TCE Joint Statement
By Robin Schneider (Executive Director) and Texas Environmental Workers Union
Texas Campaign for the Environment & Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund envision and work towards a Texas free from pollution. More than thirty years ago, TCE began its efforts to fight pollution by organizing people to stand up for their rights.
Staff, management and board members all strongly believe that working people organizing in community groups, unions and social movements bring about needed change and further the cause of justice.
Recently, TCE & TCE Fund staff initiated the formation of their own union—Texas Environmental Workers Union—affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Management and the board members were pleased to sign a neutrality and voluntary recognition agreement with the union. On April 6th, a neutral third party confirmed that TEWU-CWA had reached majority support for the union and it has been officially recognized by TCE leadership!
An oil and gas company operating in the Crossroads received an award, but it was not the kind of recognition a business would want to tout.
Max Midstream received the “Number Two Award” on Monday from a group of protestors who demonstrated near where an energy conference in Houston was held. Diane Wilson, a Port Lavaca environmental activist, said the award recognizes an industrial producer who treats their local community like “poop.”
Wilson nominated Max Midstream for the “Number Two Award.”
“They treat all of Calhoun County like a number two,” Wilson said.
Wilson was among a group of activists from Texas and Louisiana who spoke at CERAWeak 2023, a program mocking the CERAWeek conference taking place at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston from March 6-10. The event was organized by Save Texas, a projected created by the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
The group of environmental advocates in attendance Monday came up with a list of energy companies who they believe are some of the worst polluters along the Gulf Coast. These companies are known as the “Terrible 12.”
CERAWeek, which is put together by the American banking corporation S&P Global, is attended by oil and gas company executives and government officials. This year’s speakers include Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and the CEOs of Shell Oil Co. and Chevron Corp.
The award ceremony for CERAWeak was held Monday at the Discovery Green, a park located outside of the convention center. Wilson said the protesters were not allowed to enter the building.
“There was a lot of networking,” Wilson said about the group who protested. “We were in solidarity with each other because we are dealing with similar issues. It’s a grassroots community.”
In a statement sent by a company spokesperson, Max Midstream CEO Johnathan Novitsky said his business has supported Calhoun County residents in various ways.
“During the last two years, Max has donated more than $85,000 to local charities, created 16 jobs for skilled workers, and invested more than $200 million into the local economy in capital projects that generate local property tax revenues in excess of $1 million annually,” Novitsky said.
Novitsky also referred to Max Midstream’s Environmental, Social and Governance plan, saying the company has offset 100% of its carbon footprint as of Tuesday.
A project to widen and deepen the Matagorda Ship Channel, which was put on hold last year when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withdrew its environmental assessment, could benefit a ship terminal Max Midstream owns at the Port of Calhoun. The company announced in 2020 it would invest $225 million for the expansion of the ship channel.
Texas Campaign for the Environment, which runs the group behind CERAWeak, wants to shed light on what it believes to be problems with the fossil fuel export industry. Executive Director Robin Schneider said oil and gas companies are harming the global climate with their new infrastructure.
“They don’t want to hear critics, which is very disappointing,” Schneider said.
One Victoria County official has done business with Max Midstream, and he said it was a positive experience.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Danny Garcia said the oil and gas company applied concrete over a shallow pipeline which had drainage issues. The project, which took place in Bloomington in either “late 2021 or early 2022,” was something no other company had agreed to do until Max Midstream stepped in.
“They said they would have it done in a month, and they did what they said they would do,” Garcia said.
Environmental activists in Houston planned other events for the week of March 6-10, Schneider said. There was a march against fossil fuel producers and their financiers, and a “pollution watch party” — a gathering in which people viewed infrared images of air pollution that were projected onto a building.
“We have a long way to go,” Schneider said about the efforts of environmental advocates.
When Juan Mancias was a child, his grandmother told him the story her parents told her, of the place at the Great River’s end. All good things ended up there, she said, carried from the high deserts across 1,000 miles to the sea, where they spilled across a vast delta, teeming with life.
