Progressive Views: Perils of Deregulation

by JC Dufresne
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, February 26, 2020

Coal Power plant
“Coal power plant” by peggydavis66 is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s start with the facts—nearly all of the power shortage last week was due to natural gas and nuclear plants being shut down due to frozen gauges, valves, and other equipment. Gov. Abbott lied to the public when he blamed green energy. In fact, your neighbors who had power when you didn’t probably had solar panels on their roofs; that’s green energy. Texans died of hypothermia in their homes needlessly last week because they had no way to heat their homes for too long and nowhere to go to stay warm. In reality, had the Green New Deal proposal been in effect years ago, far fewer people would have suffered because part of the proposal includes insulating old homes and more of us would have rooftop solar panels to provide at least some power for heating.

Now you ask, how could this happen? Power generating and gas pipeline companies in Texas are lightly regulated and aren’t required to takes steps necessary to keep their equipment running in extreme conditions. Their management chose not to use equipment that tolerates single-digit temperatures or provide insulated and heated coverings that would have kept the equipment operational. Were it not that the product these companies provide are relied on by every Texan every day such behavior would be reasonable; after all, it has been a decade since the last time Texas suffered such weather. If they produced cars, clothing, appliances, or toys and shut down for a week, no one would suffer. Instead, these companies are part of the public utility infrastructure that is necessary and expected to provide their product all day, every day regardless of conditions.

Decades ago, the Texas Legislature—at the behest of management and the wealthy investors in power generation and pipeline companies—deregulated the energy market. The Legislature also cut ties to interstate power sources in order to avoid federal regulation of these public utilities. They did both in order to make the business more profitable. No consideration was given to the effect on reliability. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is responsible for transferring power from suppliers to users, but it wouldn’t surprise George Orwell that, regardless of its name, ERCOT doesn’t actually do anything about reliability. In fact, last November ERCOT fired the organization they had previously contracted with to check on the status of power providers and didn’t bother to replace it.

Statewide blackouts have happened twice in the last 32 years, in 1989 and 2011; in both cases federal investigators found a long list of things utility and pipeline operators should have been doing and suggested that the state take action to force them to do so. As Texas Republicans generally do when regulation is brought up, they ignored the recommendations and took little action. Once again the people of Texas have suffered and Republicans don’t care. Former governor Rick Perry is quoted as saying, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Ted Cruz fled Texas to Cancún, Mexico with his family during the freeze. By contrast, Beto O’Rourke organized a phone bank that made hundreds of thousands of wellness check calls to seniors, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) raised $5 million for Texas disaster relief. The contrast in leadership is clear.

Some of my neighbors claim we shouldn’t politicize a crisis; I say a crisis like the freeze of 2021 is political to begin with. If our legislators and state political leaders aren’t holding power and pipeline companies accountable, then we must hold those leaders accountable. That starts with state Representative Kyle Biedermann, state Senator Donna Campbell, Attorney General Ken Paxton (who fled to Utah with his wife, a state senator), Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott. They are all part of the problem, and we need to replace them with people who will be part of the solution.

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