing units. For every $1 investment in energy efficiency, consumers would save $2.80 on their monthly bills. These improvements increase the value of the home while giving the Texans it shelters increased protection from extreme cold and heat even if the power goes out.
The energy saved through home energy efficiency improvements cost less per watt and is cleaner per watt than any energy produced by either fossil or renewable sources. Utilities like Oncor that manage and fund these programs know very well that the best investment our utilities can make to ensure the lights are kept on during the next weather-created energy crisis is a more efficient housing stock.
There has been plenty of outrage at the energy companies of all stripes dominated by corporations with lobbyists ready to defend their shortcomings However, little attention has been paid to energy demand which is where we the people live (and die) when the power does go out.
There are some lawmakers from both parties who understand this and support it, but many are still stuck thinking that building more big, expensive, polluting power plants is the way to go rather than focusing on the most affordable energy which is the energy we save when we make our homes energy efficient.
Ten years ago, Texas power plants froze during a fast-moving winter storm, causing rolling electricity blackouts across the state. Outraged Texas regulators and lawmakers, vowing to crack down, debated requiring energy companies to protect their equipment against extreme weather to ensure reliability.
But they didn’t.
Nine years ago, two state agencies that regulate utilities and the oil and gas industry warned that natural gas facilities that lost power during outages couldn’t feed electricity generation plants, creating a spiral of power loss. The agencies jointly recommended that lawmakers compel gas suppliers and power plants to fix the problem.
But they didn’t.
Eight years ago, economists warned that the state’s free-market grid left companies with little incentive to build enough plants to provide backup power during emergencies. With the support of then-Gov. Rick Perry, legislators and regulators considered increasing power rates to encourage the construction of more power plants, so that Texas, like other states, would have sufficient reserves.
But they didn’t.
In the wake of each power failure, or near-failure, over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly stood at a fork in the road. In one direction lay government-mandated solutions that experts said would strengthen the state’s power system by making it less fragile under stress. The other direction continued Texas’ hands-off regulatory approach, leaving it to the for-profit energy companies to decide how to protect the power grid.
In each instance, lawmakers left the state’s lightly regulated energy markets alone, choosing cheap electricity over a more stable system. As a result, experts say, the power grid that Texans depend on to heat and cool their homes and run their businesses has become less and less reliable — and more susceptible to weather-related emergencies.
“Everyone has been in denial,” said Alison Silverstein, a consultant who works with the U.S. Department of Energy and formerly served as a senior adviser at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “They treat each individual extreme event as a one-off, a high-impact, low-frequency event, which means, ‘I hope it doesn’t happen again.’”
With each passing year, the grid has steadily become less reliable. In 1989, Texas suffered a cold snap considered worse if not equal to the winter storm earlier this year yet managed to keep the grid functioning, with only a few hours of rotating outages.
By comparison, February’s Winter Storm Uri brought the Texas power grid to within five minutes of complete collapse, officials acknowledged. Millions of residents were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures; nearly 200 died.
“Our system now is more vulnerable than it was 30 years ago,” said Woody Rickerson, vice president of grid planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “With the generation mix we have now, the weather has the ability to affect wind and solar and (the gas supply). Those are things we can’t anticipate.”
The modern deregulated Texas power market was set up in the late 1990s to replace the state-controlled system through which Texans had gotten their electricity for close to a century. Rising power prices had become increasingly unpopular among the public and industry, in particular the petrochemical plants and refineries lining the Gulf Coast.
In terms of prices, the plan worked — especially for big business. Since 2001, the last year before deregulation, average industrial electricity rates in Texas declined by 7 percent, according to federal data ending in 2020. Over that same period, average residential rates grew almost 30 percent, though they remain well below the national average.
Cheap power for industry has fed the oil and petrochemical boom along the Gulf Coast and West Texas and attracted new companies to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. It also created a new industry, power retailing, with hundreds of companies springing up to act as middlemen, negotiating lower prices from generators in order to amass more customers and boost their profits.
“This was never done to benefit the residential customer,” said Robert Cullick, the former head of communications at the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Austin-based nonprofit that manages power plants and hydroelectric dams across Texas. “It was for the big guys and those who wanted to sell power into the market and make big profits.”
