The snow and ice are gone, but the tragic impacts linger. At the peak of power outages four million Texans were without power; some, including many Austinites for up to 90 hours, as the state’s coldest temperatures in decades persisted for a week. Bursted pipes wreaked havoc in many homes, especially apartment buildings.
An 11-year-old boy froze to death in bed in a Conroe mobile home without power. Numerous people across the state perished in desperate attempts to keep their homes warm. Three people, including a 91-year-old woman, died in an East Austin fire likely related to trying to keep warm. Veteran Austin based blues pianist Gene Taylor, who had a storied musical career including thirteen years with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, died in bed at his North Austin home after five days without power. The Travis County Medical Examiner reports that the office is processing more than 80 deaths since February 13 in which a Doctor was not present. It is not clear yet how many of those deaths are related to the storm and cascading loss of power and water.
Other areas are reporting similar situations. Here’s how a spokesperson for an ambulance provider in Fort Worth described hypothermia cases they were finding to the Associated Press: “You had people who had been so cold for so long that they were shivering uncontrollably, they have had a decreased level of consciousness, which is not uncommon when you are in hypothermia for a prolonged period of time.”
Though Texas famously prides itself on its independence and self reliance, charities throughout the country are raising money to aid Texas victims of the storms. That includes New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who raised $5 million in Texas aid, even as Governor Greg Abbott and others tried to somehow blame her proposed Green New Deal and renewable energy for the Texas debacle.
Most of the Texas media and the national media, however, laid the responsibilty squarely on the state’s Republican leadership. Republicans have held all statewide offices since 1994 and the state’s electric power system is a core product of their radical free market ideology. These media outlets tend to focus on a few major items. We are going to concentrate on some matters that haven’t gotten as much coverage, the detritus from the newsroom floors.
Our coverage will also be built around the belief that last week’s ordeal was the type of crisis that reveals people’s character, including that of our governmental leaders. The ability of the weather crisis to reveal character is of course at the root of why Senator Ted Cruz picked last week to fly to Cancun — and then blamed the trip on his daughters. Here, however, let’s concentrate on Governor Greg Abbott who has more direct responsibility for dealing with the disaster.
What Shape Will the Investigation Take?
Governor Abbott has made a big deal out of calling for an investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t think an investigation is in order. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan also called for a House hearing on the matter.
Here are a few critical questions related to the promised investigation(s):
- Who will be in charge of such an investigation?
- Will the investigation be independent of Governor Abbott and other top state officials who have a lot at stake in what an investigation reveals?
- Will the investigation focus just on ERCOT or instead seek to look at all factors which contributed to the tragedy?
We already have at least a partial answer to the first two questions. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced last week that he is launching an investigation of ERCOT. It is difficult to think of someone less suited for the job. On the other hand Paxton does have a lot of experience with investigations. It has been widely reported that he is currently under FBI investigation for potential abuse of his office. And, resulting from another investigation, he has been under indictment for financial fraud crimes for five years now without going to trial. Paxton also led a lawsuit which tried to overturn the presidential vote in six swing states, in hopes of reversing the actual outcome and having Courts grant another term to Donald Trump. Perhaps other investigations will take place, but if Paxton remains the point man in any way that will become another ludicrous aspect of this tragedy.
At a Wednesday February 17 press briefing, Abbott was asked for more specifics on his plans for an investigation. He did not mention Paxton, but replied, “So today I spoke with both the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker and both the House and Senate will begin investigations, if I understand correctly, next week. And that will begin that process where we fully evaluate exactly what was done and maybe what was not done in both the decision process, as well as the action process by ERCOT, making sure that we get to the root of any missteps that took place, what was done, what can be done better.” In other words, the investigation Abbott promised will be led by other statewide Republican officeholders who have a political stake in the outcome. Plus, it looks like the only folks up for any reckoning are those who work at ERCOT.
Abbott Tries to Shift Blame for Outages to Local Public Utilities
At that same briefing Abbott made another character revealing move which has received little, if any, media attention. This came not in response to a question, but as part of the prepared briefing from the Governor. “People want to know how decisions are made about whose power is turned off and whose power is left on,” said Abbott. “And, I want to let you know how that process works. Decisions about power outages are made by either City owned utilities or coop owned utilities And, it would not be any state based entity that makes those decisions, except power outages by investor owned utilities.”
While it is true that city owned utilities, or electric coops, decide who gets cut off and who doesn’t, Abbott left out a critically important element of the equation. Those city owned utilities and electric coops were under orders from state regulated ERCOT to make massive cuts in power use, because the cold had knocked out so many power generation facilities.
The point here is that it’s not honorable to try to blame power outages on local public utilities when by state law they have to operate off the ERCOT grid and have no choice but to obey ERCOT cutback orders. It’s really petty and sad for a top government official to engage in such dishonest blame shifting — especially during a time of deadly crisis.
