Failed State: Texas Power Grid Collapse Impacts Millions. Black & Brown Communities Are Worst Hit

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Millions of people in Texas were plunged into freezing cold and darkness as a major winter storm overwhelmed the state’s power grid. More than 12 million Texans face water disruptions and have been ordered to boil tap water for safe consumption, and some parts of the state have no running water at all. The state is also running out of food as the storms disrupt key supply chains. Leading Republicans, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, falsely blamed renewable energy sources for the state’s blackouts, warning against a shift to more green energy, but the state’s own energy department said the outages were primarily due to freezing at natural gas, coal and nuclear facilities. Despite the crisis, state leaders say they will not integrate Texas’s power grid with the rest of the country. “The impact of this storm is more than just power outages and inconveniences,” says Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, who warns that the additional costs associated with the crisis will hurt Black and Brown communities most. “That’s the inequity that’s piled on top of the inequity.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Texas, where millions were plunged millions into freezing cold and darkness as a major winter storm overwhelmed the state’s underprepared power grid. At least 38 people have died. Hundreds of thousands remain without power as Texas faces record-low temperatures. More than 12 million Texans face water disruptions and have been ordered to boil tap water to ensure its safety, even though many lack the electricity to do so. Some parts of Texas have no running water at all. Texas is also running out of food as the storm has disrupted key supply chains.

This is a resident of Denton, Texas.

ROBERT PIERCE: We had a fireplace, and I burnt up all the wood we had. … There’s just — this is sad. This is a sad state of affairs. I wish it were better, but, you know, somebody’s got to do some planning after all this is over and make sure there’s an alternative source of energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott took to Fox News Tuesday to blame renewable energy for Texas’s blackouts, saying the Green New Deal would be “deadly” for the U.S.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT: This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Texas is blessed with multiple sources of energy, such as natural gas and oil and nuclear.

AMY GOODMAN: Abbott’s comments contradicted Texas’s own energy department, which said the outages were due to, quote, “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities.” Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you don’t pursue a Green New Deal,” unquote.

There are three energy grids in the United States: in the West, in the East and in Texas, which set up its own independent power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, in the 1930s to avoid federal regulation. Now hit by cold weather, it collapsed. On Wednesday, ABC News asked ERCOT’s CEO, Bill Magness, if Texas should be integrated into the national grid. This was his response.

BILL MAGNESS: Well, again, we’ve got to focus on getting this problem solved and getting the power back on. I imagine there’s going to be — there will certainly be, you know, investigation into this event to determine what the right approach to going forward is. But today, I’m not really focused on going forward. I’m sure those discussions will come, but right now we’ve got to get the power back on for people.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in a blog post Wednesday by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy titled “What’s Up in Texas?,” former Governor Rick Perry, who was energy secretary under President Trump, said Texans would prefer rolling blackouts to government regulations. Perry said, quote, “Those watching on the left may see the situation in Texas as an opportunity to expand their top-down, radical proposals. Two phrases come to mind: don’t mess with Texas, and don’t let a crisis go to waste. 'Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,'” he said.

Well, for more, we go to Houston, Texas, where we’re joined by one of those Texans who went without electricity. Robert Bullard is a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, known as the “father of environmental justice.” He’s the author of many books, including The Wrong Complexion for Protection and Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. He’s also the co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network.

Dr. Bullard, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you describe your own experience and the situation of people in Texas right now, this devastating state collapse, which seems traceable back to just they didn’t want to be federally regulated, and how it’s disparately affected Texans?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, first of all, Amy, good morning. I’m really glad that my power is back on and can have this interview. I was out of power for two days. The lights came back on yesterday.

The temperature had dropped. Outside, I think it was 11 degrees. Inside my house was — had gotten low, a low 40s, 41, something like that, very cold. We Texans are not used to that. And I’ve gotten calls from some folks in Houston. There, the temperatures in their homes went down in the 30s.

To hear elected officials talking about we are proud to be off the grid in terms of the U.S. and Texans pride themselves as being the Lone Star State, but when it comes to this cold spell and this failure, we are alone. We are the Alone Star State.

The impact of this storm is more than just power outages and inconveniences for those communities that historically have been impacted by energy insecurity, energy poverty, having to pay a larger portion of their household income for energy. And this kind of disruption, with this cold spell and with people having to raise the thermostat to keep warm, will mean, after this power outage has been restored, people are going to have high bills, utility bills, and some won’t be able to pay, and some will get shutoffs. That’s the inequity that’s piled on top of the inequity. And we see this happening all across the city, as well as the state.