Under the old system, utilities had to keep enough capacity to adequately serve every customer in their area. But under deregulation, that responsibility was handed to the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market.
The system worked for a time, relying primarily on old infrastructure built during the regulated era. But as that equipment aged and the state’s population boomed, Texas’ power grid has become increasingly strained.
2011: Anger, then sticker shock
The first real sign of trouble came in February 2011, when freezing temperatures across Texas forced ERCOT to rotate outages for two days during Super Bowl weekend, impacting 4.4 million customers.
Lawmakers assessing the fallout were incredulous and angry. Was Texas — no stranger to hurricanes and other weather catastrophes — really so ill-prepared to handle a nasty winter storm?
“There’s no secret that winter comes around once a year,” said Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte.
Legislators introduced a flood of bills, requiring the PUC to buy more backup generation and penalizing companies that didn’t meet reliability standards. But as they would time and again in the years ahead, Texas elected leaders opted not to take significant action, convinced their free-market power system — less regulated than any grid in the country — ultimately would find a way to keep the lights on.
Public Utility Commission chairman Barry Smitherman was asked during the ensuing legislative hearings whether the Legislature needed to change the law to force power plants to weatherize. Smitherman demurred.
“I think we have all the authority we need, Mr. Chairman,” Smitherman said, adding that the PUC would consider tweaks to its rules to ensure that the grid remained reliable. “The companies are going to have to take the initiative to get this done.”
Behind the scenes, electric utilities and large consumers of electricity, such as refineries and computer manufacturers, were lobbying hard against stronger winterization measures, arguing it would raise energy costs, recalled Tom “Smitty” Smith, who at the time led the activist group Texas Public Citizen.
A recent study by the the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimated the cost of winterizing natural gas plants after the 2011 storm — the largest source of outages during the February blackout — at $95 million in today’s money. Much of that would have fallen on the state’s industrial companies, which account for more than half of Texas power consumption.
In Austin, those companies wield outsized influence. Representatives of the energy, natural resources and waste industries spent a combined $64 million lobbying the Texas Legislature in 2011 — more than any other sector — according to an analysis of 2011 lobbying contracts by the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
“It might have cost an extra few dollars a year on the average residential consumer electric bill to have protected ourselves from this problem,” Smith said. “Our legislators got convinced by the big electric utilities and industrial customers that this would cost too much.”
2011: Regulation with no teeth
As a result, the only legislation to come out of the 2011 storm was a minor bill from then-state Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, which required power companies to file weatherization plans with the PUC each year.
Two months after that bill was signed into law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation put out a report of more than 350 pages, urging Texas to enact stricter weatherization standards for power plants and natural gas operators. And they did to a degree, with ERCOT putting out best practices, conducting annual workshops and inspecting plants every three to four years.
But there were two problems. First, despite FERC’s recommendation, the state Legislature never gave the PUC authority to penalize power plants that did not comply, making weatherization voluntary. While progress was made, some companies opted not to bring their plants up to code, said Rickerson, the ERCOT vice president.
“Ultimately those were financial decisions that had to be made,” he said. “How much is someone willing to invest in a power plant that’s 50 years old and going to retire in a few years?”
More significantly, the best practices ERCOT was sharing were designed for a cold snap like that seen in 2011. While cold, with temperatures in Dallas dropping as low as 14 degrees, it was nothing compared to the 1989 winter storm, when temperatures dropped to 7 degrees in Houston and minus-7 in Abilene, let alone 1899, when the state’s all-time low temperature of minus-23 degrees was set in the Panhandle town of Tulia.
So when temperatures dipped into the single digits for days on end this February, most Texas power plants were simply not prepared. Exterior control equipment and fuel lines froze, not to mention coal piles and wind turbine blades.
“One power plant under freezing for 200-plus hours. That’s not a thing, right?” said Chris Moser, executive vice president of operations for NRG Energy, of expectations going into the winter. “If you look at the math ERCOT did prior to the seasonal assessment, it looked like (there was plenty of power). But then you have 80 to 85 plants not showing up. It was a failure of imagination.”
As for Hegar’s legislation, it has proved even more toothless than it appeared at the time.
