Carl Pope

Why Texas froze -- and California fried: This disaster was 90 years in the making

The catastrophe that swept Texas last week was 90 years in the making. Its roots lie in a decision during the 1930s to escape federal regulation of power rates under the terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal by forcing all Texas utilities to avoid importing or exporting power across state lines, thereby pretending that Texas electricity was not actually part of the national economy.

As the biggest oil and gas producer in the world, Texas had already set itself up in the business of regulating the global price of oil through the Texas Railroad Commission, which set limits on oil and gas production to keep oil prices artificially high. So going it alone on electricity prices seemed like a logical extension — except that in the case of electricity, Texas business wanted low prices, not high ones.

Implicit in the creation of what Texans call their "power island" was an understanding that cheap electricity was the only significant goal. Reliability came a distant second and clean air wasn't even on the radar screen. When Texas deregulated its electricity sector in 1999, it went further than most states. ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, kept prices low by refusing to pay utilities for keeping standby generation capacity in case of an extreme weather event. Since Texas also remained disconnected from other regions which might have provided backup power in the case of a shortage, the state denied itself any kind of safety net, either in-state or elsewhere.

Extreme heat waves were very much on the Texas radar, because high-demand summer days were frequent — and profitable for generators. So money was made, and summer blackouts were few, for almost 20 years. As the climate spun out of control, however, even in summer Texas barely avoided resorting to rolling blackouts to manage record demand during worsening hot spells. (In fact, in El Paso, on the state's western border, they happened.)

Meanwhile, the pretense that it never gets cold in Texas kept obstructing efforts to make the ERCOT grid winter-hardened. In 1989, federal regulators pointed out that Texas lacked simple weatherization measures common to more northern states. In 2011, winter storms triggered rolling blackouts. In 2014, the term "polar vortex" came into common use as Texas once again lost winter power. In 2018 and 2019, the polar vortex struck two years in a row.

Yet Texas business and political leaders kept insisting that the cost of winterizing the power system was simply not worth it. The state's major industrial power users didn't want to pay their share of the bill. Any conversation about providing backup by connecting the Texas grid to the rest of America remained totally off limits.

This year, of course, disaster became catastrophe. Those who doggedly opposed investments in reliability have had to find a new tune — their favorite being to blame renewable energy, in spite of manifest evidence that this is untrue.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry went to bat for the state's electron isolationism: "Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business." Perry went on to blame the state's reliance on wind power for the crisis, a richly ironic canard. It was Perry himself who led the campaign to create Texas's innovative and wind-power targeted CREZ transmission project, which was largely responsible for the fact that 2020 was the first year in which Texas got more electricity from wind than from coal.

Perry's scapegoating of his own wind revolution for the blackout was echoed by current Gov. Greg Abbott, who said, "Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis." That was a lie. As the chart below shows, most of the collapse in power generation came from natural gas, coal and nuclear, since even in a normal winter Texas gets relatively little of its power from wind and solar. (Although Texas wind turbines lack simple weatherizing technology used by wind farms in other states to its north.)

Chart, histogram Description automatically generated

As the disasters cascaded — no power, shut-down oil and gas production, no water, unreliable food — voices from urban communities suffering freezing homes flooded by burst pipes began to fire back, blaming the state regulators for their refusal to invest in winter-hardy generation for the state. It was "just horrible to see," said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. "The power and water outages in Texas have created a situation that's worse than even the early days of the pandemic," warned Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio.

But deeply ingrained in the Texas power sector was the governor's belief that hard freezes didn't happen often enough to be worth preparing for. That misguided belief was os deeply ingrained that when the Texas Monthly asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness if the savings from failing to build resilience were worth it to consumers, he dismissed the question: "I am not aware that we have ever conducted a real cost-benefit analysis on that topic." That wasn't true. ERCOT had analyzed this, and it turned out that the agency's eight-year-old estimate of the daily cost of such a blackout was $2.8 billion — enough to cover a lot of weatherization. The 2020 freeze brought a whole new class of costs to bear. Not only was electricity generation shut down, but as a result so were many oil fields. IHS Markit estimated that the Texas freeze had shut down at least 20% of the nation's oil and gas production, largely in the Permian Basin, which made it harder to get gas-fired electricity back on line.

As more and more voters got more and more upset, a new refrain was heard, even from Abbott: Texas needed to weatherize. The governor called for a special legislative session to get it done, and was suddenly outraged. "Everyone knows how challenging the past few days have been for our fellow Texans," Abbott said. "All of us in the state of Texas believe it is completely unacceptable that you had to endure one minute of the challenge that you faced."