Which President Does He Mean?
Another odd part of Abbott’s news conference occurred right before he disingenuously tried to shift responsibility for outages to local utilities. That was when he brought up “the White House” and “the President,” but never mentioned Joe Biden’s name. Perhaps that’s not a huge thing, but it takes on extra weight given the refusal of many Republicans, starting with former President Donald Trump and including Ted Cruz, to accept the results of the November election and to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. Of course there was also a violent insurrection inspired by Trump’s false claims that he won the election.
Here’s how Abbott handled mentioning direct help from Biden. As the Governor was going through a list of power sources that were being restored or were still offline, he rather woodenly added, “Through multiple phone calls and actions the White House has assisted Texas with orders that allow additional power generation or have accelerated the nuclear plant restoration.” Immediately afterward, while talking about “spikes” in energy prices which are resulting in five figure utility bills for some customers, Abbott offered, “There was a telephone conference between the President and several governors across the country in regions most harshly affected by the storms. And during that conversation a point was raised about these spikes in natural gas prices that occur because of the unusual situation between demand and supply. And a request was made by one of the governors for assistance in dealing with those price anomalies. And the president said that he would work with the governors on trying to address that issue.”
Abbott might well have, And, that’s all I have to say about that.
At another point Abbott said, “As you know, I requested a federal disaster declaration, and that was granted.” Once again he didn’t mention Biden’s name.
How Did These Spikes Occur?
Abbott said the “spikes in natural gas prices” happened “because of the unusual situation between demand and supply.” Since the Governor didn’t provide any more detail than that, we will offer a short explanation here. When he mentioned spikes, Abbott was referring to huge increases in electricity prices resulting from the ultra free market design of the Texas electric power system. As power sources went offline and demand increased, prices soared. Some people have already received five figure bills. Abbott has said that he wants to provide Texans relief from these huge utility bills, but it is not clear how or when that will happen.
The massive spikes are occurring with customers who, under the deregulated retail system for private/investor owned utilities, were allowed to enter into variable rate power contracts. That means rates fluctuate with the market price of electricity. Few customers realized the extremes to which this policy could stretch until they began getting bills after the storm. Power providers even automatically deducted huge sums from the bank accounts of some who had signed up for automatic payments, at least from people who had that much money in their accounts.
Governor Abbott now decries this core aspect of the Texas system and is promising help. At least one ideological architect of the system, however, says that is the way it is supposed to work. William W. Hogan is a professor at the very unTexas-sounding Harvard University Kennedy School of Government where he also heads the Harvard Electricity Policy Group. According to the New York Times, Hogan is widely “considered the architect of the Texas energy market design.” Hogan told the Times last week that the market pricing structures were working as designed, “As you get closer and closer to the bare minimum [of available power generation], these prices get higher and higher, which is what you want.”
Austin Energy Customers Will Not See Spikes
By the way, Austin Energy, a city owned utility, announced that its customers will not see those kinds of spikes. A statement from the City owned utility said that customers will not experience a change in their per kilowatt rate as a result of the storm. “The customers impacted by major bill spikes are seeing electric rates controlled by variable price billing and are therefore vulnerable to sudden price swings from the wholesale energy market, both increases and decreases. In contrast, Austin Energy’s base rates are fixed and any changes must be authorized by Austin City Council, our governing body, after a thorough rate review process.”
Austin Energy, however, doubtlessly incurred higher than normal costs to obtain power from the ERCOT grid. This will eventually have to be passed along to customers or absorbed somehow by the utility. The statement addresses this issue as follows, “Austin Energy will evaluate the impact, or the cost, of buying electricity from ERCOT, minus the net revenue from generating electricity during the winter event. The electric utility will then have a better indication of the financial impact on the PSA (Power Supply Adjustment) and make recommendations to City Council.”
(Full disclosure, I worked at Austin Energy as a temp from late 2005 to April 2007, helping manage a national campaign aimed at persuading major automakers to manufacture plug-in hybrid vehicles.)
Abbott’s Contradicts His Hannity Theme At Next Day Briefing
A big chunk of Abbott’s February 17 briefing was taken up by the Governor reporting on power generation sources that had been restored and ones that remained offline. In doing so Abbott totally contradicted his message from the Sean Hannity show the night before. For instance he noted that the South Texas Nuclear Project, unspecified ““coal generated power,” and natural gas plants had been offline, and many remained offline. At the end a reporter bluntly challenged Abbott on the contradictions between his comments on Hannity and the information he read at the briefing. (The Independent was unable to identify the reporter because he was off screen and did not say his name.) The reporter pointed out that on Hannity, Abbott blamed wind and solar for the power grid meltdown, “Yet today and the other day, you put out a tweet saying this is all due to what everybody just talked about, natural gas and coal. . . So could you explain to us which it is?”