According to a recent report from ERCOT, the agency was never given authority to judge the weatherization plans but only to check that they were being implemented. And a requirement in Hegar’s bill that the PUC produce a one-time Weather Emergency Preparedness Report, which was quietly published in 2012 and found that many power companies were still doing a poor job implementing reforms, drew little attention from state officials.
“When you’re on the commission, you’re dealing with what’s immediately in front of you,” said Ken Anderson, a former public utility commissioner. “I’m not sure how much follow-up occurred.”
A decade later, Hegar, now the Texas comptroller, described his bill as politics being the art of the possible, saying the Legislature should have taken a “much more active role” in 2011.
“It’s almost like an obstacle course,” Hegar said. “There’s a lot of people laying in the darkness and in the weeds that are trying to kill your stuff, and you don’t even know who they are.”
Texas’ natural gas system also froze up during the 2011 storm, but the gas producers got even less scrutiny than the power companies. Shortly after that event, federal officials recommended the state consider “minimum, uniform standards” for winterizing natural gas wells and processing facilities, as well as labeling them critical facilities exempted from rolling blackouts, like hospitals and water treatment plants. But oil and gas companies, a lobbying force without equal in Austin, resisted.
The industry has long held sway over politicians in Texas, where it is not only a huge employer but also a massive campaign contributor. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than the oddly named Texas Railroad Commission, where fundraising from the very companies the agency regulates is considered essential to winning a seat on the three-member commission.
“Gas is nearly unregulated,” said Peter Cramton, a former ERCOT board member and economist at the University of Maryland. “The Railroad Commission’s mission is quite different than the mission of ERCOT, which has a public service mission. Their mission is to support the oil and gas industry.”
There is no indication the railroad commission even considered the federal recommendation that it mandate gas facilities weatherize after the failures of 2011.
Even now, in the wake of the devastating blackout in February, railroad commissioners are resisting such standards, with Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian calling those efforts part of a “never-ending war against fossil fuels” in a March op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Even the task of getting gas facilities exempted from rolling blackouts never came to fruition, with only small numbers of companies alerting utilities to their need.
In 2012, the Public Utility Commission and Texas Railroad Commission jointly published a report calling for better coordination between the gas and power sectors to ensure a more reliable gas supply during power shortages. The following spring, the Railroad Commission issued a letter urging operators of gas infrastructure such as pipelines and compressors to sign them up as “critical loads,” warning, “many natural gas facilities rely on electricity to operate.”
But few gas facilities did, a failure that would come back to haunt them when Winter Storm Uri hit in February.
When temperatures first began falling around Midland three months ago, gas production plunged more than 20 percent over five days, according to estimates by the research firm Wood Mackenzie. But production would drop far further when ERCOT began rotating outages Feb. 14, leaving gas operators that had not enrolled as critical facilities without power.
Oncor, the utility covering North and West Texas, said only 35 gas operations in the Permian Basin had signed up prior to the February cold snap — compared to the almost 170 that signed up after they had already been shut off during the freeze.
Testifying at the Legislature after the storm, Christi Craddick, chair of the Railroad Commission, said she didn’t know that companies could sign up to avoid having power shut off.
“I didn’t know that was an opportunity,” she said. “We didn’t have anything on our website. And really it’s a function of working with those energy companies and ERCOT to put those people as priority.”
But when the Railroad Commission issued its 2013 letter about the importance of exempting critical gas infrastructure from blackouts, Craddick’s name was on the letterhead. Jennifer Hubbs, a former analyst at the PUC who wrote the Texas Energy Assurance Plan, said there was little appetite among Craddick and other officials to effect real reforms in the system.
“The few steps we were permitted to take (such as the RRC letter) were ignored and forgotten,” she said.
Craddick spokeswoman Mia Hutchens said Craddick “was not aware” of the 2013 letter when she testified in February.
Under the existing system, there is limited incentive for natural gas plants to weatherize. Unlike power plants, which under ERCOT rules are required to buy electricity in the event they cannot generate — often at inflated prices — natural gas producers are assessed no penalty for failing to deliver.
When wells freeze, they’re not producing gas and therefore not making money. But during such a shortage, a natural gas company producing at only half its normal output still could make 50 times what it would on a normal day. Gas prices on the Houston Ship Channel soared more than a hundredfold, from $3.72 per Million British Thermal Units on Feb. 11 to $400 on Feb. 17.
