As states grapple with the repercussions of last year's severe winter storms, VOICE-OKC condemns a related Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision. With only one dissent, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission approved a plan from Oklahoma utility companies to recover costs for the February 2021 winter storm by transferring them to residents over decades.
The dissenting opinion comes from the one corporation commissioner who voted against the utility plans.
Bob Anthony, who wrote the dissenting opinion, is saying “Oklahoma rate payers deserve an explanation.” In the filing he also asks “why are resulting energy costs so shockingly high and who pays how much?”...
“We are being stuck with the bill for that and getting nothing in return,” Nick Singer [with the VOICE Coalition] said. “There’s nothing that is requiring these companies now to invest in infrastructure to prepare for future cold weather or natural disasters.”
[Photo credit: KFOR]
[Excerpt from Guest Column by VOICE-OKC leaders]
"In the matter of the February Freeze and utility costs, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) is failing us.
OCC's own "Vision" promises to "hold itself and utilities accountable to the citizens of Oklahoma," but it allows secrecy and evades answering public questions.
VOICE is a coalition of churches and community groups concerned about issues affecting families, so we looked at OCC documents. Utilities don't profit from the February price spikes, so why secrecy? In the middle of the freeze, Oklahoma Natural Gas (ONG) asked the OCC on Feb. 16 to keep all price records secret. The OCC said yes after just 48 hours.
We now know that ONG put Oklahomans in debt by an extra $1.3 billion in just nine days.
.... VOICE-OKC made the common-sense suggestion that when home energy prices spike suddenly, consumers should receive real-time updates from utilities. Imagine how much more conservation would have occurred in February if utilities (as they knew) said "your price for energy tomorrow is going up by 500%." However, OCC has dismissed this idea; it's another example of OCC favoring monopoly corporations over consumers."
[Photo Credit: From right to left: Eric Jergensen, President of VOICE Action Fund and S. Bennet Goldman, a member of VOICE through First Unitarian Church of OKC. Via The Oklahoman]
Texas IAF Leaders Demand State Legislators Weatherize Power Grid, Provide Relief for Families Struggling with Repairs
The virtual press conference was organized by the Network of Texas IAF Organizations — a nonpartisan coalition of 10 primarily faith-based organizations across the state that represents more than 1 million people — and The Metropolitan Organization, a Houston-based civic group, to keep public attention on the aftermath of the widespread power outages that occurred earlier this year....
Texas IAF has thrown support behind Senate Bill 3, which would mandate weatherization under federal energy regulation guidelines. The bill passed on March 29 and now moves to the House. It would also impose penalties for noncompliance, increase coordination among state energy regulating bodies and create an emergency alert system.
"Our families have already suffered enough," said the Rev. Minerva Camarena-Skeith of St. John's Episcopal Church [of Central Texas Interfaith] in Austin. "They have paid more than their fair share of the cost for the mistakes of the energy industry and the unwillingness of the legislature to regulate the energy industry."
As legislation trudges through the legislature, the struggles continue across the state, members of The Metropolitan Organization said during the press conference. The budget strain of paying for repairs, they said, is especially felt by people living in apartments, whose landlords may not cover costs, as well as mobile home park residents and the elderly.
Pipes also burst at the home of Sorina Serrano, who is still waiting for repairs. A leader with The Metropolitan Organization Houston and member of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church, Serrano said her home insurance coverage expired in March and other insurers have told her they won't cover the house until the repairs are made.
[Photo Credit: Isabelle Baldwin/CNS Photo]
After Texas' Winter Storm Disaster, Faith Leaders Press for Legislation to Ensure 'Never Again', Earthbeat- National Catholic Reporter [pdf]
Oklahoma City religious and community leaders are raising questions about how power providers plan to recover an estimated $4.5 billion spent on fuel during February's severe winter storm.
Power providers spent so much in the wake of the storm, a customer who might normally see a $100 February bill could have seen a nearly $2,000 bill instead, with months of similar bills to follow.
Some legislators recently submitted plans to mitigate these costs over time, but leaders of the civic organization VOICE OKC want assurance the process won't pass unreasonable fuel costs on to consumers.
