As disaster unfolded across Texas, state lawmakers were quick to blame the state’s grid operator and the public utility commission. But the Legislature will face a reckoning of its own.
Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis. Now, under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way.
Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.
What We’re Following:
With Texas’ electrical grid on the verge of collapse Sunday night, millions of people lost power in the middle of the worst winter storm in the state’s recent history. As temperatures plummeted outside, many Texans were forced to huddle in their unheated homes for days. It wasn’t until early Thursday that significant progress was made in restoring power.
The full scope of the disaster is not yet known. On top of the power crisis, there are now food and water crises. Nearly 14 million people, about half the state’s population, are currently affected by water disruptions—either without water entirely or under a boil-water notice.
At least 30 Texans have died from the winter storm and power losses, and the death toll is rising. One man in Abilene who had no heat for three days was reportedly found “froze to death in his recliner.” His wife, who was beside him, was rushed to the hospital. Harris County hospitals were slammed with more than 300 cases of carbon monoxide exposure after desperate residents tried to stay warm in unsafe ways, like using grills or generators inside and running their cars in garages. In Austin, hospitals lost heat and water—at Dell Children’s Medical Center, toilets filled up and nurses had to remove feces in plastic bags. Pipes in many houses and businesses froze and exploded, causing untold amounts of flooding damage.
The unprecedented storm caused problems for all of the state’s power generators, but natural gas plants were hit the hardest. Natural gas provides more than half of winter power in Texas; many plants were forced offline because of frozen pipelines and equipment. With that, the state’s power grid lost a substantial amount of its expected electricity output, forcing the state’s grid operator, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), to cut off power to millions of consumers across the state to avoid a total grid failure. Officials later said this catastrophe, which could have crippled power for months, was “seconds and minutes” away.
As the scale of the blackouts grew, Republican Governor Greg Abbott turned to ERCOT as a convenient political scapegoat. At a press conference on Thursday, the governor lashed out against the state grid operator, saying that “ERCOT failed” and that “Texans deserve answers about why these shortfalls occurred.” At the briefing, Abbott pointed to concerns that many of the organization’s board members do not live in Texas and ordered the Legislature to “restructure” its board. But he has made no mention of the state’s Public Utility Commission, which is run by his appointees and charged with regulating both ERCOT and electric utilities in Texas.
Legislative leaders also announced they would probe ERCOT’s responsibility for the blackouts. On Tuesday, House Speaker Dade Phelan announced that the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees would hold a joint hearing next week to investigate what caused the blackouts, probe the energy industry and ERCOT’s response, and discuss changes to avoid future problems. State Senator Joan Huffman, who chairs the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, also announced her intention to hold a hearing that investigates the “legal implications of ERCOT’s and the PUC’s action, or inaction, in contributing to this catastrophe.”
As much as the state’s top lawmakers want to focus on ERCOT and the PUC, the Legislature will face a reckoning of its own. After an ice storm caused energy blackouts in 2011—albeit on a much smaller scale—the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation investigated the factors that led to the blackout. In their report, the feds warned ERCOT that the state’s power generators had failed to sufficiently weatherize their plants and equipment and recommended steps like installing heating elements around pipes and increasing power reserves ahead of inclement weather. The report also pointed out that the state had similarly failed to take action after a similar winter storm in 1989.
The state repeatedly refused to learn its lesson. As Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle: “The 2011 debacle gave everybody in the Legislature, the state, the PUC, and ERCOT, the roadmap to fix things and they did not follow it.”
While lawmakers did enact a bill requiring power companies to send annual reports to PUC about their winterization efforts, the law does not make those efforts mandatory. With severe cold weather a rare occurrence in Texas, operators declined to invest in infrastructure improvements.
Over the years, bills to improve energy infrastructure and reform the state’s electricity markets have died in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Former state Representative Sylvester Turner, a Democrat and now the mayor of Houston, noted on Thursday that he filed a bill in 2011 that would have required the state’s power grid to have excess energy reserves as a way to prevent blackouts. It never got a committee hearing.