Vistra Energy, one of the state’s biggest power generators known for its TXU Energy brand, started receiving word from its gas suppliers on Friday, Feb. 12, that because of the freezing conditions it would not be able to deliver on its gas contracts for the coming weekend, said CEO Curt Morgan.
“We had to go into the open market and buy what gas we could find,” he said. “In that one week, we spent double what we spent in all of 2020.”
For the oil and gas sector, however, the blackout presented a potentially large financial windfall.
The president of Jerry Jones’ oil company, Comstock Resources, called the blackout a “jackpot” on a call with investors, while the pipeline company Kinder Morgan reported a $1.4 billion profit for the first three months of the year, more than twice what analysts had anticipated, primarily on the basis of gas sales during the blackout.
In recent months, gas producers have acknowledged the need to weatherize their operations against the cold. Yet they continue to argue that government mandates requiring them to do so are unnecessary.
“The market can provide the signals that are necessary to make sure the product flows,” said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
2013: Scoffing at the safety net
In 2013, lawmakers had another opportunity to make the grid more reliable. They didn’t just pass on it; they shot it down. After the rolling blackouts in February 2011 and a historic run of hot days that summer, warnings came that Texas’ reserve margin — the amount of power the grid could generate in case of an emergency — was running dangerously low.
The Texas Public Utility Commission began to examine shifting to a so-called capacity market like those in the Northeast. Power plants there bill ratepayers not just for the electricity they sell but for maintaining capacity for times of high demand.
Armed with studies predicting imminent disaster, Texas power companies got the support of Gov. Perry, who in 2013 called his advisers to his office to debate the merits, said Pat Wood, the former chairman of the state utility commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Perry said, “Look, it’s a political issue and you guys know it better than I do,” according to Wood.
But the commission quickly drew the wrath of large industrial and commercial customers, including the influential refining and petrochemical companies, who argued forecasts of power shortages were overblown and predicted billions of dollars in costs for consumers if the commission went ahead.
“If something is a needed improvement to reliability, we will support it,” said Katie Coleman, an attorney representing large industrial and commercial power customers, in an interview. “The problem with the capacity market is it’s three-year forward projection that may have nothing to do with supply and demand.”
Outraged by the prospect of raising power prices, Troy Fraser, the state senator who had led the charge toward deregulation 15 years earlier, called a hearing three days before Thanksgiving, ordering industry and officials to explain themselves.
Testifying in the wood-paneled meeting room of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, John Fainter, a veteran lobbyist for the power industry — since deceased — warned: “It’s important reliability be kept first and foremost, not profit.”
Republicans and Democrats alike were incensed, looking at the proposal not as a legitimate warning about the future of the grid but as a money grab at the expense of consumers and industry.
Fraser grilled utility commissioner Brandy Marty, a former chief of staff to Perry, asking how she thought $4 billion a year in additional power costs might impact the surge of businesses moving to Texas.
“You have a history in the governor’s office of being very pro-business and trying to recruit business in Texas,” he said. “Our energy cost is about half of (California’s), and one of the reasons we’re getting a lot of our industry is because” of cheap electricity.
“How much is this going to cost our school districts?” asked Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston. “We don’t want blackouts or brownouts, but there ought to be some middle ground.”
Fraser declined an interview request, saying, “I don’t do interviews any more since I left.”
But his intent at the hearing was clear, said Bill Peacock, who at the time served as vice president of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation.
“It was the Legislature telling the PUC: ‘This is not your job,’” he said.
Ellis, now a Harris County commissioner, defended his opposition as protecting underfunded schools, adding the Legislature’s “biggest mistake” on power came in creating “a market-based system that does not adequately serve our state.”
It is unclear how much a capacity market would have changed the outcome of the winter storm earlier this year. But the ferocity with which the oil and manufacturing firms attacked the capacity market proposal effectively sidelined the issue of substantive change in the Texas power market to improve resilience. Instead of a capacity market, the state utility commission — with the backing of industrial customers — opted for a more modest shift in the rules, allowing for payment to power plants that were at the ready to come on in times of power shortages.
Experts said gas plants today are better prepared for summer conditions than they were a decade ago. Yet the rule change has done little to get new power plants built, let alone weatherizing them for winter weather.