So can we write off the Texas tragedy to Lone Star exceptionalism? A quasi-secessionist electricity island, with inadequate requirements for getting ready for winter, pays the price?

Up close it looks like it. But pull back and include the summer of 2020, and it's clear that what went wrong in Texas has a lot do with the fires that brought California to its knees six months earlier. The summers of 2017 and 2018 had made it clear that California didn't have nearly enough firefighters standing by for an event like the lightning strikes that rained down in August 2020. It was also clear the state had allowed PG&E and its other utilities to invest too little in fire hardening rural power lines. Worse yet, most communities in the fire-hazard areas had failed to adopt or enforce adequate fireproofing measures on homes and businesses. But California's politics are — in the American context — at polar opposites to Texas. (In fact, California's problem is significantly harder to fix than the polar vortex threat to Texas.)

To understand why neither red nor blue America can reliably and safely provide electricity to its population, we need to contrast the American attitude towards natural disasters — they happen, but we recover — with the Dutch approach to flooding, which is more like: We can't prevent the storms, but we can protect ourselves against the damages. Since the Dutch adopted this attitude as national policy 70 years ago, not a single citizen has died in a flood. Prevention has proven cheaper than rescue and repair: Even though a third of the nation lies below sea level, Holland's annual expenditures for flood prevention, at $1.5 billion, are a fraction of American costs for flood recovery, even on a per capita basis.

If President Biden is looking for another issue on which he can unite the country, starting a conversation on the need to massively invest in fire, flood and storm resilience in a climate-stressed world offers a promising opportunity. How about "Build it back safely" as a subset of "Build it back better"?

Joe Biden's blitz on climate policy is impressive. Here's what it reveals about a broad American consensus

Just 10 days after the Biden administration took over, in alignment with the new president's overall blitz strategy, a flabbergasting phalanx of U.S. climate policies have been turned smartly on their heels and are marching toward the future. President Biden has returned the nation to the Paris Agreement, required truth-telling in government reporting, enforced a regulation that government purchases must feed U.S. supply chains rather than imports, terminated the massive giveaway of taxpayer property to coal, oil and gas extractors, restored the integrity of federal climate science, frozen a horde of horrible Trump environmental rollbacks, and even launched a New Deal-style Civilian Climate Corps. All that is already in the rear-view mirror as Biden's team moves on to the deeper work of a clean-energy, decarbonized and more inclusive economy.

Most Americans, who fear climate chaos, embrace clean energy opportunity and welcome American innovation and leadership, should be celebrating — and are. But hold your breath: The good news runs even deeper than this. The striking emphasis that the new administration has given to its "whole government" climate strategy; the repeatedly-noted climate depth of his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees at the Treasury (Janet Yellen), the State Department (John Kerry), economic policy (Brian Deese), the Energy Department (Jennifer Granholm), the Department of Transportation (Pete Buttigieg), and the Department of the Interior (Deb Haaland); along with the breadth of new climate initiatives are only a part of the new administration's commitment to climate progress.

This shock-and -awe launch also reflects an external reality: The Trump administration's dogged march into the past had departed from any semblance of where America was headed. The first wave of climate progress under Biden is almost all "low-hanging fruit," "no regrets" and "we can all unite on this," because Trump's legacy was starkly at war with economic and marketplace reality, not just climate science.

Look at the chorus that has responded to Biden's climate drumbeat. Politico hails "a coalition that ranges from labor unions, anti-fracking activists and racial justice advocates to leaders of Wall Street, the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce" as lining up with Biden's broad thrust. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on MSNBC boasts that his program to phase out internal combustion cars and trucks by 2030 is a winner because he already has the support not only of climate advocates but also of the United Auto Workers, Ford and General Motors.

While the obstacles still cited as lying in Biden's way are substantial, they are almost entirely inside the Beltway, where the powerful influence of fossil fuel-producing states like West Virginia (embodied in Sen. Joe Manchin) and Kentucky (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) is repeatedly, and appropriately, recited. But what are oil companies, who wield the big fossil fuel stick, actually saying? Yes, they claim Biden is going too far, but almost exclusively in one narrow part of his program, the phase-out of oil, gas and coal extraction on federal lands.

Indeed, the oil industry is actually joining Biden's alliance in its emphasis on tougher drilling and pollution standards for extraction. Advocacy of carbon pricing in some form is also making its way into Houston lobbying memos.

