winter storm

Austin Summit to Review 2021 Winter Storm Response

'The Peoples' Summit,' organized by several Democratic state representatives, is underway at the Texas Capitol Tuesday

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Democratic state representatives are holding a summit at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday, one year removed from the deadly winter storm that disrupted utility service for millions of Texans.

The summit, deemed The Peoples’ Summit for Truth and Reconciliation, is an attempt to determine what went wrong last year, what has gone right since and what still needs to be addressed.

Among the chief complaints alleged by participants ahead of the summit are that stricter regulations placed upon electric providers were not also enforced upon natural gas producers and that the official death toll reported by the Department of State Health Services may be an undercount.

In the wake of the winter storm, which brought down a significant portion of the Texas power grid, Texas lawmakers instituted more strict winterization requirements on power plants that operate within the state. According to ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, 99% of the power plants in the state have since complied with the new regulations.

But those same requirements to fortify equipment so that it will withstand future freezes were not placed upon the natural gas industry, which is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission.

“We had an opportunity to fix this and make it right. And while we made some improvements to the grid, and required the power companies to winterize, we did not require the same for the gas that feeds the power companies. Gas got a pass,” said Texas Representative Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat who represents Austin in the legislature.

The Texas Railroad Commission announced in January that it had visited thousands of gas wells and pipelines to check their readiness for the upcoming season.

In a January news release, the commission declared, "…about 98% of the facilities visited had been winterized."

But when NBC 5 Investigates filed an open records request asking the commission for records detailing those site visits, the data the commission provided seemed to raise more questions than answers about the definition of “winterized,” and what those site visits really found.

The records show when inspectors asked oil and gas well operators, "Have you finished preparation for this facility for the winter season?" Almost all -- 94% -- responded, “Yes.”

But when asked specifically what they had done to prepare for winter the answers the inspectors received seemed less reassuring.

When oil and gas facility operators were asked, for example, "Was there a test/simulation of the weather preparedness procedures at this facility?" A total of 61% said "No," "Did not know" or "Did not answer."

There were also questions raised on Tuesday about whether the official death toll reported by the state of 246 could be an undercount, based on reported discrepancies between the TXDSHS figures and those that have been reported by some county medical examiner's offices.

“There needs to be more effort made on the part of the state to establish just how many people died,” said Brigid Shea, a Travis County Commissioner, who spoke to reporters ahead of Tuesday’s summit. “They owe that to the survivors, the families of the people who died to give us the accurate number and then take the necessary steps to make sure this doesn't happen again.”


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