Texans cry foul after officials approve higher utility bills stemming from 2021 winter storm power crisis

Texas residents still have painful memories of the cold snap that pummeled their state in February, when millions of Texans found themselves without heat or electricity during freezing winter temperatures that felt more like New England or the Midwest than the Lone Star State. To make matters worse, Texans who had signed up for variable-rate energy plans were socked with utility bills in the thousands. Now, according to Austin's NPR affiliate, KUT-FM, Texas regulators have approved higher bills for energy customers.

KUT's Mose Buchele reports, "Oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas cleared the way on Wednesday for $3.4 billion to be paid to natural gas companies by raising bills for ratepayers. The $3.4 billion is part of the debt that gas utilities unexpectedly owed suppliers after gas prices skyrocketed during February's winter storm and blackout. The cost may be included on Texans' gas bills for up to the next 30 years."

Buchele adds, "The move, approved unanimously by the three Railroad Commission members, was the most recent step in a process state legislatures approved last spring known as 'securitization.' It essentially turned blackout-related debt owed to natural gas companies and others into low-interest bonds guaranteed by the state. Those bonds are then paid back over decades by charging higher bills to consumers. The Railroad Commission vote today approved the issuance of those bonds by another state group, the Texas Public Finance Authority."

During Texas' cold snap back in February, far-right Republicans ranging from Gov. Greg Abbott to Fox News' Tucker Carlson wrongly blamed green energy for the state's energy woes — which, as Democratic former Rep. Beto O'Rourke pointed out, was total nonsense. First, most of Texas' energy comes from fossil fuels, not green energy. Second, the widespread blackout occurred because Texas' systems had not been properly winterized; it had nothing to do with green energy versus fossil fuels. Third, Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden use green energy extensively during their cold, snowy winters and do so without any problem because they know how to winterize.

Officials in places known for frigid winters — whether it's Providence, Rhode Island or Oslo, Norway — winterize their energy systems in anticipation of snow and icy temperatures. Texas Republicans didn't winterize, and the state paid a dear price when Texans literally froze to death in their homes.

"In a legislative hearing after the storm, Texas Gas Service told lawmakers that it paid 22 times more than usual for gas during the freeze and blackout," Buchele notes. "One estimate published by the Austin Monitor in August said Texas Gas Service bills may increase by $5 a month for the next 10 years."

Buchele also reports that "critics" have "accused state lawmakers and the Railroad Commission of putting gas company profits over customer needs."

Virginia Palacios, executive director of the group Commission Shift — which is pushing for Railroad Commission reforms — said, "The legislature could have agreed to spend some amount of state money.... to just help utility customers that are struggling with their utility bills. They completely passed on that. The companies that profited the most from this (winter storm) were Energy Transfer and Enterprise Products Partners. Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick holds beneficial interests in both of those companies."

Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters. History tells us this could trigger a mass extinction event

Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Chhaya Chaudhary, University of Auckland; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Mark John Costello, University of Auckland

The tropical water at the equator is renowned for having the richest diversity of marine life on Earth, with vibrant coral reefs and large aggregations of tunas, sea turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. The number of marine species naturally tapers off as you head towards the poles.

Ecologists have assumed this global pattern has remained stable over recent centuries — until now. Our recent study found the ocean around the equator has already become too hot for many species to survive, and that global warming is responsible.

In other words, the global pattern is rapidly changing. And as species flee to cooler water towards the poles, it's likely to have profound implications for marine ecosystems and human livelihoods. When the same thing happened 252 million years ago, 90% of all marine species died.

The bell curve is warping dangerously

This global pattern — where the number of species starts lower at the poles and peaks at the equator — results in a bell-shaped gradient of species richness. We looked at distribution records for nearly 50,000 marine species collected since 1955 and found a growing dip over time in this bell shape.

A chart with three overlapping lines, each representing different decades. It shows that between 1955 and 1974, the bell curve is almost flat at the top. For the lines 1975-1994 and 1995-2015, the dip gets progressively deeper, with peaks either side of the centre.

If you look at each line in this chart, you can see a slight dip in total species richness between 1955 and 1974. This deepens substantially in the following decades.

Anthony Richardson, Author provided

So, as our oceans warm, species have tracked their preferred temperatures by moving towards the poles. Although the warming at the equator of 0.6℃ over the past 50 years is relatively modest compared with warming at higher latitudes, tropical species have to move further to remain in their thermal niche compared with species elsewhere.

As ocean warming has accelerated over recent decades due to climate change, the dip around at the equator has deepened.

We predicted such a change five years ago using a modelling approach, and now we have observational evidence.

