ourEconomy: Opinion

The failed state: Texas’s power crisis is the result of decades of free market policies

Last week’s disaster reveals just how far Republican leadership has pillaged the state for its own gain

Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
24 February 2021, 6.57pm
Austin residents waiting for free potable water last week as millions were stuck without electricity and running water
Cal Sport Media/SIPA USA/PA Images

I was born and raised in Texas, and I’ve never seen anything quite like the winter storm that froze my home state last week. A blanket of snow and ice covered my neighborhood and for most of the week the roads remained undrivable. Everything from grocery stores to public schools was shut down, and even public services such as garbage collection and mail delivery came to a halt – so much for the US Postal Service’s motto.

I was fortunate, and avoided the worst impacts of the storms' affect on the state’s infrastructure. My home only lost power a few times, while millions of Texans lost power for days, and my water service was relatively unaffected, while more than 8 million Texans remain this week under boil water notices.

It wasn’t just the amount of snow and ice or the days of sub-freezing temperatures, but the feeling of isolation that was the result of constantly changing information and the uncertainty of when and for how long you might lose power.

Last week's historic winter storm collapsed the state's energy grid
Bronte Wittpenn-USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA/PA Images

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There are many myths about Texas, and some are more true than others.

Among the most common is that Texans are naturally independent and free spirited, which has also been reinterpreted to mean that Texans are naturally politically libertarian and distrustful of government.

Texan Republicans have used that myth to promote another conservative myth: that deregulation and privatization will result in more efficient and less expensive services. From the deregulation of college tuition and environmental protections to the privatization of prisons and child welfare services, the myth of free markets have always cost Texans.

While millions of people were without power and struggled to stay warm by burning furniture, the Trump administration’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, invoked these myths when he defended the deregulation of the state’s electrical grid, which he presided over as governor of Texas.

“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry said. “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.”

Who could have known that the deregulation championed by the geniuses behind Enron, the Houston-based energy company that would collapse in one of the largest financial fraud scandals in US history, would have resulted in the near collapse of the state’s electrical grid?

Texans have experienced several climate-related natural disasters in recent years, from the drought-driven wildfires that burned more than four million acres throughout the state during 2011 to the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Harvey releasing approximately 15 trillion gallons of rain on the state in 2017.

The winter storm that last week froze the Texas infrastructure caused a disastrous series of structural failures that – like the damaged pipes that have emerged from the melted snow and ice – are now being revealed.

Dozens have died as a result of the storm, hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations have been delayed, and countless people have received astronomically high utility bills.

The storm forced natural gas-powered electric power plants to shut down operations, which caused these plants to increase flaring – the burning or releasing of gases – which dramatically increased air pollution in the skies over east Texas.

Despite the devastating impact of the winter storm, Texas Republicans and their allies in conservative media repeatedly made false claims about the cause of the power outages.

While millions of people in Texas lost power for several days, conservative politicians and pundits blamed windmills for power outages and defended Senator Ted Cruz’s excursion to Cancun. This familiar playbook has remained remarkably unchanged: convince the voters that the real threat is not from the failures of so-called free market ideology and laissez faire policies, but from federally regulated healthcare, undocumented immigrants, or transgender students.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott addressing the press at the State Operations Center
Bob Daemmrich/Zuma Press/PA Images

On Saturday Texas Governor Greg Abbott met with elected lawmakers such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and speaker of the Texas house, Dan Phelan. Whether or not the state’s political leadership has any actual solutions remains to be seen, as does the likelihood of Texas voters holding their political leadership to account.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the non-profit organization that manages the state’s electric grid, is regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which is overseen by commissioners appointed by the governor – and the laws that govern the state’s electric grid were approved by the state legislature.

Texans have been here before

In the years since the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, investigations have revealed the state’s coastal cities vulnerability to flooding and the necessity to build infrastructure in preparation for intense hurricanes.

Ten years ago a similar winter storm threatened to collapse the state’s electrical grid, and subsequent investigations revealed the grid’s fragility to severe winter storms.

Molly Ivins, the patron saint of Texas political commentary, in a 1995 column wrote that “seeing yet another story in the newspaper about global warming doesn’t make much of an impression unless, of course, some storm has just knocked out your electricity for three days.”

She wasn’t often wrong, but maybe Ivins underestimated the stubbornness (she might have used a more colorful adjective) of Texans.

Perhaps, some meaningful reforms will be made to regulate the state’s power grid. Perhaps, Texas Republicans came only minutes or seconds away from the catastrophic failure that might actually dislodge their grip on political power in the state. Perhaps, the next time a storm knocks out the state’s electricity, it will be for months and not days.

Either way, it’s only a matter of time before Texas’s myth once again collides with reality.

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