How Texas’ Energy Woes Are Derailing Life In This Houston Neighborhood
HOUSTON ― The Southwest Crossing subdivision has always been a quiet place, a haven just outside the city’s concrete jungle where the sound of children laughing bounces off neatly paved streets. That was the case until last May, when some residents started receiving letters from CenterPoint Energy that a propane storage facility was moving in next door.
Within weeks, residents Eugene Pack and Brittney Stredic could hear construction equipment revving in the distance. At the time, they wondered how the decision was made to build the facility in their section of Fort Bend County ― where, of the more than 800,000 people who live in this area of the city, nearly half identify as nonwhite, according to recent U.S. Census data. The two have since become outspoken community organizers trying to stop the project.
CenterPoint Energy started work on its new propane storage facility in August. It is expected to hold 300,000 gallons of the highly flammable gas in four underground tanks the size of small submarines. The company said the project was planned to be completed in March. Stredic told HuffPost in late March that construction of the propane storage facility was still underway.
The facility is just 500 feet from homes, and residents worry about its effects on their health, their safety, their property values — their very future in Southwest Crossing.
“The level of fear that they’ve placed in this community, it’s insane,” said Pack, 71, a longtime resident and a preacher at Houston’s Praise and Worship Center in the city’s 3rd Ward neighborhood. He and Stredic were standing in a church parking lot next to the CenterPoint construction site, where workers were leaving with their lunches on a rainy day in November. “I don’t know what they were thinking — to put this much of a chemical in a residential neighborhood. This is a dense area.”
Energy has been on the minds of Texans since last year’s rare, fatal winter storm Uri caused power outages for nearly 5 million people across the state. Lawmakers and the energy sector have looked at options for reinforcing the state’s energy grid, but despite passage of legislation and new state standards, energy experts say they haven’t taken many steps.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry — which produces natural gas, the energy source perhaps most to blame for the 2021 blackouts after freezing temperatures caused operations to fail during peak usage — has been left alone. Propane, a byproduct of crude oil and natural gas used to heat homes and power appliances, accounted for more than 47% of the state’s electricity generation in 2019. Comparable power sources like coal, nuclear, wind and solar make up a combined 52%, according to state data.
Natural gas and propane storage expansion have been underway in Texas for years, promoted as a way to shore up the energy grid.
But Southwest Crossing residents worry about the possibility of gas leaks and explosions. They also worry about longer-term effects. Across town, Houston’s 5th Ward, another historically diverse neighborhood, has been dealing with a slowly leaking underground plume containing various chemicals ― including creosote, which preserves wood — from a former rail yard site. The plume is alleged to have created cancer clusters among longtime residents, including in children.
“All it takes is one time, one human error,” said Stredic, 27, a lifelong Southwest Crossing resident who has taken time away from her college education to organize against the CenterPoint Energy propane storage site. “People are going to make mistakes. It’s just a matter of, when is that mistake going to happen?”
Cheap Energy, But At What Cost?
Texas is the top energy-producing state in the U.S., with an energy sector worth an estimated $712 billion. The Lone Star State also consumes more energy than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But mistakes have become commonplace as the state attempts to reinforce its power grid.
In 1989 and 2011, Texans experienced widespread power failures due to extreme winter weather. Both episodes offered warnings for future winter storms, but neither regulators nor utilities took action, setting up the calamity the state saw in 2021.
At the height of Uri, natural gas wells and wind turbines froze, and coal, nuclear and gas plants were knocked offline — effectively disabling the bulk of Texas’ power grid. As a result, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid, cut power for several days to 2 million homes. Natural gas use spiked as Texans weathered freezing temperatures within their homes, and power plants were unable to restart to meet needs due to extreme weather. It was the largest forced outage in U.S. history.
The decision was a last-ditch effort to keep Texas’ energy grid online, and it left Texans scrambling to stay warm. Some burned books and furniture in their homes — with some accidentally burning their homes down in the process. State estimates in the aftermath found that 246 people died in 77 counties. However, other estimates indicate that the final number of casualties from the winter storm was likely much higher.
Natural gas utilities, Texas’ majority source of power during winter months, blamed electricity generators for the blackouts. But energy experts say the real problem was that utility companies hadn’t weatherized the grid, which would have required enclosing equipment at power facilities to better protect them from extreme weather. Pressurized dry air is needed to run turbines that then generate electricity for the grid. Importantly, the weatherization precautions keep the dry air dry, as well as operable.
Since then, the standards expected of Texas’ power plants have changed. The state’s Public Utility Commission passed new rules, effective as of December, mandating that power plants better winterize their systems, and requiring that operators provide a “notarized attestation” that fixes have been made since the 2021 winter storm. There are also comprehensive, year-round guidelines for weather emergency preparedness and standards.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers passed a bill in the most recent legislative session that set new weatherization standards for Texas’ independent energy grid. But while the legislation did create a winter storm emergency alert plan and established the Texas Energy Reliability Council, not included in the bill was funding for necessary weatherization upgrades. The upshot, energy experts say, is that substantive action since the winter storm has been underwhelming. In fact, natural gas facilities, whose failure contributed significantly to the winter storm blackout, have been left alone.
Despite pleas from across the political spectrum, upon signing the bill in June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”
‘A Pretty Scary Thought’
Texas has been the only state on its own power grid since 1935, a hawkish means of avoiding federal regulation. However, the state’s independent grid offers a unique opportunity for companies like CenterPoint Energy to capitalize on catastrophic winter storms.