Keep reading... Show less

Economists agree: Benefits of 'drastic' climate action outweigh costs of status quo

While scientists and campaigners continue calling on world leaders to pursue more ambitious policies to cut planet-heating emissions based on moral arguments and physical dangers, a U.S. think tank released survey results on Tuesday that make a clear economic case for sweeping climate action.

The Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law invited 2,169 Ph.D. economists to take a 15-question online survey "focused on climate change risks, economic damage estimates, and emissions abatement," according to a report (pdf) on the results. Nearly three-quarters of the 738 economists who participated in the survey say they agree that "immediate and drastic action is necessary."

"In sharp contrast, less than 1% believe that climate change is 'not a serious problem,'" the report says, noting a jump in support for bold climate action now compared with a 2015 survey. "Nearly 80% of respondents also self-report an increase in their level of concern about climate change over the past five years, underscoring the high level of overall concern among this group."

Of those surveyed, 76% believe the climate crisis will likely or very likely have a negative effect on global economic growth rates. Additionally, 70% think climate change will make income inequality worse within most countries and 89% think it will exacerbate inequality between high-income and low-income countries.

"People who spend their careers studying our economy are in widespread agreement that climate change will be expensive, potentially devastatingly so," said Peter Howard, economics director at the institute and co-author of the research, in a statement. "These findings show a clear economic case for urgent climate action."

As the report details:

Respondents were asked to estimate the economic impacts of several different climate scenarios. They project that economic damages from climate change will reach $1.7 trillion per year by 2025, and roughly $30 trillion per year (5% of projected GDP) by 2075 if the current warming trend continues. Their damage estimates rise precipitously as warming intensifies, topping $140 trillion annually at a 5°C increase and $730 trillion at a 7°C increase. As expected, experts believe that the risk of extremely high/catastrophic damages significantly increases at these high temperatures.

Sixty-six percent of respondents "agree that the benefits of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 would likely outweigh the costs," compared with just 12% who disagree. As the report says: "Costs are often cited as a reason to delay or avoid strong action on climate change, but this survey of hundreds of expert economists suggests that the weight of evidence is on the side of rapid action."

The economists also foresee a "rapid expansion of clean energy technologies" in the coming decades, and 65% of respondents expect the costs of emerging zero-emission and negative-emission tech will drop rapidly, similar to the recent developments with solar and wind energy. While a majority also expects negative-emission technologies will become viable in the second half of the century, the report notes that "a very high percentage of 'No Opinion' responses underscores the uncertainty of this projection."

"Economists overwhelmingly support rapid emissions reductions, and they are optimistic about key technology costs continuing to drop," said co-author Derek Sylvan, strategy director at the institute. "There is a clear consensus among these experts that the status quo seems far more costly than a major energy transition."

The survey comes as governments party to the Paris agreement are revising and releasing emissions pledges for the next decade ahead of a global summit in November. A United Nations report recently warned that the pledges put forth so far are dramatically inadequate. As Power Shift Africa director Mohamed Adow said: "It's staggering how far off track countries are to dealing with the climate crisis."

At least 111 people died in Texas during winter storm — most from hypothermia

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month's winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department estimated last week and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas' larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire."

Among those who lost their lives in the frigid weather was an 11-year-old boy in the Houston area who died in his home as temperatures dropped into the single digits. In San Antonio, a man froze to death outside his house after he likely fell on his way to a dialysis appointment. And in Abilene, a man reportedly froze to death in his reclining chair.

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

February's winter storm blanketed large swaths of Texas in snow and ice and left millions without power or clean water for days in below-freezing temperatures.

The issues laid bare by the freeze have taken center stage at the Texas Legislature. A Texas Senate committee advanced a wide-ranging bill Thursday that would, among other things, mandate that power and natural gas companies upgrade their facilities to withstand severe weather. It would also create a statewide emergency alert system for future large-scale power outages.

Meanwhile, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been lobbying Texas lawmakers to support an $8 billion plan to build 10 new natural gas power plants that would provide energy during peak consumption hours when demand is highest. The company wants lawmakers to create a revenue stream to Berkshire through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/texas-deaths-winter-storm/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

A Chemical Found in Most Consumer Products May Cause Heart Disease in Women

A study released this week by researchers at the University of Cincinnati says that exposure to bisphenol A may increase heart disease in women.

Keep reading... Show less

Advocacy Groups Ignore Breast Cancer Hot Spots

Editor's Note:This article is excerpted from the fall 2006 issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands now.

Living on the wild, craggy elbow of Cape Cod, Jane Chase feels lucky to have spent 50 years in a house facing Nantucket Sound. "We love it here," she says, looking out over a marsh at a spectacular sunset on Red River Beach.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when a community effort was launched to understand the strangely high rate of breast cancer on Cape Cod, that the mother of six considered her South Harwich, Mass., home to be anything other than a bucolic haven.