“The problem was everybody decided to get collective amnesia,” said Silverstein, the energy consultant. “Every August and September it’s all hands on deck, with everyone hand-wringing until we get through the summer peak. And then they say, ‘the ERCOT market worked.’”
A skyline of smokestacks appears on the horizon before the rest of Corpus Christi does. Approaching Texas’ “Sparkling City by the Sea” on I-37, a palm-tree-lined highway running from San Antonio to the Gulf Coast, it’s tough to tell where the billowing exhaust from oil refineries ends and the rain clouds begin. Massive storage domes, tangles of pipes, and burning flares reach into the sky, and a potpourri of gasoline, sulfur, and unidentified chemical-burning smells fill the air.
In Texas, it’s normal to see an oil refinery or a petrochemical plant as big as a football stadium, with another one behind it, and another one behind that. And it’s just as normal to see a neighborhood in the shadows of those massive polluters.
“It’s kind of a surreal landscape,” says Kathryn Masten, who retired with her husband to the Corpus Christi area in 2017, and is executive director of Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association. “We’re surrounded by these monstrosities. Just smoke stacks and flaring and construction.”
To Corpus locals, it’s a way of life. Industry means work — a third of jobs in the Corpus Christi area are in energy and manufacturing. Since the 1930s and the Texas oil gusher age, most of Corpus’ industry has been concentrated in refinery row, a 10-mile strip of facilities butting up against the edge of Corpus Christi Bay. But since the rise of fracking and the 2015 lift of the ban on crude-oil exports, industry has been sprawling beyond refinery row and into surrounding communities, transforming farmland and quiet seaside towns in ways that residents there never bargained for. “The whole landscape has changed,” says Chip Harmon, a professional fishing guide who has worked in Corpus for decades. “And I’m not talking about over the last 45 years, which it has, by hurricanes and stuff. I’m talking about in the last three years, dude.”
The fracking boom that rocked American economics and politics over the past decade has been accompanied by a plastics and petrochemicals boom. As the long-term prospects of fossil fuels are looking increasingly unstable in the face of worldwide efforts to decarbonize the economy and stave off catastrophic climate change, companies like Exxon, Shell, Chevron and others have all doubled down on the waste gases of fracking and the global demand for plastics as a source of continued revenue.
Corpus Christi sits in the crosshairs. Sitting on a major Gulf port, with a growing pipeline and rail system, in an “ozone attainment area” (where it’s cheaper to build because air-pollution regulations are easier to meet than in bigger industry cities that have smog problems, like Houston), the region is perfectly situated to host the industry’s creeping expansion.
Just in the past few years, a host of new projects has been built in towns around the bay. In 2018, Cheniere opened a $15 billion, 1,000-acre liquified-natural-gas export facility in Gregory. In 2019, Moda Midstream converted a 900-acre former naval base and crude-oil-storage facility in Ingleside into a major hub for crude-oil exports. In 2017, Koch Industries expanded its crude export terminal in Ingleside so it could route oil from its Flint Hills Resources refinery to Mexico. Occidental and Mexichem opened a $1.5 billion plastics plant in Ingleside in 2017.
But a broad coalition of scrappy community organizations from all around the bay have come together to try to stop the excessive industrial buildout. In 2018, several of them banded together to form an umbrella group known as the Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment, or CAPE. “We’re trying to counter the narrative that these [industries] are good for the Coastal Bend,” says Errol Summerlin, who founded Portland Citizens United, which is part of CAPE. Other members include Port Aransas Conservancy, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, and Del Mar College Green Team, as well as bigger statewide and national groups like Earthworks and Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Another member group is Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, co-founded by 38-year-old Love Sanchez, a single mom of two boys who grew up in Corpus Christi. Sanchez is part of the Karankawa tribe, but her organization also represents Lipan Apache and Mexica members. Sanchez points to “the seventh generation” prophecy, that a time would come when indigenous people from many tribes would come together under a common cause. She sees their struggle as part of others around the U.S., like the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
“We are a part of the prophecy that the ancestors had so long ago, that there would be a generation of our people who would come back together. I can’t believe I’m a part of it,” says Sanchez, holding back tears.
