Sunday, February 21, 2021

Powerlessness to the People

Editors' Note: This week the Spy was all set to bring you the important news about Kim Kardashian's divorce, Britney Spears' legal struggle and Gwyneth Paltrow's vibrator, but our Clickbait [Surely, Social Media Engagement? – Ed.] Team advised us that if we really wanted to drive traffic to the site, we should drop those tired topics in favor of something really sexy.  This is the piece they chose.  Fortunately, unlike The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, our servers can handle the 10,000% traffic spike.

By Texas Correspondent Billy Sol Estes with
Financial Editor Samuel Insull

You don't have to be Snowflake Cruz to realize that there's nothing funny about being stuck in a cold dark house while everyone who was paid to work on your behalf was busy taking care of themselves.

Indeed, Snowflake, the poodle left stranded when Cancun Ted Cruz and his charming family decamped for fun in the Mexican sun, could stand in for the 30,000,000 or so Texans who found themselves without power, water, and food while their Republican state officials either fled the jurisdiction (like Ted) or trafficked in lib-baiting lies on cable TV (like Texas Governor Greg Abbott).

Like Hurricane Katrina, the Texas cold snap was a weather event whose lethal effects were magnified by generations of Republican indifference to protecting Americans, with a special emphasis on those deemed by Republicans to fall outside their white-supremacist definition of “us.”

How did a week of bad weather bring a rich, powerful, swaggering state to its knees?  We'll start with the short answer and then go from there.

The short answer is Republicans.   

The longer answer comes from long-time observer of Republican crookedness, David Cay Johnston:

The reason Texans are freezing is that Texas state government:
  • Failed to require that natural gas pipelines be built in anticipation of severe weather
  • Didn’t require sufficient natural gas storage for electric power plants
  • Neglected to insist that the electric grid itself be hardened against severe heat and cold, more of which is certain as climate change generates raucous weather
What did Abbott do? He appointed all three members of the Texas Public Utility Commission who failed to ensure adequacy of the Texas electric grid for all weather.

Abbott’s commissioners, embracing his anti-regulatory philosophy, did not require adequate power generation reserves. That’s crucial. When electric generators go down in extreme weather, accidents or even planned maintenance, there needs to be plentiful additional capacity to ensure the juice flows.

The savings from cheapskating in this area are quickly overwhelmed by the damage done by blackouts and days without power in either extreme cold or extreme heat.

Allowing utilities to slash the size of their staffs, especially line workers, compounds a disaster. 

Johnston admits that it's unfair to blame the entire debacle on Gov. Abbott, because the debacle was compounded by decades of plutocratic mismanagement of the Texas power grid in the service of private utilities and fossil fuel pushers: 

Most of Texas has its own power grid that doesn’t connect to the massive Eastern U.S. or Western U.S. grids [and] is under the system operator laughably named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, better known as ERCOT. Significantly, those areas connected to the rest of the country have not had issues.

That the Texas grid was not designed for predictable severe weather and lacked backup generating capacity has been known and documented for years. Yet under Abbott, the situation festered.

A blistering assessment of the Texas situation was provided to DCReport by two deeply informed electricity experts: . . .

“The unfortunate state of the ERCOT power system can be summarized in two words: systematic unpreparedness. The origins of this disaster included the lowest reserve margins in North America, ignoring basic maxims of preparing for bad winter weather, and a market design that rewards shortages at the cost of consumers.”

Some apologists for the Texas debacle claim that connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the country (and, thanks to the miracle of transmission lines, the ample cheap hydro-power of Hydro-Quebec) wouldn't have helped.  Other than the counter-example of El Paso, which is connected to the Western grid and didn't go dark, it's possible to falsify this claim by checking the power reserves available last week, especially from Sweat Band states like Florida and Arizona, whose power grids are built for summer peak demand and therefore have plenty of power in the months when you can actually go outside in those hellholes.

On February 17, when millions of Texas were shivering in darkness, the Western power grid had 21,292 megawatts of reserves:

That by itself represented 2/3 of the 30,000 Mw power shortfall Texas experienced last week, before considering what power might be imported from the Eastern grid.

By the way, wtf is ERCOT and who put them in charge of delivering power to 30 million Texans?  According to the Houston Chronicle, it's

A small nonprofit organization that until now was largely ignored or unheard of by many Texans . . . .

ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, has been thrust into the spotlight because of power outages that left more that 4 million customers shivering during a winter storm that began Sunday. . . .

“Ensuring a reliable grid,” as ERCOT says in a published mission, includes managing the flow of electricity to more than 26 million customers, about 90 percent of Texas’ power load. . . . .