There, Mancias’ grandmother told him, the first woman was born from all the good things that washed down the river. And there, more than 60 years later, developers now want to build two export terminals, one priced at over $15 billion, to sell fracked Texas gas on international markets.
Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe, has spent his last year engaged in a global campaign to thwart the liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities proposed for his people’s sacred site. Supported by the Sierra Club, a coalition of Indigenous leaders and local organizers have traveled Europe lobbying customers and funders that developers need for their buildout in the Rio Grande Valley, a historically marginalized zone along the Mexican border in Texas.
It’s not just a legendary paradise for Mancias’ people, it also holds the remains of an ancient village, Garcia Pasture, dubbed by the World Monuments Funds as “one of America’s premier archaeological sites.”
“When you steal the land, you’re stealing us. And you’re taking away our identity, because you fence it off and you dont allow us into the land where our ancestors are buried, where we remember our ceremonies and rituals,” said Mancias, 68.
Since the fracking boom, developers of Texas shale gas have eyed undeveloped patches along the Gulf Coast for massive terminals to liquify and export the gas on ocean-going tankers.
The campaign has managed for years to thwart financing agreements, dissuade committed customers, cause one terminals’ cancellation and years of delays on the remaining two. The Covid slump in energy prices helped their case. But the war in Ukraine has energized markets again, and empowered projects’ search for funders.
“The situation in Ukraine is the latest attempt by investors to justify LNG export terminals that are unnecessary, uneconomic, and unwanted,” said a new report by the Sierra Club’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Group, released on Tuesday. “Even as banks pledged to align their lending and investment with a low carbon future, they continue to finance fracked gas around the world.”
The International Energy Agency has said that new investments in fossil fuels must end immediately for the world to meet its goals on carbon emissions reductions. According to the new Sierra Club report, the gas pipeline and two export terminals proposed for the Rio Grande delta would produce as much carbon as 40.4 million cars per year.
Two export terminals are currently proposed in adjacent green lots in Cameron County at the Port of Brownsville, which doesn’t currently have a petroleum sector (but has hosted Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starbase since about 2015): Rio Grande LNG, owned by Houston-based NextDecade and priced at $15.6 billion; and Texas LNG, owned by Houston-based Glenfarne Group. Both were initially slated to begin operations next year, but both are still seeking financing to begin construction and remain years away from completion.
NextDecade, owner of Rio Grande LNG, did not respond to a request for comment sent Friday. The company has said the Rio Grande facility would produce “a lower carbon intensive” liquified natural gas through a combination of carbon capture technology, net-zero electricity and “responsibly sourced gas.”
Glenfarne Energy Transition, owner of Texas LNG, said in a statement that the terminal’s “green” design uses electric motor drives and renewable energy instead of gas turbines, which will make it one of the lowest emitting LNG facilities in the world; and that it would create 1,500 construction jobs and 100 permanent full-time positions.
“Texas LNG has demonstrated a commitment to having a positive impact,” the company said. “This is positively recognized and supported by public officials, investors, and banks.”
Three major banks remain behind efforts to develop the Rio Grande delta: Macquarie Capital, Credit Suisse and Société Générale (which this year announced an end to fracked gas investments, but excluded Texas LNG).
“The financial industry is the key pillar of support for the fossil industry,” said Ruth Breech with the Rainforest Action Network, who contributed financial analysis to the new report.
Two banks have backed out in recent years: SMBC Group and BNP Paribas. The Port of Cork in Ireland nixed an agreement to build an import terminal for South Texas gas. One proposed terminal at the Port of Brownsville, Anova, canceled its plans last year. The remaining two are still seeking commitments on funding.
The delay stands out as a major accomplishment for organizers in the Rio Grande Valley, a historically marginalized zone on the nation’s periphery which has long fought against exploitative development.