The members of CAPE were first galvanized to join forces amid the development of a petrochemical facility the likes of which the area has never seen. In the North Bay, smack between the tiny cities of Gregory and Portland, ExxonMobil and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), under the local banner of Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, is nearing completion on what will be the largest ethane steam cracker plant in the world. The $10 billion plant will turn ethane, an odorless, colorless gas that is a byproduct of fracking, into monoethylene glycol (used to make things like polyester clothing and antifreeze), and polyethylene, a building block of plastics. According to the plant’s air-quality permit, it will also pump about 3 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
The ethane will be morphed into billions of “nurdles,” or small plastic pellets. Smaller than a black eyed pea, the nurdles will likely be exported to Asia, melted down into resin, and molded into anything from single-use plastic cups to construction materials. Essentially, the plant will monetize the waste of one unsustainable energy process by building another unsustainable product, much of which will be used once before ending up in a landfill or an ocean.
But the residents living in the shadow of the massive plant will face other dangers. “This is a very dirty manufacturing process,” says Neil Carman, the clean-air director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Carman was also an inspector for 12 years with the state air-quality regulator that preceded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency that granted Exxon SABIC the permits to build the facility. “The people living in the community are going to be exposed to a toxic soup of carcinogens, mutagens that change the DNA, teratogens that cause birth defects and many, many other health effects,” he says. “The people in the area are going to be guinea pigs. It’s a sacrifice zone.”
Volatile organic compounds, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfide, sulfuric acid mist, and sulfur dioxide will all be released into the air, according to Exxon SABIC’s air quality permit. But TCEQ says that they conducted a review of the possible health impacts on people living nearby and on sensitive subgroups such as children or the elderly and that they expect no adverse short-term or long-term effects. “These concentrations were evaluated against guidelines established by toxicologists that assure no expected health impacts and, where concentrations were higher than the guidelines, toxicologists reviewed the potential impacts to confirm no adverse effects would be expected,” TCEQ says.
A spokesperson for Exxon SABIC, aka Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, touts TCEQ’s approval as proof that the project meets health and safety standards and adds that the company has installed community air monitors at two Gregory-Portland Independent School District locations, the results of which will be viewable by the public online.
But the opponents of the plant don’t believe Exxon SABIC is prioritizing public health. “Whatever risks the folks who live nearby and downwind of this plant, whatever the risk that people have from all the other factors out there, this plant increases their risk of cancers,” says Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which worked with CAPE and fought at the state level for stronger environmental protections at the Exxon SABIC plant. They didn’t have much success, “because the state pretty much rubber stamped the permit,” Levin says.
In Texas, industry will generally get the permitting it’s looking for, says Carman. “I’m still shocked to this day with what these companies get away with,” he says. “[The TCEQ is] there to basically issue permits, and to hell with the public and to hell with public health.”
While behemoths like Exxon SABIC are in a strong position to push their projects through, the local activists think they may have found a weakness in the industry’s plans. The Exxon SABIC plant itself is set to be completed this year, but there are still many pieces that need to come together for it to be operational: It’s own rail corridor, pipelines, port expansion — and a reliable water supply, which, in drought-prone South Texas may be harder than it sounds.
“It speaks to both the numerous links in the chain that these companies have to connect properly to get facilities operating, and it speaks to the ultimate vulnerability of installations like this,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “The system that they’re facing is engineered to push projects like this through regardless of what affected communities think about it. But we have seen over and over again that affected communities can, and do, fight back very, very effectively.”
Errol Summerlin stands on a long, straight paved road in Portland that leads directly to the main entrance of the Exxon SABIC site. Two rows of neat brick homes sitting on spacious lots line each side, and a white-painted plywood sign reads, “COME BUILD YOUR DREAM HOME.” Massive cubes of piping, flanked by cylindrical towers and cranes, tower over the community.
“Portland was a sleepy town. It used to be, you know, horse and buggy,” says Summerlin, 69, who lives about two miles from here. A retired Legal Aid attorney with a history of standing up to industry, Summerlin spent the early part of his career representing Native American tribes in Oklahoma and North Dakota, before diving into legal work in the Corpus Christi area, notably representing residents facing displacement in the historic black neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Washington-Coles.
