A few years ago, a series of newspaper articles shone a harsh spotlight on the foster care system in Texas. Investigative journalists with the Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News documented stomach-churning stories of cruelty and neglect made possible by an overstretched and underfunded child-welfare system. Turnover among case workers at Child Protective Services was sky-high, in part because of staggering caseloads that virtually guaranteed at-risk kids would fall through the cracks. In 2015, a federal judge wrote that Texas’s system was one in which “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.” In 2016 alone, 217 kids died of abuse and neglect in Texas.
Elected officials expressed shock and anger. Ahead of the 2017 legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott pledged to take urgent action to overhaul the “broken system.” Lawmakers berated child-welfare leaders during committee hearings at the Capitol, providing clips to be used in local TV news broadcasts. “Nothing is more important than protecting the children of Texas,” said Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. In a letter to the head of CPS, Patrick wrote that the state leaders would “not tolerate” the agency’s “totally unacceptable” failures any longer.
It was a good show. Such a good show, in fact, that it was almost possible to quiet some nagging questions: Didn’t the politicians pass the rules and budgets that starved CPS and kept it from retaining a competent workforce? Didn’t the policymakers have much better access to the inner workings of the foster care system than any reporter? Weren’t those in power ultimately responsible?
They were, of course. And they had no real reason to act surprised. The systemic problems that were hurting and killing so many kids were outlined in a 1996 report commissioned by Governor George W. Bush, a 2004 report by the comptroller’s office, and a 2010 report commissioned by Governor Rick Perry. Little changed then, nor in 2017. That year the Legislature put a bit more money into CPS, and Patrick urged churches to adopt more foster kids in a video he posted on his website. Lawmakers also partially privatized the system despite warnings from some advocates that doing so would create dangerous conflicts of interest. By 2020 the agency was in another crisis, with children removed from their parents sleeping in agency offices in record numbers for lack of any other place to send them.
That’s the way our state government works, more often than not. Elected leaders do their best to ignore real problems that only they can solve, giving them more time to micromanage the affairs of city governments and argue over who should use which restrooms. When someone forces them to acknowledge what isn’t working—as was done in the case of CPS by a crusading federal judge, journalists, and advocates—many state officials profess to be shocked by the shoddiness of the systems they oversee. And then, more often than not, they make token changes and move on.
From the standpoint of self-preservation, this approach works wonderfully. State leaders rarely have to pay the piper because many Texans don’t need or expect much from state government from day to day beyond, say, highway maintenance. If the state is congenitally inept, many Texans can say that’s a problem that’s happening to somebody else.
But what if something were to happen that exposed Texans from all over the state and all walks of life to that ineptitude? On the night of Sunday, February 14, as Texas plunged into darkness and cold, as the lights and water went out, state government’s incompetence stopped being somebody else’s problem.
The Peak of Texas’s Power Outages
Because it did not come in a familiar form—a hurricane, a wildfire, a flash flood—few Texans were aware, on Valentine’s Day, that the state was about to experience one of the worst disasters in its history. The winter storm caused by the collapse of the polar vortex, likely influenced by climate change, will almost certainly go down in the record books as the most expensive natural disaster in the state’s history, outpacing the $125 billion toll of Hurricane Harvey. It could also prove to be even deadlier than Harvey, which took about a hundred lives. It will take some time to calculate how many died during Texas’s Lost Week, but it seems possible it will be significantly higher once indirect deaths are included.
The stories of those deaths are horrifying. An 11-year-old boy in Conroe died of hypothermia under a pile of blankets in his family’s mobile home, soon after having played in snow for the first time. A 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran went to his truck to fetch his last oxygen tank and froze there. An 8-year-old girl who died was one of 580 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in Harris County alone, as Texans turned to generators and car engines in an attempt to stay warm. One doubts that these Texans, and those needing dialysis and chemotherapy, would be glad to go even longer without electricity if that’s what it takes “to keep the federal government out of their business,” as former governor Perry, one of the key architects of the state’s failed electricity grid, defiantly told Fox News.
The number of deaths will be roughly calculable, eventually, as will the economic losses, but the psychological damage is harder to quantify, though no less important. For those who lost power, water, and cell service, the experience was briefly that of being part of a collapsing civilization. It came after a year of a pandemic and an economic crash that have already put Texans under almost unbearable pressure. I was lucky: I was without power for 72 hours in subfreezing temperatures with food and water and a battery with which I could charge my phone. It was not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy. (Or at least I thought so, until I found out that Ted Cruz had flown to Cancún amid the worst of the crisis.)
