Q&A: Floodlight’s Amal Ahmed covers Texas communities on the climate story’s front lines

We spoke with Amal Ahmed of Floodlight News about covering climate in Texas, energy, and environmental justice.

As climate investments from the Inflation Reduction Act begin rolling out, important conversations about climate change and energy are bubbling up in communities across the US. With this in mind, Covering Climate Now spoke with a reporter who covered climate from Texas, a state where climate and energy have long been center-stage. Amal Ahmed is a Dallas-based journalist with Floodlight News who previously covered climate and the environment for the Texas Observer and Texas Monthly. Ahmed shared how she organizes herself to tackle Texas’s complex (and often oil-and-gas friendly) government and how covering the fossil fuel industry led her to the aspect of the climate story she’s most passionate about: environmental justice.

The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, is part of a regular series of Q&As in which CCNow speaks with different journalists, across the industry and around the world, about their experiences on the climate beat and ideas for pushing our craft forward. Ahmed’s comments have been edited for length and clarity. Follow Ahmed on Twitter.

What led you to focus on climate change as a reporter?

I was an intern at Texas Monthly when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. In the newsroom, as editors and the staff scrambled to get a handle on the situation—how do you even begin to know what’s happening after an event of that scale?—we started making as many calls as possible.

I called, for example, hotels that had turned into shelters, a rural county judge, and an environmental justice group in the bayside part of Houston to learn what was happening in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods close to the Ship Channel. It was all deeply emotional. I remember being on the phone with a woman who, one minute, sounded completely fine and, the next, burst into tears. Of course, in the months after, we’d see so much reporting about how deeply city, state, and federal policies failed people, both in terms of disaster preparedness and the response to the hurricane.

That was the last week of my internship, and ultimately it was a very defining moment for me. Growing up in Texas, I’d felt for a long time that climate change is the biggest issue of our generation, the thing that will determine almost everything about how we and future generations will live. Hurricane Harvey proved that again and reassured me that I wanted to focus on climate as a journalist.

Texas has a compelling place in the climate story, as both an epicenter of the fossil fuel industry and, now, the top renewable-energy-producing state in the US. How has being in Texas shaped your approach to climate reporting?

When I was starting out, I was definitely interested in that dichotomy: You have the oil and gas industry here making a ton of money and doing whatever they want, because of their historical influence and all the lobbying they do. But as long as there’s money to be made, there’s a way forward for renewable energy, too, which is why West Texas is now so full of wind turbines.

That story gets told a lot, and it has major implications for climate change, sure. But as I did more reporting here, I realized that the stories we see less of are those of the folks whose lives are affected by all this fossil fuel infrastructure. These environmental justice communities—folks who live near power plants, for example—were just never having their side of the story told or taken seriously. So that’s what I’m most interested in now. Energy might be the biggest story in Texas, but it’s not just a story about companies or the economy. It’s about the people who live here and their quality of life.

Did any stories you worked on bring this especially into focus for you?

In 2021, I was with the Texas Observer, reporting on the build-out of liquefied natural gas infrastructure along the coast. A wave of new plants and export terminals was going through the permitting process, from Port Arthur, on the Texas-Louisiana border, to Brownsville, on the border with Mexico. My reporting started in just one area, following an advocacy group that had put on a webinar about how this development was going to affect their community—a lot of these areas are beach towns, for example, and their economies depend heavily on tourism, fishing, and birding. Over several months, though, I found more and more groups like this, all full of people who are very aware of the stakes at hand, both in terms of the existential climate threat and local health impacts. Many of these people are driven by not wanting their kids or their elderly parents breathing in all this pollution.

More recently, in the fall, I worked on a story for Floodlight and the Texas Tribune about a Port Arthur citizens’ group that brought a case against a planned LNG plant before a state judge. The group won; the judge ruled that the state regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, should impose stricter emissions and pollution limits for the plant. But then TCEQ just unilaterally overturned the judge’s decision, which it has the power to do, saying that reducing pollution would be too expensive for the energy company in charge of the plant.

Both of these stories really drove home for me the power of the oil and gas industry. For one thing, the industry can impact how people live all up and down a four-hundred-mile stretch of coast—and then, when those people complain, the industry can silence them, in part due to the influence they have with state officials. We speak about the industry in terms of national security and stuff like that, but then you have these regular people who just live here. And they’re organizing and doing what they can to get people to show up to city council meetings, but that’s a very thin line of defense, when you don’t have a government that’s willing to put pressure on the industry to do better. So it falls to these communities to defend themselves, time and time again. That’s how it works in Texas, and frankly also in a lot of the country.

How do you view the role of journalists who tell these stories?