Black and brown communities have bore the brunt of industry pollution in Corpus Christi for generations. Hillcrest and Washington-Coles experienced waves of rezoning and creeping industrialization that came to a head in the 1960s, as the construction of I-37 meant the neighborhoods were squeezed between a highway and refinery row, physically closed off from the rest of the city.
There are about 1,000 people living within a mile of the Exxon SABIC site, mostly in Gregory, where 93 percent of residents are minorities and 34 percent are low-income. Resident Carlos Garcia says he can see the tops of smokestacks at the Exxon SABIC site a half mile down the road from his home. “I understand people gotta work,” says Garcia, who spent his career building oil refineries in Texas. “If you’re a family man and you have a family you have to feed, you’ll do anything.” But he says he’s concerned that the allure of jobs have prevented people from thinking about the long-term. “Those construction jobs, they go away. And now you’re left with the environmental impact,” he says. “Some people around here see [the project] as a good thing. But they see the now, they don’t see the after.”
The Exxon SABIC plant initially was promised to create 11,000 construction jobs (and 600 permanent jobs once the site is built), but much of the plant ended up being built modularly off-site. The number of construction jobs was reduced to 6,000, and permanent jobs were reportedly reduced to 400.
To fight the plant, the member groups of CAPE have staged protests, testified at TCEQ’s public hearings, challenged tax abatements, challenged air permits, challenged water permits. You name it. Each time, they’ve lost.
But a key remaining avenue to challenge the Exxon SABIC plant is how it will get its water. The facility will need a whopping 20 million gallons of fresh water a day to operate. Corpus Christi’s current reservoirs at Lake Corpus Christi, Lake Texana, Choke Canyon Reservoir, and the Colorado River are almost pushed to the breaking point as it is, and the region has been in stage 1 drought since December.
The city of Corpus Christi manages the water supply for seven counties, and about 500,000 residents. In 2017, Corpus’s then-city manager sent a letter to Exxon SABIC stating that “we feel that we have sufficient water supplies to meet your needs today and into the foreseeable future.” But according to Amber Oetting, strategic communications director at the City of Corpus Christi’s Water Utilities, the city’s water supply needs to be expanded by next year to meet the region’s needs. In 2022, she says, the city anticipates that “population trends, historical water use, and economic growth to our region” will surpass the demand for 75 percent of its current water supply, thus hitting a “trigger point” in which they will need new water sources to keep up.
“The Coastal Bend is uniquely situated where traditional, affordable and quality drinking water is not found in copious supply,” says Oetting. “Further, our region statistically battles persistent and recurring droughts. These factors, coupled with our continued growth, are what make the matter time sensitive. The city can meet the water needs we have been tasked with today, but time is of the essence.”
Currently, the city of Corpus Christi supplies 95 million gallons of water per day to the region. Exxon SABIC’s needs, at 20 million gallons per day — roughly equivalent to what 120,000 residents use — would represent a 21 percent increase for the entire system.
To increase the regional water supply, the city is applying for permits for two desalination plants, one in the Inner Harbor and one in the La Quinta Channel. The plants would suck up ocean water from Corpus Christi Bay, remove the salt, and discharge the brine back into the bay. Combined, they would use up to 250 million gallons of seawater a day, and discharge up to 130 million gallons of brine a day. Plus, there are four more permits from other industrial facilities that have been submitted, for a total of six potential desalination plants in the Corpus Christi Bay — which could have a huge ecological impact.
“Our best resource is our beautiful bay here,” says Patrick Nye, president of the Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, a member organization of CAPE. “If you grew up around it, you know it’s a sparkling gem. There’s a lot of great fishing and seafood that comes out of it. I think people are surprised that they may lose that opportunity to preserve it.”
Chip Harmon owns a bait and tackle shop adjacent to the only public boat ramp in Ingleside on the Bay. And while he supports the advancement of industry in the area, he says, there’s a limit. “South Texas don’t believe in climate change, and I personally think that climate change is hogwash,” he says. “But what I do believe in is protection of our God-given natural resources.”
Harmon says the fish he’s used to catching in the area, like trout and redfish, are already changing in size and behavior due to the increased ship traffic. “They’re working harder to chase the forage,” he says.
Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association is starting to work with Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi to monitor seagrasses, marine life, and air pollution in the area.