“If we as consumers are going to be asked to pay $4.5 billion, we deserve transparency,”
said Eric Jergensen, a VOICE member representing the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House.
[Photo Credit: Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
Advocates Call For Transparent Investigations Into Cost Spikes, The Norman Transcript [pdf]
About 1 million Texans don’t have home access to broadband, a state report found last summer.
The pandemic made Texas’ already gaping digital divide much more challenging, which had lawmakers pledging to close that gap. Gov. Greg Abbott named expanding broadband access one of his priority items at the beginning of session, and last week two omnibus bills gained traction when they each were unanimously voted out of their House and Senate committees.
About 15% of households in metropolitan areas don’t have access to broadband data plans, he said, and the problem can’t just be solved with infrastructure. Families also struggle with affordability and gaps in digital literacy.
It’s important to include “regular people” in the discussion process for these plans, said Josephine López Paul, the lead organizer for Dallas Area Interfaith, a coalition of congregations, schools and nonprofits. López Paul, who helps organize advocates around issues in their Dallas County communities, has noticed that many are still grappling with the same internet challenges as they were at the start of the pandemic.
“They need to do some bottom-up listening and not just assume they have a plan that’s going to work with people,” López Paul said. “They can put broadband structures in areas and if people don’t know that it’s there or that they need it … it’s just going to be a wasted effort.”
In recent hearings that drew overwhelmingly positive feedback from nonprofit advocates, school leaders and internet service providers, one lawmaker emphasized the bills aren’t a foolproof solution on their own.
[Photo Credit: Lola Gomez/DMN Staff Photographer]
[In photo above, Maria Magarin of San Juan Diego Catholic holds her six-month old son and evaluates the water damage sustained to her apartment in far northeast Dallas. Magarin lost hot water due to the Texas blackout and now, after her apartment sustained significant damage, fears that the mold growing on wet walls will make her young sons sick.]
Maria Magarin stomped on her gray carpet, to punctuate the fact that burst pipes have left her bedroom floor soggy, her apartment smelling of mold and a hallway wall so damp it bulges like a huge wet sponge. She said she feared her 6-month-old son would get sick.
“My apartment is a disaster,” the single mother of four said.
Josephine Lopez-Paul, the lead organizer for Dallas Area Interfaith, has tried to help those most in need, usually immigrant women who are single heads of households. Emergency assistance funds from the Oakland-based Family Independence Initiative obtained before the storm meant Dallas Area Interfaith was able to distribute $500 checks in the middle of the freeze. The flow of money was held up for a few days because renters couldn’t get on computers without electricity.
“This is a disaster,” Lopez-Paul said.
[Photo Credit: Lynda M Gonzalez, Dallas Morning News]
Even during the Texas winter storm blackout, CTI leaders swung into action to support low-income families cut off from access to heat, potable water and food. Not only did they deliver direct assistance from their own pantries (and eventually much more in collaboration with the County of Travis) they participated in a Texas IAF press conference calling for structural reforms to the statewide power grid. In Waco, CTI furthermore helped support a local congregation that opened their doors to vulnerable residents needing warmth.
Profiled in the stories below are people and communities Central Texas Interfaith introduced to reporters, including from the Washington Post.
[At Pecan Park Mobile Homes] on the eastern edge of Austin, Kamel is struggling to plan out the next few weeks for his family. Business had already been slow for his pressure-washing company because of the pandemic, but the freeze has now damaged the equipment.
“We are not able to use anything. So we have like a zero income for now,” said Kamel, who must pay rent by the first week of March to avoid $75 daily late fees. “I’m nervous. I’m sure we are not going to be able to pay on time.”
Days earlier, he nearly lost his three children to carbon monoxide poisoning after they used a charcoal stove to warm their mobile home. He said he felt like a prisoner listening to his children cry from the painful cold during their five days without power. Fear tore through Kamel and his wife after their son began vomiting and they rushed to the hospital.
The hardship reminded Kamel of his own childhood in Iraq, but he said he felt less prepared than his parents, who were accustomed to surviving. The 41-year-old has endured much in his life, but he did not expect this in Texas. The power and weather crises are over, but the consequences for his family will reverberate for weeks.