And we are also dealing with the era of COVID. No power, no lights, no water. There’s no way for you to boil water if you don’t have electricity. And there’s no way to wash your hands and deal with COVID if you don’t have water. So, it’s a pandemic, it’s a catastrophe, piled and converging, which is technically a mess.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Bullard, could you respond to what the Texas governor has had, Greg Abbott, blaming renewable energy sources for the blackouts?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, you know, he made the statement and then walked it back, and then talking about we have a diverse energy portfolio. And as a matter fact, the facts don’t bear out what he said. And, you know, the renewables outperform the other natural gas and coal and nuclear. We have to really look at science. And a lot of the finger pointing and blame game is not really based on science. Well, it is, partially; it’s called political science.

And I think people who 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 water, bottled water, in the stores, or food, they want to see action and answers. And there will — even the officials are calling for an investigation. But a real investigation would actually start pointing back to individuals that are in charge. And so, I think the idea of Texas not being part of the union has really been a textbook example of how not to do it. We are a failed state right now, in every sense of the word.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, talking about the issue of environmental justice, we were in Houston and interviewed you, Dr. Bullard, after one of the major hurricanes. And we were looking at the frontline communities who were so hard hit by these hurricanes, disparately affected, much worse than other communities.

Then, as you said, you have COVID. You have some heating centers, if people are lucky enough to get into one —

ROBERT BULLARD: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — because the electricity is out in so many places. But I don’t know if it’s lucky, because they’re packed in like sardines when we’re dealing with the pandemic.

And then you have this issue of renewable energy. It looks like Governor Abbott went on Fox, on Hannity, to say this is about the Green New Deal, which hasn’t even been passed yet. But then, locally, knowing no one would buy it, in the Petro Metro, where you live, in Houston, or anywhere else in Texas, he walked it back. But that got out there into the right-wing blogosphere and Twittersphere, and that’s what they’re blaming, when we’re talking about something like 10% wind turbines, when they were supposed to be updated and they weren’t, but so much more. The vast majority of the energy sources are not renewable.

Can you talk about why you see this as an environmental justice issue? And you’re so famous for saying “depends on who’s at the table,” in deciding how we move forward. You have a complete failed state right now. How do the right people get at the table?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, it’s important that we take a comprehensive view of what is happening here on the ground. The very communities that were hit especially hard during Harvey and the flooding, and as you map that, you can see it’s the same communities, overlaid, that were hit the hardest — Black and Brown communities — by COVID. If you overlay the power outages and the rolling blackouts, etc., and you start to look at the releases from these refineries and plants because of unstable power — and the releases, over 300,000 pounds of pollution was released during this, I guess, three days or so, that created lots of problems in terms of potential health impacts, releasing of benzene, which is a known carcinogen. So, we’re talking about environmental. We’re talking about health. We’re talking about energy. We’re talking about issues related to access to food and healthcare. All those things are rolled up in one.

And when we talk about a solution, that means that we need to have the right people at the table when decisions are being made as to how we come out of this catastrophe with a solid plan and not assume that, well, we can just paste it over and say we can go on as business as usual and not expect to have something like this to reoccur. Lessons unlearned. You know, we had a major power outage — I think it was 2011 or so. And there were no lessons learned from that. There were no lessons that we could have taken forward and strengthened our system, our grid, and to talk about building something that is solid, sustainable and resilient for everybody.

Now, there are some people that have not missed a beat. If you have a generator that’s pumping in your backyard, or if you have a credit card and can drive to a hotel and wait it out, your hurt and pain may be less than those who feel the hurt and pain first, worst and longest. So we have to come through this with more people in those rooms in Austin talking about solutions, and not the same people who created the problem. We can’t expect them to solve the problem. That’s not real.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bob, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Bob Bullard is distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, known as the “father of environmental justice,” author of many books, including The Wrong Complexion for Protection and Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Among other effects of this catastrophe in Texas and the surrounding states is the breakdown of distribution of vaccines.

Next up, we’re going to talk about, yes, COVID-19 infection rates are going down, but the CDC says it’s way too soon to lift mask mandates. We’ll speak with infectious disease doctor Monica Gandhi. She’ll talk about actually how to wear a mask or how to wear two at once. Stay with us.

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