As part of an enormous $40 billion spending plan that the Houston-based company announced last September, CenterPoint intends to invest $16 billion in natural gas expansion nationwide over the next 10 years. It has also pledged to lower its emissions to net zero by 2035, an initiative that entails retiring coal units and implementing more solar power technology, according to the company.
Included in the plan is increased use of technologies like propane-air peak shaving facilities. The technology, which has been used since at least the 1950s, blends vaporized liquid propane and compressed air to store for use when natural gas supplies are short. The Southwest Crossing project is one such facility.
Propane-air peak shaving facilities “are there to be a little bit of a backup,” said Dr. Carey King, an assistant director and research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
The technology also has the benefit of providing additional backup for the grid when the next storm hits, he noted.
“Some places might be better connected or have more than one connection,” King said. “If one power line goes down, there’s another one that’s delivering power to a given area.”
CenterPoint Energy built its first propane-air peak shaving facility, the Bluebonnet Point Reserve, in North Houston, another predominantly Black and Hispanic section of the city, in October 2019. The Southwest Crossing facility will be the fourth in the Houston area.
“It’s a short distance away. To have two of these types of facilities is a pretty scary thought,” Stredic said. “It’s enough to take out our whole community on this side and that side.”
Stredic and Pack have been at the forefront of their community’s effort. They’ve led protests next to the construction site, and they’ve helped keep neighbors informed. They, like other members of their community, want answers from either the city or CenterPoint Energy on why neighborhoods with high shares of people of color were chosen for the facilities.
“As you can see, we’re sitting right next to a gas station, and there’s a church, and there’s another gas station,” Stredic said, pointing down the street. “I don’t know if they considered that the lives here needed to be protected.”
Historically, industrial sites built near diverse neighborhoods aren’t coincidental, especially in Houston.
A 2017 paper by sociologists at Rice University found that the city’s Black children, who are more likely to live in industry-heavy sections of the city, are twice as likely to develop asthma as Houston’s white children. A 2019 paper by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists also found that 90% of Houston’s Manchester-Harrisburg community — whose residents are 90% Hispanic and 8% Black — lives within three miles of at least one industrial or toxic waste facility.
But these trends aren’t unique to Houston.
A 2017 report by the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP concentrated on Black and brown “fence-line” communities ― that is, diverse communities that border oil and natural gas facilities. It found that more than 1 million Black Americans live within half a mile of these types of facilities. In the 91 U.S. counties that have a refinery or a facility that’s currently under construction, those facilities expose as many as 6.7 million Black Americans — 14% of the nation’s total Black population — to toxic and hazardous emissions.
“We understand they want to better service this city, especially when we have adverse weather events, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of other people’s safety.”
– Brittney Stredic, Southwest Crossing resident
About 1 in 5 Black Americans lives near an oil or petroleum refinery, the report found.
Southwest Crossing organizers say they don’t want to be the next statistic.
“We’re not just an average community. We’re one that goes above and beyond to help each other,” Pack said. They’re looking to preserve Southwest Crossing for their “children, our grandchildren, to be able to live comfortably,” he said.
More than anything, community members say they’re confused. Of all the places a facility like CenterPoint Energy’s could be built, why here — why in their backyards?
“Historically, these types of facilities are hazardous to the environment and to people,” Stredic said. “We don’t want to accuse CenterPoint of making that type of move, but evidence is not speaking strongly towards that, either … Until an emergency happens, or something is released in the air, it won’t necessarily be considered a hazard.”
Their intention isn’t to hinder infrastructure.
“We understand they want to better service this city, especially when we have adverse weather events,” Stredic said. “But it shouldn’t come at the cost of other people’s safety.”
It’s unclear what options Southwest Crossing residents have at this point.
In an emailed statement to HuffPost, Alejandra Diaz, a spokesperson for CenterPoint Energy, said company officials met with Houston Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum, whose district includes Southwest Crossing, last June. (Castex-Tatum’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.) Several more meetings took place last summer, followed by a three-week voluntary work stoppage at the facility’s construction site while the company responded to community concerns.
“Throughout the process, CenterPoint Energy has remained committed to open communications with our customers and community members,” Diaz said. “We appreciate the communities’ support, and respect those who voiced their concerns. We have listened to those concerns and ensured they were addressed.”
The Southwest Crossing organizers and their efforts are a version of the classic fight against “unwanted facilities in Black and brown communities,” said Dr. Denae King, a toxicologist at Texas Southern University whose work identifies community environmental health concerns in the region.
But she noted that the community’s struggle with CenterPoint Energy is different, in that “by the time they realized, it was already approved; they’d started working on the area.”
King worries most about scenarios involving a chain-reaction explosion. “It could be pretty catastrophic,” she said. Her sister-in-law lives in Southwest Crossing.
That’s what Southwest Crossing residents have to consider each morning as they awake to the sound of construction equipment revving only about a football field away.
There have been upsides, Stredic said. Their community feels more united than ever, bonded over a shared disturbance in the place they call home.
“It’s brought a new sense of unity,” she said.
There have also been losses. In January, Pack died unexpectedly.
“We are still making progress despite our loss,” Stredic said. “Our goal is for them to shut it down and move it away from here.”