Most importantly, the pain fell across geographic and socioeconomic divides. The suffering, of course, wasn’t evenly distributed—it never is—but it nonetheless included many middle-class and affluent folks who have previously had little reason to doubt the state’s ability to protect them. Poor Texans may be more used to having the power cut, but the experience of leaving a once-comfortable suburban home to find firewood for heat was probably a bit more eye-opening.
The winter storm that brought all this about, though severe by Texas standards, would have qualified as a brisk weekend in some parts of the country that wouldn’t experience so much as a flicker of their lights. Someone had blood on their hands. But who? Texans were angry, and that anger was looking for an outlet. Politicians were nervous—palpably so. The effort to direct the public fury began long before the snow melted.
Texans looking to their governor for answers heard little, at first. A day and a half into the crisis, on Tuesday night, Abbott finally surfaced to be interviewed in the friendly environs of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Abbott pinned the blame on wind turbines. The blackouts, he told Hannity, showed “how the Green New Deal,” and the rise of renewable energy, “would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” (This was a few hours after the eleven-year-old boy froze to death in Conroe.) “Our wind and our solar, they got shut down and they were collectively more than ten percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis,” he said.
This was a lie. It was a convenient lie, because it slotted the disaster into a familiar front of the culture war—green energy versus fossil fuels, New York socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez versus Texas. This mess was environmentalists’ fault, somehow. The messaging was picked up by Texas congressmen Chip Roy and Dan Crenshaw, among others. The state’s hapless agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, told his Facebook following that “we should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time.”
About half of the state’s wind turbines froze. But the still-functioning wind farms produced more than they were expected to deliver in winter weather, and helped support the grid as fossil fuel plants went offline. (Solar panels, too, helped the grid avoid a worse crisis.) Hours before his appearance on Hannity, Abbott told the truth to a Dallas local news station. The shortfall in electricity was largely caused by problems in the supply of natural gas, he said: “It’s just frozen right now. It’s frozen in the pipeline. It’s frozen at the rig. It’s frozen at the transmission line.”
As the evil-windmill bogeyman started to fade, another villain rose in prominence: the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, a nonprofit council that administers the state’s principal electric grid. When the power supply declined rapidly on Monday, it was ERCOT that gave the order to the various utilities around the state to cut off homes and neighborhoods. Texans who never had reason to know of ERCOT’s existence understandably assumed that this obscure entity had cast the state into darkness like sorcerers summoning a solar eclipse.
This made ERCOT a convenient scapegoat. On Wednesday, as Texans’ anger was mounting, Abbott called on ERCOT’s leadership to resign. (Five of the board members did so a week later.) He lambasted their “total failure” and accused them of keeping him in the dark about what was going on. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and a variety of lawmakers pledged investigations into the organization, ensuring that its executives and board members would face grillings throughout the ongoing legislative session. But ERCOT is not the all-powerful entity that its critics make it out to be. It is a technical body that plays a role analogous to an air-traffic controller. Its leaders were powerless to overcome the high-level policy decisions that helped plunge Texas into crisis.
Who, then, is to blame? Just as with the child-welfare system, the buck stops with state government—with lawmakers and governors past and present. For one, ERCOT is overseen by the Texas Public Utility Commission, whose three commissioners are appointed by the governor. He is the elected official most directly accountable for their performance and, through them, the performance of ERCOT.
The utility commissioners are the sorts of figures a governor appoints when he wants people to toe the party line, individuals with close ties to him and to the industry they’re empowered to regulate. The current chairman, DeAnn Walker, was a senior adviser to Abbott prior to joining the board. Before that, she was the director of regulatory affairs at CenterPoint Energy, the Houston electricity and gas giant. Another commissioner, Arthur D’Andrea, has been working for Abbott in various capacities since Abbott was attorney general, most recently as a lawyer in the governor’s office.
The commissioners are paid more than $200,000 annually, but face little scrutiny. Last summer, the commission disbanded its oversight and enforcement division, which among other things investigates deceptive practices by electricity retailers, apparently because it was acting as a check on the commission’s power. And in November, the commission unilaterally junked its relationship with the Texas Reliability Entity, an independent monitoring organization that makes sure electric companies follow state guidelines. Predictably, Abbott and his allies have directed fire at ERCOT, not his apparatchiks on the commission.