Abbott replied, “So over the past 24 to 48 hours, I have conducted about two dozen or more interviews. I have repeatedly talked about how every source of power that the state of Texas has, has been compromised, whether it be renewable power, such as wind or solar, but also as I mentioned today, access to coal generated power, access to gas generator power also have been compromised. . . So the fact is every source of power the state of Texas has access to has been compromised because of the ultra cold temperature or because of equipment failures.”
There was some more similar back and forth before the reporter summarized, “So you’re now saying (something) totally different than what you said on Hannity.”
“All sources of energy,” said the Governor.
The reporter persisted until an off camera aide shouted, “Is there a question from another outlet?”
Abbott Ignores Question on Climate Change
Later a reporter asked Abbott, “Governor, has this changed your opinion, at all, on climate change? This is something that Texas has never seen before, all the way down to Galveston. Has this changed anything and where does this lie as a priority this legislative session?”
Abbott totally ignored the climate change question and instead focused on the second question. Here is the Governor’s full answer.
“We want to, this session, make sure that we address these challenges, just like what we did in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It was important to be able to respond to the challenges posed by Hurricane Harvey. This is a different type of climate event. This is a once in every 120 year cold front event they have to respond to.
I will say this, and that is, the last time the state dealt with something like this was actually in 2011. There was a severe cold spell in the state of Texas at that time. That led to changes both with regard to ERCOT, but also with regard to the power system in the State of Texas.
And so, this session we want to undertake the same type of review that was done in the session in 2011, maybe reevaluate some of the decisions that were made in 2011? But we want to make sure that we are capable of ensuring that the state will be able to withstand cold spells like what happened this time.” (State leadership, including Abbott during his whole time as Governor, ignored the 2011 recommendations on winterizing the Texas power grid. See last week’s story.)
A Deeper Dive Into the Hannity Swamp
Let’s end with a deeper look at Abbott’s appearance on Hannity. That interview of course received extensive state and national coverage. That coverage, however, rightly focused on Abbott’s attempt to falsely blame the collapse of the Texas power grid, and the four million people without power, on renewable energy. There were other aspects of the interview that were both character revealing about Abbott and that offer a peek at how the right wing media machine tries to shape the opinions of their viewers.
First of all, before Abbott got to say a word, Hannity rambled for a while about his concerns with the alleged reliability of renewable energy. Abbott then readily played along with his already widely reported comments: “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 oil and nuclear, but . . . our wind and our solar, they got shut down and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis.”
Obviously the math does not add up there, but just as obviously Hannity wasn’t going to catch that. Instead Hannity took the conversation to what he called a “second level.” At that level he invoked the Keystone Pipeline, Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson and Hollywood in general before settling on, “So the question is, is that the same problem California has been facing with these rolling blackouts? Is that the reason? Do you see similarities?”
This gave Abbott an opportunity to not only avoid explaining what was going on in Texas, but also to double down on criticism of the Green New Deal (which by the way is just a proposal at this point). He got to add in some California bashing as well: “I think California is in a tougher situation because they’re even more reliant upon the Green New Deal type of energy, such as wind and solar, and they don’t have the capacity that a state like Texas does to be able to tap into fossil fuel, and that’s my point, Sean.” At this point Abbott actually did utter the word, Biden: “And that is if the Biden administration is going to try to eradicate fossil fuels in the United States, every state is going to constantly have challenges like what America has seen take place in Texas right now.”
So here Abbott builds on his false assertion that renewable energy was to blame for the four million Texans who at the moment were shivering in their dark, powerless homes. The Governor didn’t stop there, however, but continued, “so it’s just foolish to think that we can disband the use of fossil fuel and have a safe and comfortable nation.”
Hannity of course missed the irony that at that moment Abbott was the least qualified person in America to lecture others on how to maintain “a safe and comfortable nation.” Instead Hannity offered, “We’re all going to pay more at the pump.” He then maintained that “Putin. . . the Mullahs in Iran. . . and China” will all “benefit financially.” (At least in the case of Putin and the Mullahs it seems like they would experience financial losses if fossil fuel use were eliminated, but never mind.) Hannity then topped off his word salad with, “So it makes no sense whatsoever to me to be in the Paris Accords.”
While to many of us this might seem a bit deranged, Abbott probably left Hannity with a sense of mission accomplished. That’s because he and Hannity got to plant in the minds of Fox viewers the idea that renewable energy and the (still only envisioned) Green New Deal are somehow to blame for the power outages and related tragedies in Texas. It will be difficult to dislodge this thought from the heads of many Fox viewers, no matter how much the outlets they view as “fake news” counter Abbott’s and Hannity’s assertions with actual facts.
That will be a huge part of the struggle in the coming months, including leading into the November 2022 elections when Abbott and all other statewide executive offices are on the ballot. Will enough Texas voters see through the right wing bluster and disinformation? Or will a majority of Texans chase the shiny objects that Republican politicians and the right wing media keep dangling in front of them, and keep the same regime in power?
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