ERCOT also acts as a financial middle-man for wholesale buyers and sellers in the system, collecting payments from the power buyers and paying those that generate it.

Non-profit, but only in the sense that Bushwood Country Club is a non-profit: they exist only to serve the interests of their rich, insufferable backers, like Judge Smales, or the Texas utilities and fossil fuel industries.

Supposedly it's overseen by the Texas Public Utilities Commission, or in other words, the same bunch of Republican plutocrats who have run the state for at least 30 years.  It's no surprise that it has its staunch defenders, including former Texas Governor Rick “Three Things” Perry: 


Whether the children and senior citizens frozen to death across Texas would agree with ol' Rick is not known, because they're . . . dead.

The response of other great Republicans who run Texas has been similarly unhelpful.  We've already mentioned Snowflake Cruz's daddy, Cancun Ted, and Gov. Abbott.   But really the question is why anyone should be surprised at the depraved indifference of these and other Republicans to the suffering and death caused by their own negligence.

For years, those same Texas Republicans have let thousands of Texans sicken and die as a result of their failure to expand Medicaid, despite the the fact that the villainous Federal Government is wiling to foot 90% of the bill.

Cancun Ted's constituents welcomed him home
It's really. as others have pointed out, a function that Republicans do not believe that the job of public officials is to govern.  Rather, it's to insult their enemies (like a Congresswoman from . . . Bronx, N.Y.) and to protect the purses of their rich funders.  As Greg Sargent summed up in The Washington Post,

We’re living through the Texas power shortage, the massive governing failures resulting in nearly half a million Americans dead from a foreseeable pandemic, a horrific economic collapse, and the deep racial and economic equities the past year has stripped bare.

All these suggest a future that will require more and better government,  . . . 

Instead, we’re seeing Republicans respond to large public challenges by increasingly retreating into Foxlandia — an alternate universe where empty culture-war posturing can proceed undisturbed . . . . 

A good stab at the big picture came from former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. He described Texas as a “failed state” and linked the power failure to Republicans’ broader reluctance to act on the coronavirus and to fund robust financial assistance amid deepening economic misery.

A failed state?  

That's the Republican future for all of us.  Nor is this a recent development, as the liturgy of St. Ronald of Bitburg stateth: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

We don't know about you, but we'd rank “There's no heat, water, or food” right up there on the old terror meter.

What deregulation did to Texas was to provide incentives to power companies to maximize consumption of cheap fossil-fuel generated power, but none to properly winterize their plants.  That's because a free market doesn't adequately price in future events, especially those judged not likely to occur before the next quarter's earnings report.  What regulation does is, among other things, fix problems the free market can't, like ensure reliable power in a cold snap.

Or for that matter, protect utility customers from being charged $9,000 a megawatt/hour by gouging spot electricity providers, viz


(from the Dallas Morning News). 

The result of such gouging, by a utility called Greedy, or as the locals would pronounce it, Griddy, was that already suffering Texas consumers were facing one week of power bills in excess of $5,000. 

And the kicker is that the schmuck who designed the uncapped rate system is not only a, wait for it, Harvard professor (well, the Kennedy School, which is sorta Harvard); he's also been quoted after observing the carnage of the last week as that the system has operated as intended and sending $5,000 bills to homeowners desperate to protect their homes from burst pipes was “necessary.” That's some big John Galt energy.

We suspect that in the great tradition of Texas, which was founded by Jim Bowie and other deadbeats on the run from the creditors and their nasty sheriffs, somehow these folks won't actually have to pay, but ol' Greedy, excuse me, Griddy, could still shut off the juice.

But as with other results of Republican indifference to the public good, the terrible news will keep on coming, as pipes burst in warmer weather and the bodies of more victims are recovered, and as the national death toll from our failure to respond to coronavirus reaches 500,000.

And those are just the first robins of spring.  The bill for 40 years of Republicans allocating scarce resources to the very rich and repealing laws intended to protect the result of us is coming due, according to The New York Times:

Sewer systems are overflowing more often as powerful rainstorms exceed their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as intensified runoff erodes cliffs. Coal ash, the toxic residue produced by coal-burning plants, is spilling into rivers as floods overwhelm barriers meant to hold it back. Homes once beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes they were never designed to withstand. 

What's to be done?  The obvious answer is trillions of new funding for infrastructure repair and transition away from fossil fuels, which would also create millions of new jobs for those coal miners in West Virginia.  Of course Republicans will block any such spending.

So if you've just bought a new toy from Gwyneth Paltrow, our advice to you is keep it fully charged.

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