“This is significant. The only time where we’ve seen this level of movement from financial institutions was at Standing Rock,” said Breech, referring to the withdrawal of funders from the Dakota Access Pipeline following explosive protests from Indigenous communities in 2016. “[Rio Grande Valley organizers’] work has been awesome and truly inspiring to the international community working on finance.”
In order to develop a massive industrial complex like those needed for LNG export, developers assemble financial advisors, often major global banks. Those advisors support the project through planning and permitting, meanwhile assembling other partners to finance construction. Eventually, they sign an FID, or Final Investment Decision, meaning the project is clear to proceed.
In the Valley, the story started around 2015, when Congress lifted the oil export ban. As the South Texas fracking boom matured, hundreds of wells in the Eagle Ford Shale were connected to pipelines designed to transport the gas they produced to coastal terminals.
That’s when Rebekah Hinojosa, a fresh college grad and substitute teacher, started fighting proposals for five terminals to load liquified natural gas onto ocean-going freighters at the Port of Brownsville on the Rio Grande delta.
Hinojosa has great, great, great grandparents buried near the Rio Grande. For all her life she’d been aware of environmental injustice in the Valley. Her grandfather worked at a local pesticide plant where she said workers were doused in chemicals; many died of cancer. The nearby Donna Reservoir is a Superfund site, as is the site of a former Agent Orange plant.
“There’s a history here of big companies coming in and exploiting our community, coming in with the same broken promises of job and money. In reality they just come in to pollute and use our people as cheap labor,” said Hinojosa, 31, Gulf Coast representative for the Sierra Club since 2016. “I was sick of that history over and over again.”
She soon became part of a burgeoning movement, connecting local activists and Indigenous communities with outside supporters like the Sierra Club. In 2015, seaside cities of Laguna Vista, Port Isabel and South Padre Islands passed resolutions against the buildout plans. Two of the five proposed terminals never filed applications with federal regulators.
Still, the remaining three terminals enjoyed statements of support from top local politicians.
“The proposed project will create hundreds of engineering, construction and associated support jobs while generating substantial economic development in South Texas. This is particularly important in Cameron County, which has an unemployment rate of 8.0%,” wrote Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, to the Department of Energy.
In the neighboring district, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, has co-sponsored legislation advancing LNG export plans and served as co-chair for the LNG Allies’ Transatlantic Energy Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
And Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Houston, has praised plans for the two terminals, saying “There is an energy renaissance occurring in the United States, and Texas is leading the way. These projects will further economic growth.”
Activists from the Rio Grande Valley worked around their elected representatives and embarked on an international campaign to target the projects’ financials.
Delegations traveled to France, Germany and Ireland and lobbied major institutions, with the support of local protesters, to break ties with the Rio Grande projects.
“The decision to go and connect people in Europe and to talk with government leaders in France is so innovative in terms of how to stop facilities that want to build in Texas,” said Robin Schneider, the Austin-based director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s really been an inspiration.”
In 2017, Hinojosa and Mancias went to Paris, where they appeared on local radio shows, led protests and spoke at a shareholder meeting of PNB Paribas Bank, a financial advisor for Texas LNG. Several months later, the bank withdrew and updated its investment policy to exclude shale gas projects.
In December 2019, a group went to Ireland, where the Port of Cork had signed an agreement to build an import terminal to import South Texas gas. The same day local groups demonstrated nearby, Hinojosa met the port commission to make a case for them to end the deal.
She told them about her college years at the University of North Texas in Denton after 2010, when the fracking boom at the Barnett Shale brought loud, fuming wells on land adjacent to a hospital, football stadium and park, which Texas had prohibited the community from banning in their city.
She showed them a previous edition of her Sierra Club report, explaining that proposed projects would develop wild wetlands and destroy sacred Indigenous sites. A few months later, the Port of Cork withdrew its agreements.
Last year, a group of Carrizo Comecrudo tribal members went to Germany to lead protests against five import terminals planned near Hamburg, which would provide a crucial market for South Texas exports.
“No company ever talked to our tribe about the LNG terminals they plan to build on our territories,” Christopher Basaldú, a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, told activists in Germany. “They’re destroying the water and wildlife, all for European consumption.”