The two-time breast cancer survivor might never have linked her disease to the environment had she not joined a local cancer group and later enlisted in a household health study. She then learned that her classic colonial garrison house harbored lurking toxins, and that her idyllic neighborhood had likely been aerially sprayed with now-banned organochlorine pesticides such as DDT.

Cape Cod, with a breast cancer rate 20 percent higher than the rest of Massachusetts, is just one of a several places around the United States with the dubious distinction of being a "hot spot" on our nation's increasingly lit-up breast cancer map. It's joined by Long Island, Marin County and San Francisco -- places where a controversy has brewed for years -- and newly emerging areas such as the Puget Sound in Washington state and Brownsville, Texas.

A large cluster of elevated mortality rates for breast cancer, extending from the Mid-Atlantic through the Northeastern states, has "persisted for many years," says Deborah Winn of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In the Northeast, rates are about 16 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. and in the smaller swatch from New York City to Philadelphia rates are 7 percent higher than the rest of the Northeast.

The reasons for variable rates of the disease are not well understood, according to Winn. But what is clear is that the discovery of hot spots have sparked a new breast-cancer environmental movement, with strong local advocacy groups as well as new national groups.

Long Island activists began drawing their own breast cancer maps in 1992, pinpointing neighbors' homes as if they were battlefield targets. As more hot spots were identified, each touched off a surge of interest. On Cape Cod, women "called on researchers, like ourselves, to begin studying the problem," says Julia Brody of Silent Spring Institute, in Newton, Mass. Long Island activists went to Congress for research funding to investigate possible environmental factors.

"They felt there was a bias in the scientific literature toward 'known risk factors' for the disease, and that these tend to reside with the personal [factors] -- like [use of] alcohol, tobacco and birth control," says Scott Carlin, a geographer at C.W. Post College. "And there's not an equally well-studied and known list of risk factors in the environmental spheres."

The first flurry of environmental studies proved inconclusive, but activists and scientists have not stopped pursuing the environmental questions. Far from it: Interest in environmental factors is growing, says Kevin Donegan of the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), one of several national breast cancer advocacy groups that formed in the 1990s. "Our own polls show an overwhelming majority of people believe that pollution of various kinds is driving this disease," he says.

In 2006, some 270,000 U.S. women -- and men, too, since a small percentage are prone -- will learn that they have some form of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts that, of those cases, more than 40,000 will die of the disease. Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, but women living in North America maintain the highest rate of the disease.

Breast cancer is what scientists call "multifactorial," in that a variety of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors may play a role. The American Cancer Society attributes 5 to 10 percent of the risk of developing the disease on genetic predisposition. Another 25 to 30 percent of the risk has been linked to reproductive/hormonal factors, such as earlier age at menarche, later age of menopause, waiting longer to have children and having few (if any) children.

But these possible risk factors leave much unexplained. So researchers have also looked to diet, lifestyle (smoking, exercise, alcohol) and exposure to environmental toxins in the air, water and food. In the view of establishment groups such as the American Cancer Society and the NCI, however, the environment is an unlikely reason for the noticeable U.S. hot spots.

For many breast cancer activists, this lack of attention to the physical environment is frustrating. And certainly, Jane Chase, with her family of six kids and young age at motherhood, proves that having children early and often is no guarantee of being protected from breast cancer.

"They can continue to dismiss environmental factors, and harp on demographics, when frankly that's why we're in such a pickle," says Jeanne Rizzo, director of the BCF. "This generation is getting sicker rather than healthier, and we need to understand why."

Federal funding for breast cancer research since 1991 has totaled $6.8 billion, according to BCF's 2006 report, State of the Evidence, but only a small percentage of that has been directed toward studying environmental connections to the disease. Like other cancers, breast cancer has a long latency period -- typically 20 to 40 years -- and before it can be detected, people have moved, died or been exposed to other factors that promote or retard the disease.

Enter the mapmakers. An exciting new tool of epidemiological researchers is geographic information systems (GIS), a computer-aided system that makes it possible to integrate and display (most commonly as a map) geographically referenced information that is otherwise difficult to correlate.

"Geographic data can add another dimension to the mix," says Silent Spring's Brody, "because it can answer questions about the environment that women can't answer for themselves -- like whether their neighborhood was sprayed for Gypsy moths."

Back in Cape Cod, Jane Chase thinks about her nine grandchildren as she follows the results of studies looking into her local environment. "Instead of just focusing on treating and curing those who are unfortunately afflicted now," says Chase, "we need to learn about all of the factors that are triggering and promoting this disease so that we can prevent it from attacking future generations."