Energy production forcibly reducedAs temperatures plummeted in Texas, power plant operators were forced to shut down multiple generating units that had not been winterized including wind, natural gas, and nuclear power stations. Thermal power plants were particularly affected as the water and temperature-sensitive instruments needed to run steam turbines froze. Additionally, oil and gas production was hampered at the extraction site by wells freezing, and in refineries. On February 16, daily refining capacity had been reduced by at least 2.6 million barrels. Natural gas is not only the main contributor to the U.S. power mix, but also by far the leading source of electricity generation in Texas. Limited natural gas supply and resulting lower pressure widened the gap between power demand forecast and deliveries by ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which is the state’s independent system operator and leading electricity distributor. Texas runs on a separate power grid to the rest of the Lower 48 states, which restricted its ability to import electricity at a time when electricity demand for heating surged, leaving millions of Texans to endure the cold.
Refineries release greater amounts of air pollutantsThe freezing weather conditions caused refineries and petrochemical plants in Texas to completely or partially shutdown, which required gas flaring to prevent damage to their processing units. This resulted in thousands of tons of air pollutants, such as benzene and carbon monoxide, being released over Texas. Preliminary reporting to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ) showed that the five largest refineries in Texas emitted more than 300,000 thousand pounds of pollutants from flaring. Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery released 14,255 pounds of pollutants in less than five hours on February 15, 2021. Gas flaring can occur during plant start-ups and shutdown, and can release huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly during unplanned shutdowns.
Boil Water Notices issuedPower outages were not the only problem caused by the storm, with the record-breaking low temperatures also impacting the country’s already struggling water infrastructure. The extreme cold saw frozen pipes and power failures cause major disruptions to public water systems. Water pressure plummeted below environmental standards and water lines could no longer be properly cleaned, resulting in water being contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. coli.
At one point roughly 14 million people in Texas were without clean water, which led to Boil Water Notices being issued across the state. A Boil Water Notice – or BWN – is issued when water from public mains becomes unsafe to drink and advises that it be boiled to kill any harmful bacteria before consumption. This is also the case for washing food and even brushing teeth. Although BWNs were eventually lifted in a number of counties, as of February 21, 2021 almost nine million people still remained under boiled water warnings.