For the Carrizo Comecrudo, this international campaign is part of an effort to save their lands that goes back centuries. Mancias, the tribal chairman, said many of the group’s old village sites, sacred spots where their ancestors lived, have been covered up by urban and agricultural sprawl.
“We’ve been traumatized for 500 years. First by the Spaniards, then by the Mexicans, then by the Texans, then the Americans,” Mancias said. “Five hundred years later they are still exporting the resources from this land. And they are making the laws, they are making the rules.”
People often tell him to move on and forget the past, to give up his people’s arcane claim to the sacred spaces of a bygone era. But that would mean forgetting his grandmother, born in the 1890s, who told him the stories of places in their people’s world.
These places are the source of his identity, he said. But the developers who want it never care.
“We are the people of this land not because we own it, because it owns us,” Mancias said. “We’re gonna die and we can’t take the land with us. We become the land. The land takes us.”
As winter weather descends on Texas this week, we are reminded of people who lost their very lives last year, of the millions of us who suffered in the cold and dark, and of so many who have had to deal with long-lasting home damage. The weather was extreme, but the truth is, this was very much a preventable crisis. In an epic failure of leadership, the solutions that were laid out after multiple previous smaller-scale grid failures were simply not taken by state officials.
Unfortunately, state officials still have not done all they should to make our grid reliable in the face of extreme weather events. Even if we don’t end up getting a repeat of Winter Storm Uri this year, I’m afraid for our state’s residents. Please do what you can to prepare for future disasters.
Another hard truth is that we will be dealing with last year’s storm for years. Adding insult to injury, ordinary Texans are now being made to pay for state officials’ failures and corporate greed. While we were left in the cold and dark, the natural gas industry had no limits on price gouging, so a handful of companies made more than $11 BILLION in one week during last year’s grid failure. Jerry Jones’ words about “hitting the jackpot” are still ringing in our ears.
State officials decided to allow much of that obscene amount to be passed directly on to ordinary consumers in the form of higher gas and electric utility bills for years to come. But these higher prices aren’t going to pay for a more reliable grid, they will simply line the pockets of greedy executives and shareholders who made windfall profits.
Your electric or gas bills might be transparent about these surcharges on your bill – or not. The price increase might not have taken effect yet, but will be on future bills. You have the right to know. If your bills are not clear, contact your electric or gas provider to get an explanation.
How are those increased bills affecting Texans? Are some people having to choose between paying their utility bills or paying for medicines? Are Texans making other hard choices?
Here are four things Texas officials should do to provide affordable, reliable power in the future:
1. Renewables paired with energy storage such as batteries are coming online and will be more reliable than fossil fuels and safer for public health – and they will have the added benefit of reducing the intensity of climate change in the long run. Texas should be doing everything it can to usher in that future and prepare our workforce for those careers.
2. Use the “Rainy Day Fund” for energy efficiency upgrades for homeowners, multi-family properties, business and government agencies will reduce demand and strain on the grid during extreme weather events, saving consumers money and reducing the need for polluting power plants.
3. Texas should tie into other regional grids so we are not dependent on ERCOT and can access energy from other states when needed or provide it to others when we have excess.
4. We must tame the natural gas industry so it is required to provide the gas our grid needs in the short term and prohibit price gouging. Officials should pass a windfall profits tax or re-institute the national price controls that were in effect until the mid-1980s.
Most of the problems we faced from Winter Storm Uri are fixable. It all depends on us exercising our power to get Texas officials to do our bidding instead of serving the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry. A first step would be for candidates to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and refuse large contributions from that industry.
Nearly 90 people asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to hold a public meeting and contested case hearing to address concerns with an air permit Max Midstream Texas is seeking for expansion of its Seahawk terminal at the Calhoun Port Authority.