I see my job as a reporter as partly to convey these stories to folks in other parts of the state who likely don’t know this is happening. If you’re from Dallas or Austin, most of the communities I’m talking about aren’t places you’re just going to casually find yourself. And that’s part of the problem, right? Until I became a reporter, I’d never seen a smokestack or an oil well up close. I put gas in my car, and I knew it was bad for the environment, but I never had to see the gas being processed or the impact of that processing on different communities than my own. So, by elevating stories like this, I think we show people that climate change and fossil fuels aren’t just about a hurricane we might live through several years from now, but about the people living within a mile of power plants who are dying early or suffering from disproportionate rates of asthma, right now. Then, maybe those people elsewhere can do something with that information.

It’s also important that these stories get preserved as part of the historical record. Throughout Black and Mexican American history in Texas, people have built resilient communities against various forms of oppression—but, too often, those narratives haven’t been told and are at risk of being forgotten. What that means today is that communities sometimes lack that blueprint of people who came before them fighting for what they believed in. So I think journalism and environmental justice storytelling can play a role in memorializing the efforts of communities today.

Much of Floodlight’s work focuses on investigations and accountability. Given the breadth of the climate story in Texas, and the complicated state bureaucracy there, how do you go about finding stories?

A lot of my best stories do come from those folks on the ground, who know these issues best because they’re living with them. I’m in frequent touch with various advocacy and activist groups, especially ones focused on environmental justice. I’ve also found that legal aid clinics can be a great pathway into stories.

When it comes to the government, I think in terms of issue-based buckets. You’ve got, for example, energy, transportation, housing, conservation—these issues fall under the umbrella of climate and the environment. Then I want to figure out which government agency is involved with each of those issues; I subscribe to their newsletters and keep an eye out for whatever I can from them. Another story I did for Floodlight, last spring, came from a TCEQ press release that mentioned in passing fines that had been levied against various companies. I started looking into these fines and realized that a bunch of the oil and gas companies, instead of paying their fines to the state, were paying fossil fuel–affiliated nonprofits. As part of a state program, polluters are allowed to pay fines to environment-focused organizations in Texas that do things like clean up dump sites or rehabilitate damaged habitats; yet TCEQ had qualified the Texas Natural Gas Foundation as one of these organizations. So, effectively, you had the fossil fuel industry paying fines to itself.

Finally, I learn a lot by paying attention to Texas’s legislative sessions, which run every two years—we’re in the midst of one now. Promising environmental proposals in the statehouse typically don’t make it past committees, but the process can still tell you about what the government is interested in and how it works. For example, there’s a bill to form an environmental justice committee under TCEQ that’s been filed three sessions in a row, for six years running, that’s never gotten any attention. Separately, I was in a water committee hearing once—this was between legislative sessions, actually—and an expert testified that some Texas counties still rely on hand-drawn floodplain maps from the 1950s. Every lawmaker in the room heard that, but no one did anything about it. That showed me that the state knows what its problems are; whether it does anything is a different story. I find that kind of context very helpful.

Climate and energy have been major stories in Texas for a long time. With investments in clean energy ramping up, including via the federal Inflation Reduction Act, do you have any thoughts for reporters in other states who might find themselves covering climate change and energy for the first time?

You know, on the IRA, I’m still waiting to see what and how much actually filters down to the state level. What’s caught my attention so far is that a lot of environmental justice folks have been quite critical of how much that bill gave away to fossil fuel companies—and the ways it failed to address the full scope of EJ concerns at hand. So, for now, I would just urge reporters to remember that and not gloss over the equity aspects of the IRA story.

Given, as you’ve said, that environmental justice stories are typically underrepresented in the press, what reactions to your stories have you gotten from these communities?

I know some journalists won’t agree with this, but it matters a lot to me that my work resonates with the folks living through these stories. They are my primary audience; the stories are first and foremost for them. And by and large, what I hear is that it really matters to people to see their stories represented.

A couple years ago, for example, I wrote a story for Texas Monthly about a Black neighborhood in the town of Freeport, which was basically being entirely bought out by Port Freeport, in part to expand facilities used by petrochemical companies. There was a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in how land purchases were being carried out—but the writing was on the wall; the community knew there was probably nothing they could do to stop the buyout. Even so, people there said that seeing that story in Texas Monthly made them feel like they were finally at least being heard. It might not have made a structural difference, but for these people, it meant a lot just to have their story told.

We get caught up as journalists sometimes thinking about things like “How many people tweeted the story?” or “How many seconds did people spend reading this or that article?” But to the people in our pieces, what matters is that their story gets told and that it gets remembered. I think we forget how much that really does matter.