In 2015, former state Representative Eric Johnson, now the Democratic mayor of Dallas, authored legislation that would have required state agencies to follow strategic plans that consider the role of weather and climate change in planning the usage of state resources. As state Representative Michelle Beckley, a Denton County Democrat, pointed out on Twitter, her Republican predecessor and a majority of Republicans voted against the measure.
As public outrage has grown, Abbott has added additional priorities to his list of emergency items for the session. Those include a vague call for “ERCOT reform” in addition to mandatory winterization of power generators and state funding for said winterization.
It’s not clear where lawmakers would get the money to fund infrastructure improvements for highly profitable private energy companies, especially at a time when the state faces a pandemic-induced fiscal crunch. Lawmakers could force the energy companies to pay for the upgrades themselves; they could also end up sticking Texans with the bill.
Unlike disasters like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the first 10 months of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the Legislature is actually in session during this emergency. That means the year-long interim period cannot be used as an excuse for inaction. Committees are just gearing up and the bill filing period is still open, meaning there’s plenty of room for legislative response. Will this be the disaster that finally forces lawmakers to act?
What We’re Reading:
ERCOT is the only power grid operator in the country that has sovereign immunity—that is, immunity from lawsuits. This may make it more difficult for the organization to be held accountable. But the Texas Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that may alter those legal protections. / Houston Chronicle
The crisis in Texas sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions—as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure. / The New York Times
Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative state politicians to declare Tuesday that the state was relying too much on renewable energy. But in reality, the wind power was expected to make up only a fraction of what the state had planned for during the winter. / Texas Tribune
A grandmother slept in her car. Parents who ran out of firewood burned belongings to keep their children warm. A Richardson resident watched the battery level of her partner’s oxygen machine drain away and desperately sought help to have it recharged. As Texas utility operators and politicians squabbled over responsibility for “load shedding” and “rolling blackouts” Tuesday, many residents scrambled simply to stay warm and alive. / Texas Tribune
All Hat, No Cattle
The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.
During one of the most devastating disasters in a state familiar with devastating disasters, Texas politicians wasted no time spinning, finger-pointing, and misinforming—all in an effort to keep the blame off themselves.
For starters, there’s Governor Greg Abbott. In direct contradiction to what ERCOT officials were saying (and what he was saying in local TV interviews), Abbott went on Fox News Tuesday evening to lie about the cause of the power grid collapse. With millions of Texans heading into another cold night without heat, Abbott told Sean Hannity: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Texas is blessed with multiple sources of energy such as natural gas and nuclear, as well as solar and wind. Our wind and our solar got shot down and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into this situation.” This is not true. While both fossil fuel and renewable power were forced offline during the storms, natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants accounted for roughly twice the lost capacity compared with renewables on Tuesday.
Abbott wasn’t the only Republican leader spewing misinformation in an attempt to smear renewable energy as “unreliable.” Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller posted this on Facebook:
We should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time. Governor Abbott’s Public Utility…
Houston Congressman Dan Crenshaw strung out this confused Tweet thread claiming to explain “the truth about what happened” while also pledging to “get to the bottom of what happened.”
Former Texas Governor and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly said “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” A blog posted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quotes Perry as adding: “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
And last but certainly not least, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz jetted off to Cancún on Wednesday in the middle of a massive state disaster. Over the summer, Cruz mocked California Democratic leaders on Twitter for their rolling blackouts during summer wildfires, tweeting that the state was “unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity. … Hope you don’t like air conditioning!” With their own home reportedly out of power, Cruz and his family fled to the Mexican resort town, leaving behind millions of constituents in their freezing homes, as well as their dog, Snowflake. The stunningly out-of-touch move—even for Cruz—prompted immense backlash, and the junior senator flew back the next day.