A February 2021 winter storm brought ice and extreme low temperatures across the central United States, leading to power outages that affected more than 5 million people.
The arctic blast hit Texas especially hard, triggering system-wide failures across the state’s energy infrastructure that left roughly 4.4 million without power on the night of Feb. 15, with more than 500,000 Texans still lacking power days later. More than 100 people died, and disruptions to water services continued for days. Some of those spared power losses later found themselves facing exorbitant energy bills.
Texas is the only state to run an isolated electric grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). This system allows it to skirt federal regulations, but also makes it more difficult to import power from outside the system — and thus more vulnerable to the type of catastrophic failures that occurred in February. Lack of local weatherization regulation also left refineries and natural gas plants unprepared for cold temperatures, leading to disruptions along the energy supply chain.
The effects of the power outages were felt across the state, including among its incarcerated population. In April, American Oversight obtained complaints, reported on by the Houston Chronicle, about conditions inside the Galveston County Jail during the storm. Although back-up generators kept power on at the facility, it was left without running water, leading to drinking water shortages and unsanitary conditions in which people had to use buckets as toilets.
The Biden administration declared a major disaster to authorize federal aid for the state. But in the aftermath of the disaster, ERCOT faced lawsuits, calls for investigation from lawmakers, and the resignation of four board members. The infrastructure failure highlighted the risks of lax regulation in the energy sector as Texas and the rest of the country face the likelihood of more extreme weather events related to climate change.
American Oversights is seeking documents that could shed light on the government’s response to the blackout. We filed record requests to learn more about how Texas officials handled the crisis, including asking the governor’s office and the Texas Public Utility Commission for assessments about the reliability of the state’s energy grid, as well as for communications related to the outage from the commission, ERCOT, and the governor’s office.
American Oversight also requested records about how the disaster affected vulnerable populations, including requests to multiple counties and the Federal Bureau of Prisons about the storm’s impact on incarcerated people.