If granted, the permit will allow Max Midstream to increase emissions of greenhouse gases measured in carbon dioxide equivalent by more than 100,000 tons per year, and increase emissions of other pollutants by more than 300 tons per year. Other contaminants include carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides, organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter with diameters of 10 microns or less and 2.5 microns or less, according to TCEQ.
On Monday, TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern said the agency had determined that a public meeting will be held in response to significant public interest in the application.
“Staff is currently working to begin the scheduling process for the public meeting,” McGovern said in an email.
A total of 87 requests for contested case hearings and 88 requests for public meetings had been submitted to TCEQ as of Monday. The public comment period for the application will remain open until the meeting is held, McGovern said. After the public comment period closes, TCEQ’s executive director will formally respond to all comments received. Once those responses are filed, all timely contested case hearing requests and any requests for reconsideration will be considered by TCEQ commissioners at a public meeting, McGovern said. Contested case hearings are legal proceedings similar to a civil trial in a state district court and are only granted based on disputed issues of fact that are relevant to the Commission’s decision on an application, according to TCEQ.
Max Midstream CEO Todd Edwards did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Expansion of the terminal, as well as the Matagorda Ship Channel, are part of Max Midstream’s plans to eventually export up to 20 million barrels of oil through the terminal each month. After purchasing the terminal from Northstar Midstream, Max Midstream announced in October 2020 that it planned to partner with the Calhoun Port Authority and build an oil exportation hub at the port.
As part of the partnership, the company is pumping $225 million into widening and deepening the Matagorda Ship Channel — a project that is well underway despite scrutiny from local residents, nonprofits and several state and national environmental advocacy groups who worry it will have detrimental environmental impacts.
Expansion of the terminal includes eight new storage tanks for crude and crude condensates, seven new loading docks, 16 new vapor combustion units, three firewater pumps and other equipment, according to the permit application.
Environmental activist Diane Wilson, who recently ended a 36-day hunger strike in protest of the widening and deepening project and oil exports, filed requests for a public meeting and contested case hearing on Max Midstream’s air permit application. She said she encouraged people who have been supporting her protests of the widening and deepening project to do the same.
Nearly all other requests were submitted by Texas residents who live outside of Calhoun County, including the director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and an atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M University. The vast majority of requests were uniform in language, saying that “Max Midstream has claimed in its permit application it doesn’t need to follow the best available pollution control technology, even though this would be a major industrial facility with the capacity to emit large quantities of air pollutants. To allow this permit to proceed without the most stringent pollution controls and monitoring would be a monumental error on the part of TCEQ.”
Sources of air pollution are classified as major if they have actual or potential emissions at or above the national ambient air quality threshold for any air pollutant, and are required obtain a Title V permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to operate. Because the proposed increases in emissions for the terminal expansion are below the applicable major source thresholds, Max Midstream contends that the project is a minor source modification in its application. Compared to major sources, minor sources trigger less stringent federal pollution control and impact modeling requirements.
Requests jointly filed by Wilson, the Environmental Integrity Project and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid question that classification and allege that the expansion project’s impacts to air quality are not accurately represented. The proposed limits listed for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds in Max Midstream’s application are a particular source of concern because they are “very close” to the 100 tons per year threshold that would trigger major source classification, the requests said.
“While Max Midstream claims that its expansion project is ‘minor,’ it has failed to show that it will be able to comply with synthetic limits claimed to avoid more stringent pollution control and impacts evaluation requirements that apply to ‘major’ projects,” the request reads. “Members of the public should have an opportunity to voice their concerns about this project and to put questions to Max Midstream and TCEQ representatives directly.”
The requests were filed after the Environmental Integrity Project asked TCEQ to release emissions calculations that Max Midstream marked as confidential in its permit application. TCEQ referred the request to the Office of the Attorney General, which ruled that the information was subject to public disclosure and ordered TCEQ to release it.
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.”
Moda Midstream’s plans to expand its crude oil export terminal in Ingleside could disturb a site sacred to the Indigenous Karankawa and other tribes in the Coastal Bend, a Corpus Christi-based inter-tribal nonprofit organization says in a letter to federal regulators.
