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Saturday, June 19, 2021

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Fallout from Texas Energy Crisis Continues


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Death toll climbs as electric grid operator points fingers

In the March 2021 issue of Oil & Energy, we reported — based on then-current news coverage — that more than 30 people had died in Texas as a result of the polar vortex that hit the state in late February.

Make that 194.

An analysis published by the Houston Chronicle in April showed how initial reports severely undercounted the death tally. Many of the 30-plus deaths were attributed to weather-related incidents, such as fatal car accidents on icy roads. However, according to the latest analysis, more than three times as many Texans died of hypothermia resulting from exposure to extreme cold.

To put it in starker terms, more than 100 people froze to death, some inside their own homes.

Why the discrepancy in figures? The Chronicle cited the state government’s own systems, or lack thereof, as part of the problem. Just as Texas has a deregulated grid, the state also has a decentralized system for death certifications and no public database to track deaths recorded by county medical examiners or other officials.

The Texas Department of State Health Services, which maintains what might be the closest thing to an official death tally, put its count at 111 at the time the Houston Chronicle’s story was published on April 1. However, the newspaper conceded that even its own statistical analysis might have come up short in not accounting for all those who may have died as an indirect result of the grid failure, such as, for example, a cancer patient whose existing symptoms would be gravely exacerbated by lack of home heating.  

“Somebody could be dying from consequences of chronic illness that would not have died if there was not a power outage and a storm,” said Irwin Redlener, a researcher with the Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

As the death toll climbed higher, heads rolled at the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), as well as the body that oversees it, the Public Utility Commission of Texas. First, the ERCOT Board of Directors voted to fire its CEO, Bill Magness. Next, seven members of that board resigned. Two of the three members of the Public Utility Commission also resigned.

Meanwhile, three of the state’s energy suppliers — Griddy, Just Energy and Brazos Electric Power — filed for bankruptcy. At least one of them, Griddy, has been hit with a class action lawsuit from customers who suddenly found themselves shouldering multi-thousand-dollar electricity bills.

ERCOT is the subject of at least 35 lawsuits. The grid operator has asked the Texas Supreme Court to merge these cases so they could be tried by a single court. “ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization stated in a court filling.

One plaintiff is the family of an 11-year-old boy who died from hypothermia while at home during the power outages. The child was found unresponsive when his family went to wake him in the morning.


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