Kamel applied for individual assistance from FEMA after learning through his kids’ school about the help. Organizers from Central Texas Interfaith have also helped his family with immediate needs, such as food and water.
“We’ve been through similar tough times, but this time it’s different because we have kids,” Kamel said of himself and his wife. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen like next week or like 10 days from here or a month from here, you know?”
Texas Storm Left Death, Devastation in Vulnerable Communities, National Catholic Report - Earthbeat [pdf]
Help On Ice: St. Alban's Serves as Warming Center, Act Locally Waco
While we desperately need immediate relief, we must also seek long-term systemic change.
As faith leaders, we have a responsibility to cry out for the vulnerable and seek the common good, and this means the reform of a utility system that has served as a means for profit, putting profit before people.
Last week, The Network of Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Organizations with interfaith leaders from across the state held a press conference, urging the governor and legislature to take responsibility and put people before profits. It is time to direct recovery resources and restructure utility oversight to protect all, especially the poorer residents already on the edge because of the pandemic.
Texans did what they could in the dark. They filled hotels to capacity. Others found refuge in warming stations, sleeping on buses. Some who stayed home lit small fires to huddle around. Too many had no choice but to layer up and pray.
Adriana Godines [in photo at right] and her family in East Dallas went 40 hours without power. Her 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, woke up at night crying because she was cold.
“We were some of the lucky ones,” she said.
By Friday, power had been restored to nearly every Texan. But the state and its people were already facing the next disasters. Grocery store shelves are barren. Water, if it’s running, must be boiled in half the state. Homes, apartments and businesses are deluged.
Four feet of water flooded Friendship West Baptist Church’s resource center in southern Dallas, said the Rev. Frederick Haynes. The 30,000-square-foot building includes a food pantry and gently used clothing store.
“We’re trying to save as much as possible,” he said. “People are literally dying and suffering, who did not have to die and who did not have to suffer, if Texas had been responsible to regulate institutions that are supposed to keep us safe.”
Texas IAF Declares State Power Failure an 'Act of Sheer Negligence,' Demands Accountability from State Leaders
While state officials announced later in the day that power had stabilized and forced shutoffs were no longer needed, more than 300,000 households remained without power....Texas was especially hard hit because most of its power grid is isolated from the interconnected networks serving the eastern and western parts of the U.S. That made it difficult to import energy from other states when frozen pipes shut down generating station.
The failure of Texas' electric grid led faith leaders across the state on Thursday to call out Gov. Greg Abbott for a lack of leadership and preparation. They urged him to request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and dip into the state's $10 billion "rainy-day" fund to help Texans cover expensive home repairs and energy bills.
They also called on state leaders to act on a 2012 plan to modernize and weatherize the electric grid....
"We are calling for Gov. Abbott to first take responsibility for this gross negligence and stop finger-pointing. This is a gross act of negligence that has caused harm to the whole state of Texas, and it's time to put people over profits," the Rev. John Ogletree of the First Metropolitan Church of Houston said at a virtual press conference Thursday. The event was organized by the Network of Texas IAF Organizations, a nonpartisan coalition of 10 mostly faith-based organizations statewide that represents more than 1 million people.
"The state leadership has known that this needed to change, and they have done nothing," Elizabeth Valdez, director of Texas IAF, told EarthBeat.
"The storm may have been an act of nature, but the devastation of the electrical grid shutdown is an act of sheer negligence," Auxiliary Bishop Greg Kelly of the Dallas Diocese added in a statement.
Kelly and other faith leaders who spoke during the press conference and with EarthBeat described the struggles facing their state's people because of the freeze: Temperatures in homes hovering at 30 degrees. Elderly people unable to use dialysis machines. A 76-year-old woman sleeping in her car for warmth. Churches that would typically offer shelter could not because they too lacked power and water...
Texas Faith Leaders Call Out 'Sheer Negligence' Behind Power Outages, National Catholic Reporter [pdf]
Press Conference Footage, Facebook Live