The terminal is located at the confluence of the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and La Quinta Ship Channel at near Ingleside on the Bay. The Moda Ingleside Energy Center sits on more than 900 acres of land that will allow for future expansion.
“Moda wants to expand their oil export terminal and they are already violating the bluff where our artifacts and human remains have been found,” said Love Sanchez, Karankawa of the nonprofit intertribal group, Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend. “This was a campsite of the Karankawa people and must be preserved from this polluting facility.”
The Environmental Integrity Project sent a letter Wednesday to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting the agency to enforce the Clean Air Act protections against the expansion. The EIP did so on behalf of the Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend.
They say the proposed project would violate the act by generating air pollution.
Moda is investing $300 million to $500 million to make the center at 1450 Lexington Blvd. in Ingleside a “key energy hub” for crude oil by accommodating Very Large Crude Carriers. VLCCs are about 1,100 feet long — roughly the length of three football fields — and 200 feet wide, and can carry up to 2 million barrels of crude oil.
The local Indigenous group also says the expansion would increase “deadly” pollution, including hydrogen sulfides/sulfur dioxide. The pollution would impact communities of Ingleside on the Bay, Ingleside. It would also affect a Corpus Christi area with Indigenous, Black, and low-income communities.
According to a group news release, the compounds that Moda proposes to increase are dangerous to human health causing asthma, bronchitis, cardio-pulmonary obstructive disorder, heart disease, strokes, and cancer.
“Moda is already endangering life on the bay – both people’s lives and wildlife,” said Melissa Zamora, Mexika/Coahuiltecan with the group.
Moda’s existing storage capacity at its Ingleside terminal is about 2.1 million barrels, with work underway to construct an additional 10 million barrels of storage through additional tanks.
The future expansion would allow from “basin to berth” deliveries of crude from the Cactus II Pipeline, Gray Oak Pipeline and EPIC Crude Oil Pipeline. The company already receives oil from the Cactus I pipeline used to transport sweet crude from the Permian Basin.
Last week, the Sierra Club also sent a request on behalf of the group to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, opposing the expansion.
Next week, a coalition of Gulf Coast organizations plan to ask Biden Administration officials to stop all proposed crude oil export terminals on the Gulf Coast.
Both the Texas Senate and House have written bills that attempt to prevent another massive power failure in extreme temperatures. But parts of their legislative proposals are drawing criticism for not going far enough to prepare electricity infrastructure for increased risks posed by climate change.
And critics are also wary that some measures would leave enforcement of the mandated upgrades to the Public Utility Commission without increasing its funding or resources to do the job.
House Bill 11, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, was part of a package of bills that the lower chamber approved Wednesday. It defines extreme weather conditions in the winter as a time when temperatures remain below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a day and are expected to remain that low for the next 24 hours. For the summer, it defines it as when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory.
Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at University of Texas at Austin, said the House legislation importantly provides a target for regulators and industry to design around, rather than leaving it too broad. He said it’s a step in the right direction because it provides more clarity than the current weatherization measure in Senate Bill 3, the omnibus electricity legislation the upper chamber sent to the House this week.
“[The temperature threshold] is not as extreme as what we just experienced, and it could go further,” said Webber, “but, it’s something.”
Jeffrey Jacoby, deputy director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, opposed HB 11 because he said it would not have required power plants to be weatherized to a degree that would have prevented disruptions during the February storm.
“It doesn’t go far enough to truly protect Texans from the next winter weather calamity,” Jacoby said during a committee hearing on the bill on March 18.
More than 4.8 million customers in Texas were left without power during a winter storm that plunged large parts of the state into single-digit temperatures in February. At least 111 people died — more than half of them from hypothermia.
The series of standalone bills the House approved Wednesday included legislation that mandates that power plants prepare for extreme weather, reform the governance of the state’s grid operator, ban wholesale index electricity products, pursue the creation of an emergency alert system and form a new disaster electricity committee.
Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, called the slate of bills “important first steps” in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri.
“The actions taken by the house will help restore confidence in our critical infrastructure after the catastrophic mismanagement of our electric grid last month,” he said in a statement.
The two chambers’ legislation is collectively similar, but not identical. So, each chamber could soon have a chance to tweak the others’ bills. But members of both chambers will at some point have to iron out the differences in their respective legislation before anything can become law.
Jacoby remained opposed to HB 11, although he said in an interview with the Tribune that the group supports the intent of the legislation.
“Under this definition of an extreme weather emergency, these mandates would not apply,” Jacoby said during the committee meeting. “Frankly, most of the state would not have actually been experiencing an extreme weather emergency during the recent freeze.”
Other environmental groups, meanwhile, including the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, endorsed the bill, alongside industry groups including the Texas Association of Manufacturers and the Advanced Power Alliance, which represents the renewable power industry.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, proposed an amendment to require the weatherization rules be based on information from the National Weather Service and the office of the state climatologist regarding climate variability and projected changes in weather, but withdrew it. She told the Tribune that she withdrew it because the bill already references the National Weather Service and the weatherization rules would be regularly reviewed.
Critics of the quickly moving legislation were also concerned that the burden of enforcing any potential new mandates on weatherization will fall on the Public Utility Commission, which in 2020 disbanded its oversight and enforcement division. The PUC also does not have any field inspectors.
Michelle and Stan Brannon, whose son, Will, was killed by a fallen power line in 2017, warned legislators in a prior committee meeting that they believed the bill to weatherize power plants did not go far enough. They said that in the years since another piece of legislation was passed in response to their son’s death to require utilities to inspect power lines, they found that the Public Utility Commission did little to enforce the requirement.
In response to the concerns, Andrew Barlow, a spokesperson for the PUC, said that the agency’s enforcement function was enhanced by the change by increasing the number of attorneys available to work on enforcement matters. He also said the agency “admires and respects the Brannons for the courage and passion for change they have shown,” and added that the agency is in the process of auditing the reports for the purpose of reporting violations.
But the gaps identified by the Brannons caused them to warn legislators that keeping regulators accountable for enforcing the mandates will be as important as passing them.
“We do not believe that new laws requiring utilities to winterize their infrastructure will solve the issues that caused the winter storm failures without having a Public Utility Commission empowered to monitor and enforce compliance with these laws,” said Michelle Brannon during a House State Affairs Committee hearing on March 18. “The utilities cannot be trusted to follow standards unless there are strict requirements.”
In the days leading up to February’s winter storm and during the widespread blackouts that left millions of people with no access to electricity or drinking water in subfreezing temperatures, Texans were never warned or notified by the state about the disaster. The same agency — the Texas Division of Emergency Management — that failed to deliver that critical emergency information to Texans would be responsible for studying the feasibility of establishing a statewide alert system, and then implementing it, under House Bill 12, which also got approval in the House on Wednesday.
“A lot of people didn’t know what was happening and I think sometimes the fear of not knowing what’s going on is just as bad as the crisis itself,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. Wu also added an amendment to the legislation, which was approved, to ensure that if the alert system is created, it would include languages other than English.
The House unanimously approved to the legislation, though members were disappointed that they had to create the legislation in the first place.
“Regrettably, had it been in place previously, it might have helped a lot of people in the state of Texas and save a lot of lives,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas.
Lawmakers Wednesday also moved forward House Bill 16, which would prohibit retail electric providers from selling products based on wholesale power prices in the market and House Bill 10, which would restructure ERCOT’s board of directors.
They also approved House Bill 13 which would create a new committee made up of leaders from the PUC, ERCOT, Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates the oil and gas industry) and Texas Division of Emergency Management. The committee, modeled after an existing voluntary body, would meet semi-annually to coordinate power, natural gas companies and utilities for reliable electric service. The body would be required to convene as soon as possible prior to or during a disaster to address extended power outages, said Paddie, lead author on the bill.