Texas, the proud, independent Lone Star State, is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe caused by its shortsighted denial of the climate crisis and lack of federal regulation. Warming air over the Arctic is the likely reason that the polar vortex, a huge mass of cold air over the North Pole, moved south, plunging Texas and surrounding states into an unprecedented deep freeze. Millions have been left for days without power, water and heat, and nearly 40 people have died. A second winter storm, dubbed Viola, hit the state as it reeled from the vortex. Republican Governor Greg Abbott falsely blamed the state’s electrical grid failure on renewable energy: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” he told Fox News. Even Abbot’s own energy department refuted his claims.
The freezing air blanketing the region did shut down about half of Texas’ wind turbines, but still, that only accounted for 13% of the overall power loss. The larger cause of the catastrophe was frozen fossil fuel infrastructure, disabling coal, oil, fracked gas facilities and even nuclear power generation. Governor Abbott’s lies may warm the hearts of his corporate fossil fuel donors, but they won’t help the millions of Texans struggling to survive in the freezing cold, and they won’t protect Texas from future extreme weather events that are sure to follow.
Texas has itself largely to blame for the severity of its power grid’s failure. Most of the continental United States draws power from two main electrical grids, one in the east and the other in the west. Texas, however, operates its own, isolated grid, often described as an “island.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Federal Power Commission in 1935, as part of the New Deal, to regulate interstate electricity. Texas power companies rebelled, and decided to go it alone, keeping the state’s grid entirely in-state. The system developed over the decades into ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
As the largest state by area in the lower 48, and with significant oil, gas and coal within its borders, and plenty of sun and wind, Texas is perhaps better positioned than any other state to attempt energy independence. But the devil is in the details. ERCOT touts its freedom from federal regulation and devotion to the free market for its success over the decades. Texas energy officials endlessly brag about ERCOT’s ability to power all of the state’s air conditioners during its famously hot summers. But there has never been any incentive for power producers to spend money winterizing their facilities. As this week’s arctic cold shut down power plants across the state, Texas couldn’t draw electricity from out-of-state sources, creating a cascade of calamities, disproportionately hitting low-income communities and communities of color.
“We’re now the Alone Star State,” Professor Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice,” said on the Democracy Now! news hour from Houston, soon after his power had been restored. “The impact of this storm is more than just power outages and inconveniences for those communities that historically have been impacted by energy insecurity and energy poverty.”
Cities and towns across Texas are issuing boil notices as water treatment plants go offline. But many families can’t boil water without electricity. Stories are surfacing of people breaking apart furniture to burn for heat. “We are a failed state right now,” Bullard added. “People are suffering right now and hurting with no power, no money, no water, no form of transportation to get to the grocery store to get water where there is no bottled water or food…the idea of Texas not being part of the union has really been a textbook example of how not to do it.”
This is happening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are flocking to crowded, indoor warming centers, risking possible exposure to the coronavirus in search of heat. Meanwhile, the already stressed vaccine distribution networks have been shut down, and vaccination centers shuttered. It is unclear how many doses of the refrigeration-dependent vaccines will have to be tossed out because of Texas’ failed independent power grid.
Texas is also the nation’s biggest jailer, where prisoners are being especially hard hit. Lack of heat, running water, and food shortages are worsening already desperate conditions.
Texas’ elected leaders, from Gov. Greg Abbot, U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, to Attorney General Ken Paxton, all Republicans, are also all committed climate change deniers. As the thaw comes slowly to Texas, and the heat, lights and water turn back on, Texans will have to decide, to join the global community fighting human-caused climate disruption, or to insist on going it alone, come hell or high water.