by Scott Parkin
Two weeks ago, a polar vortex hit my home state of Texas. The heating Arctic pushed cold air far south and temperatures plummeted below freezing. In a state that has been hit by hurricanes, drought and wildfires, the climate crisis coming home to roost in one of the most pro-oil and gas states in the country is nothing out of the ordinary. Despite decades of dealing with the aftermath of these climate disasters, the notoriously libertarian state fails at providing for the needs of its residents over and over. But a polar vortex hitting Texas was completely new and it’s leadership even more unprepared for the disaster.
Gas and coal-fired power plants lacking winterization had their facilities freeze and shut down. In a state of 29 million, this led to over four and a half million people without power in frigid weather. Residents living in homes built for the tropics shivered in the dark. Some froze to death. The next phase of the disaster had more than twelve million Texans lose their water or put under “boil advisories,” (which means you have to boil your tap water before you drink it.) More than 130 of the state’s 254 counties were experiencing water outages or potential contamination, and more than 250,000 residents had not had water service for three days, according to state data. Some still don’t have water.
At last count, over one hundred people have perished from the Texas freeze.
Along with the overarching climate crisis that gets worse every year, the libertarian “the market will provide” Republican politics of today is the root of this month’s humanitarian disaster in Texas. The U.S. has three energy grids — one in the west, one in the east and one in Texas. Texas is notorious for its deregulated energy grid. In the mid-1930’s, Texas oil men had an aversion to being part of a federal power grid, so they pursued energy systems that eventually led to the state’s electricity being governed by Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc. ( ERCOT).
In 2011, another unseasonal blizzard led to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reported that winterizing of the power grid was necessary. ERCOT didn’t require the winterization as “mandatory” to the private energy companies. Of course, the companies were too busy making huge profits to “volunteer” to winterize their operations, as my co-host Prof Bob Buzzanco pointed out. Even worse, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointees to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas wreaked havoc on oversight of Texas utilities. In July 2020, they disbanded the PUC’s Oversight and Enforcement Division dropping pending cases to unsure reliability. In November 2020, they ended a contract with the Texas Reliability Entity which reduced oversight of the power grid. After this months crisis, five members of the ERCOT board resigned. All five lived out of state.
The Rand Paul free market fundamentalism grift, promoted by the Republican Party and the fossil sector, is one part of our modern phenomenon of disasters. The other is their decade’s long promotion of denial that a heating Arctic causes climate change, polar vortexes and hurricanes. This allows our society to continue to be run on fossil fuels.
The response of Texas Republican politicians (you know, those in power at most levels of state government) has been what we’ve come to expect from Republicans in the age of Trump.
The most honest has been from the Mayor (now former Mayor) Tim Boyd of Colorado City in West Texas. In the midst of the crisis when the residents of Colorado City were without power, water and heat, Boyd posted on Facebook that “only the strong survive and the weak will [perish].” He went on, “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout.” He then abruptly resigned his office.
A number of Republican politician decided that it was a good moment to start a GOP “Texodus.” Senator “Flyin’” Ted Cruz hopped a plane for a family vacation at a luxurious resort in Cancun, Mexico. Once the story hit social media and then the mainstream press, Cruz came home, saying he’d only left town because his kids asked him too. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the week for Utah. Paxton tweeted he needed to be in Utah for an in-person law enforcement demonstration and to meet with Utah’s attorney general. Upon his return, he didn’t respond to press inquiries about holding ERCOT responsible for power failures. State rep. Gary Gates (R- Ft. Bend) took his private jet for a family getaway in Orland, FL after the family’s pipes burst. Sadly, none of his neighbors or the millions of other Texans with burst pipes got an invitation.
But the more important Republican responses has been the public relations offensive in the defense of their deregulatory practices.
Their first wave of attack was against green energy. Internet rumors circulated that the rolling power outages were a result of “frozen wind turbines.” While some turbines froze without proper de-icing materials (another result of the lack of winterizing by state regulatory agencies), less than 15% of Texas electricity comes from wind power. Instead what froze and caused the power outages was the more than 80% of Texas power coming from gas, coal and nuclear power.
For what it’s worth, the images circulated in the rapid response disinformation campaign turned out to be frozen wind turbines in Sweden from 2013.
Next, Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News promoting the failure of clean energy and then followed up with the lie “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” By the way, the Green New Deal has never actually been up for a vote in Congress. After that, Perry double-downed with anti-government rhetoric saying that Texans sitting at home in the freezing dark to keep the federal government out of their business. And, of course, Senator John Cornyn followed up saying that Texas should “trust the free market.”
Climate campaigner Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media recently told the podcast that I co-host, the Green and Red Podcast, that this is a normal playbook put out by Big Oil’s spin machine.
At the same time, the fossil fuel sector is making a “jackpot.” Natural gas companies have announced record profits with spiking gas prices as demand has far exceeded supply. Billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones owns 75% majority of shale driller Comstock Resources and will be a major beneficiary of the crippling Texas winter. At the same time, ordinary Texans are getting exorbitant electricity bills. The New York Times reported that Scott Willaboughy, a retired army vet in the Dallas area living on social security, received a montly bill of $16,752. Not only were people left alone freezing in the dark, they are also now on the wrong end of the class divide. Furthermore, this is all designed to keep a greedy few wealthy and out of reach of any accountability from the rest of us.
In the wake of the Texas freeze and power outages, mutual aid networks across the state have sprung into action. In the state’s capitol, networks strengthened during the pandemic and George Floyd uprisings are canvassing East Austin neighborhoods asking what residents and elders need. At this point, according to Austin organizer Debbie Russell, the city government takes cues from the mutual aid networks at this point. Volunteer networks of anarchists, Beto O’Rourke supporters, Black Lives Matter protesters and other left-liberal types in Texas are distributing food and warm clothes, finding shelter for the houseless and making sure elders are safe. Socialist foil to the far right Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has raised millions and traveled to Ted Cruz’s hometown of Houston to work at a local food bank.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana coast in 2005, the first disaster came from the climate enhanced storm. Next, government deregulation failed New Orleans by leaving inadequate levees to stop floods. After that, came from the government’s inability to muster disaster relief. In Texas, it’s been Hurricane Katrina at a Texas sized scale. First, a climate enhanced polar vortex swept into the region. Next, deregulated oversight and power operations failed to maintain the electric grid. After that, Texas officials failed to muster disaster relief. Millions were left without power and water in a polar vortex. The winter weather in Texas may be over, but the underlying issues of the crisis still remain.