In a deeply polarized Senate, getting legislation of any significance through is indeed going to test the new president's Capitol Hill negotiating chops. But climate is getting so much emphasis in Biden's first two weeks in large part because it has become a less, not more, divisive issue across American society. It's a good place for the new administration to bring the country together, perhaps because the communities that are taking the biggest climate hit — from fires, flooding, storms and energy sector layoffs — are overwhelmingly in regions where Trump, not Biden, came out on top. (A hidden secret is that rural America, which has become the heart of red America, is where storm, drought, fire and flood hit hardest. Miami Beach can afford sea walls. Cedar Rapids needs Uncle Sam to repair its levees.)

Biden's broader coalition — you could also throw in BlackRock, whose CEO, Larry Fink, devoted his annual letter to the urgency of business embracing the climate challenge — emerged even before the November election. Major oil companies had opposed Trump's efforts to block the cleanup of methane from oil and gas drilling. Ford and Volkswagen had partnered with California to undercut the Trump administration's rollbacks of auto emission limits. Most of the biggest power utilities had pledged to cut from 80% to 100% of their current carbon pollution. Sixteen states had persuaded even the deadlocked Congress to commit the U.S. to phasing out climate dangerous HFC refrigerants as part of the pandemic relief bill.

So climate progress is now a powerful American consensus, precisely because we have realized that it is not a matter of sacrifice, but of opportunity; not austerity but prosperity; not American decline but American recovery.

None of this means we can relax. Big coalitions, like convoys, can bog down at the speed of the slowest member. And the biggest looming barrier is that the faster decarbonization races ahead, the greater the risk to workers and communities left behind. While there are lots of good ideas floating around for how to enable fossil-dependent segments of our nation to ride the clean energy wave, most of them remain somewhat uncertain and gauzy — after all, only a year ago we were having trouble getting McConnell to agree to sustain pensions and health care for mineworkers in his own state.

If we don't take more seriously our need to spread the benefits of the clean energy transition to every zip code and every demography, we will blow our best change to make America truly great — for the 21st century.

Trump and the right share a Darwinist 'herd mentality' — and preference for sacrificing the weak to capitalism

Donald Trump's promise in an ABC News town hall last month that the United States would soon achieve herd immunity for the coronavirus, and conflating that with herd mentality, may be explained because Trump is counting on the latter to rescue his second term. It's otherwise impossible to imagine a campaign whose endgame is to recover the lost loyalty of voters over 65 selecting as its closing argument, "Not enough of you have died yet."

It's a safe bet that none of his 2016 Republican primary challengers would have embraced the idea that the solution to the pandemic was more American casualties than the Civil War and World War II combined. But many of Trump's Republican comrades-in-arms have embraced, often eagerly, a default preference for herd immunity — harkening back to the harsh social Darwinism that underlies much of modern conservatism. Early on in the pandemic there were Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana and radio host Glenn Beck, all of whom argued that the loss of more American lives was preferable to scaling back the economy. Then, when the issue became wearing masks, some opponents argued "if I'm going to get COVID and die from it, so be it …" Of course they really meant, "If you are going to get COVID ..." Wearing masks was a deprivation of freedom — although this argument seems never to have been extended by Republicans to the prohibition on public nudity.

As the pandemic surged again, by October Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was referring to "unjustified hysteria" about covid, and asked, after he became infected, ""Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?" (The obvious answer is that we have been doing so, with increasing success, since the 1854 cholera pump moment. That is rejected by many on the right, because stopping a pandemic may require the government to prevent citizens from endangering others.)

Herd immunity can sometimes reduce mortality from a disease, but over the centuries has failed to end the curse of influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, rabies or dengue fever. It fits neatly, however, into a social Darwinist framework. Those who die are the "weak" — the poorest, the youngest and the oldest young — or can at any rate be classified as weak and deserving to die, because they died. Survival of the fittest requires discarding the weak. Remember the "let them die" hecklers who populated some of the 2011 Republican debates on health care.

This underlying value distortion — my personal freedom extends to my right to endanger you — spreads out across a range of other issues. Today's Republican reluctance to curb pollution even when it is demonstrably is killing a power plant's neighbors, to keep pesticides that kill farm workers out of the fields or to do anything at all about the climate crisis, which conservatives have privately conceded for years was real and caused by carbon pollution, are all illustrations of how the toxin of social Darwinism still contaminates much of the right's thinking about freedom.

So Trump's response to the COVID crisis — and the willingness of the Republican congressional establishment to enable it — illustrates a deep-rooted flaw in the American right. In a world in which we are, like it or not, all bound together, a tolerable conservatism is one that is willing to protect me from irresponsible neighbors, whether those are COVID-risking teenagers, irresponsible gun owners or multinational chemical companies.

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