“Extremes of salinity, as well as very rapid changes of salinity, can cause stress on seagrasses,” says Kirk Cammarata, a biologist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “Seagrasses are at the base of the food chain, and pretty much all of the seafood we eat at some point depends on what happens in seagrass beds. It’s a critically important habitat.”
Larry McKinney, chair of Gulf Strategies at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico, believes that desalination can be an inherently beneficial process for the environment by providing fresh water to ecosystems that can benefit from decreased salinity. But he says that the locations of the proposed desalination plants in the Corpus Christi Bay are far from that.
The bay and its surrounding inlets and channels, like Nueces Bay and Aransas Pass, do not circulate much water. This is common to most bays on the Texas coast, which have minimal inflows from other water sources. “If that water is not moving and exchanging with other fresh water and other sea water, you’re just constantly adding very incremental, small amounts of salinity to that bay,” says McKinney of the potential discharge from desalination plants. “That begins to have all kinds of ecological effects on oysters and shrimp and fish, and the whole structure of the ecosystem.”
According to McKinney, a solution could be to move the proposed desalination plants offshore, where dumping the salty brine into the open ocean would have a negligible impact compared to doing the same thing in a more closed ecosystem like a bay. But that would be more expensive, because it would mean adding a pipeline to the desalination plant. If the two new desalination plants are not issued permits by the TCEQ, says Oetting, the city would then look at other desalination plant locations, and then groundwater, and then reusing or recovering water as options to meet the new needs. But as Oetting says, “time is of the essence.” The city is reaching its “trigger point” next year, and the desalination plants would take till 2026 to be built.
In February, CAPE got the first indication that the desalination plants weren’t a sure thing. The Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings recommended to the state TCEQ that it deny the Port of Corpus Christi’s draft permit for its proposed Harbor Island desalination plant, stating that “the proposed discharge will adversely impact the marine environment, aquatic life, and wildlife” of the local environment.
The TCEQ still needs to make a final decision, but according to Rick Lowerre, an attorney with Perales, Allmon, & Ice, who represents the opponents of the desalination plant, it would be unlikely that the state would act against this recommendation. If the permit is ultimately denied, it could have a domino effect on the other plants’ permitting applications.
“[The desalination plants] all have a really uphill fight because we have all these experts that have been studying these systems, and they understand that both the intakes and the discharges will have major impacts,” says Lowerre. Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association has hired Lowerre’s firm, and intends to challenge the permits for all the proposed desalination plants in Corpus Christi Bay.
According to Lowerre, even if they lose any of their challenges through the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, the permitting process could still end up taking years. “What the city and the port have to recognize is even if they get their permits, the opponents can appeal to the district court and above,” says Lowerre.
“Desalination plants are like the chokehold of all the industry,” says Sanchez. “Just like The Art of War, if you cut off the supplies, the enemy can’t move forward. And that’s their supply. The water is their supply.”
But others are not so optimistic.
Masten, from Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, found the industrial sprawl to be too overwhelming. “I’ve got asthma and with the diesel fumes, I can’t sit out on my front porch because I can’t breathe. It goes right to my lungs and to my head. When the particulates are out, I just get a headache right away,” she says. She and her husband are moving to the Chesapeake Bay instead. “It’s too scary for us. This is not what we wanted.”
“Exxon’s gonna get their water,” says Summerlin. “We don’t have any hopes on Exxon. They’re here. We know they’re not going to go away. The margin of profit on plastics is so great that Exxon will proceed with their operations. What we’re going to have to do at this point is just make certain we don’t get any more of those industries here.”
Currently, CAPE is challenging permitting for a number of expansions, including from Lone Star Ports, Axis Midstream, Bluewater, MODA Midstream, and Steel Dynamics. Last November, for unknown reasons, a major plastics facility referred to as “Project Falcon” withdrew its plans to build in Aransas Pass. CAPE hopes to make development difficult enough for industry that more companies will decide to pull out.
“The more [industry] that comes in, the more damage there is done and the more encroachment on not only communities, but on the estuaries and on the wildlife,” says Summerlin. “The entire ecosystem is being threatened by all of this.”
“We’re not going to sit down without a fight,” says Sanchez. “We’re caretakers of this land. You have to take care of the land and water or in 50 years it’s gonna be gone.”