But even Abbott and the PUC are not entirely responsible for Texas’s unusual electricity system. Ultimately, the Texas Legislature is. In 1995 and 1999, lawmakers from both parties undertook a far-reaching experiment by deregulating the state’s power sector, part of the marketization binge that began in the eighties and transformed the telecom, pipeline, and airline industries. The idea was to introduce competition and “choice” to the staid utility sector, and empower an unfettered market to make electricity cheaper for consumers. The evidence on that last point is mixed, but consumers in parts of Texas that remain regulated—including those served by investor-owned companies like El Paso Electric, city-owned utilities such as Austin Energy and CPS Energy in San Antonio, as well as rural electric cooperatives—enjoy cheaper electricity than those in the much larger part of the state that deregulated. Customers in deregulated areas have paid a surcharge that, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, amounted to $28 billion over the last two decades.
Deregulation also made the grid less robust and less resilient. By design, ERCOT has no “capacity market,” whereby electricity producers are paid to ensure generating capacity on future dates. Instead, the energy-only system relies on high wholesale power prices to encourage more generators to come online when demand rises. (That’s why some Texans with contracts pegged to the wholesale market have been getting post-freeze electricity bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.) Customers of grids with capacity markets pay a slight premium for electricity, in exchange for more-reliable power. The reliability of the Texas grid has always been an open question: we’ve seen relatively brief blackouts in winter storms and summer heat waves, but there have always been warnings of something worse.
While most of the state suffered through blackouts and water shortages, El Paso and Amarillo were barely affected. That’s because they, along with some counties in East Texas, aren’t part of ERCOT. Instead they plug into the nation’s two other grids, which allows cooperating states to rely on each other during emergencies. Overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, those grids have capacity markets to ensure power amid surges in demand, and they require the weatherization of critical infrastructure. After the Texas disaster, journalists in states such as Arizona and Colorado began asking: Could it happen in our states? No, they concluded. The grid was too robust. What happened in Texas—amid freezing weather that struck most of the country—appeared to be a peculiarly Texan disease, as illustrated by the map that accompanies this story.
The independence of the Texas grid has long been a point of pride for the state’s politicians. But there are perhaps worse things than federal oversight. In 2011, when a less severe winter storm hit the Lone Star State, the grid suffered rolling blackouts. FERC issued a report that recommended that Texas winterize power generators to prevent worse crises in the future. Several bills that would have acted on the FERC recommendations died, amid heavy lobbying from utility interests, in 2011 and subsequent sessions.
Last week, as mounting anger required more scapegoats, statewide officials such as Greg Abbott lucked out: the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, flew to Cancún, then lied about it and was shamed into returning, looking like a puppy who had peed on the rug. While that story sucked up oxygen, the lights came back on for most Texans. Those who are responsible for the dark days of February in the first place will make some changes—there seems to be a consensus emerging that Texas should require the weatherization of power plants—but otherwise, they hope that you will forget how mad you were. And they hope that you won’t figure out who to be mad at.
What is power for? Much of Texas gained access to electric power less than a century ago. Rural electrification helped lift many Texans out of a cyclical trap of poverty and the backbreaking physical labor of hauling water from wells to homes. It was made possible by politicians, among them Lyndon Baines Johnson, who believed that the point of obtaining political power was to use it—to create security and opportunity for those who elected you. These politicians weren’t pure idealists: they were no less conniving or corrupt than political leaders today, and probably more so. But they believed that politics had a purpose.
Today, there’s another kind of politician, one that’s harder to understand. When Texas politicians deregulated the electricity market, they tried to wash their hands of a core function of government and delegate responsibility to for-profit actors and distant bureaucrats. This abdication of governance gives lawmakers plausible deniability for whatever comes next. When something goes wrong, they are quick to blame everyone but themselves. They can’t wait to move on.
Responsibility is something other people are supposed to take. After ERCOT’s board members resigned, Abbott issued a strikingly worded statement putting the blame for all that had happened at their feet. “When Texans were in desperate need of electricity, ERCOT failed to do its job and Texans were left shivering in their homes without power,” he said. “I welcome these resignations. The State of Texas will continue to investigate ERCOT and uncover the full picture of what went wrong.” No mention of the PUC’s responsibility to oversee ERCOT, his role in appointing the pet-rock PUC commissioners, or the role of the Legislature in creating the failed grid system.
On February 22, Patrick held a press conference at the Lubbock airport, part of a damage-control tour. Asked why the Legislature hadn’t ordered plants weatherized after the 2011 winter storm, Patrick, the second-most-powerful politician in the state, said that lawmakers had suggested to the PUC that plants be winterized, and “we were told that they followed up on our recommendations.” Besides, he said, shrugging, “we’re not in the business of telling everyone what to do every day.”