Texas: Dirty Water and Deregulation

Last week, Texas experienced an environmental crisis that was previously unimaginable in a developed nation like the United States. A severe winter storm caused millions of Texans to lose power, as well as at least 30 deaths and over 450 diagnoses of carbon monoxide poisoning due to desperate people relying on alternate heat sources like radiators and grills. On top of that, as many as 10 million Texans lost access to clean drinking water, either receiving boil water notices or losing water entirely. Now that Texas is finally beginning to return to normalcy as power is returned, the overarching question still remains: what went wrong?

The most obvious reason for this crisis is that Texas is not supposed to experience extreme winter weather. Emily Gruber, an expert in electrical networks at Georgia Tech, put it bluntly: “It’s cold across the entire state, and it’s cold for a long time. This does not happen very often.” Since Texas rarely experiences winter storms, especially not at the magnitude of last week’s storm, the state simply was not prepared for it. The extraordinarily cold conditions simultaneously created a massive spike in electrical demand for heating homes and rendered natural gas systems inoperable, all of which traces back to a lack of preparation by the Texan government. While the occurrence of a massive winter storm in Texas could be written off as a fluke, it is more likely that climate change is a direct cause. In fact, Gruber also stated “grids are facing more extreme conditions more often and further outside of the categories that they’ve expected” across the world, and Texas is another example of the detrimental effects.

Another reason for the Texas catastrophe is more directly linked to their natural gas system. Whereas all other states have interconnected power grids, Texas has the unique capacity to produce and provide all of their own energy without sending any or receiving any from other states. However, the system requires an immense network of natural gas pipelines, which were “totally unequipped for a polar vortex,” resulting in freezing and depressurization. The weather is not the only thing to blame in the failure of the natural gas network. In 1999, Texas entirely restructured its power infrastructure which coincided with massive deregulation of the energy industry. The state effectively ended any government oversight of energy companies, resulting in the non-profit (and ironically named) Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, being tasked with supervising all energy companies in the state without any enforced regulations. Because of the lack of government regulation, ERCOT lacked any incentive to encourage investment in winterization of equipment as it would only decrease profit margins (and with cheap, abundant access to natural gas, solar and wind power, profit margins were immense). Therefore, when freezing temperatures hit the state, none of the equipment was remotely prepared to withstand it. 

Rather than taking responsibility for the crisis as the leading party of the state, the Republican party in Texas is shifting the blame. In the midst of rolling blackouts, Texas Governor Greg Abbot stated on Fox that “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” implying that it was renewable energy, not climate change and deregulation of the energy industry, that created the devastation. Another Texas Republican, U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw, tweeted, “when weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it.” Even Republicans outside of Texas are taking advantage of the opportunity to discredit renewable energy; U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado shared a video of a helicopter de-icing a frozen windmill and suggested that frozen windmills were to blame for the Texas catastrophe–when in fact the video was taken in Sweden in 2014. Despite the insistence by Republicans that renewable energy like frozen windmills led to the energy shortage in Texas, renewable energy only accounts for about 10% of  Texas’s electrical grid. In fact, while some solar and wind farms’ production was hindered by the storm, others actually exceeded expectations. The narrative that ‘unreliable’ renewable energy caused the Texas power shutdown is meant to deflect attention from both the government’s massive deregulation of its energy corporations and the effects of human-induced climate change. 

The winter storm in Texas has had devastating, tragic effects that were understandably unforeseen by a state with an average temperature of 60 degrees. However, the scale of the crisis is directly linked to the Texan government’s lack of oversight for its energy infrastructure. Republicans have chosen to blame renewable energy and attack the Green New Deal, though, instead of implementing changes to prevent another similar disaster. With weather emergencies growing increasingly more common across the world due to climate change, if Texas does not take concrete steps to better prepare for another winter storm of last week’s magnitude, countless more people will suffer.