30 Years of Power Outages and Campaign Donations in Texas
State officials funded by power companies have been warned, since at least 1989, that the power grid was at risk of failure in cold weather. They have consistently failed to act.
In a rare televised address Wednesday evening, Texas Governor Greg Abbott stared directly into a camera and did his best to reassure his constituents that things are under control after last week’s blackouts that left millions of Texans without power or clean water.
“No words—no words—can fix what happened or ease the pain that you have endured,” Abbott said. “But I assure you of this: This legislative session will not end until we fix these problems. And we will ensure that the tragic events of the past week are never repeated. Your safety is my top concern. And I pray that God continues to bless you all.”
After initially—and erroneously—blaming providers of wind and other renewable energy for the blackouts, Abbott ultimately acknowledged that all forms of energy generation failed last week during a historic spate of freezing weather. The cold and power failures killed at least 80 people, including an 11-year-old boy. (Officials have said it could take months to determine the full death toll.) That Texas’s most powerful state official—a politician who has received millions of dollars in donations from utilities, power companies, and oil and gas companies throughout his career—has committed to doing anything to address the crisis is something of a miracle for the staunchly anti-government Texas Republican Party.
But had safety been Abbott’s “top concern” since taking office in 2015, the state simply would not have gone through this crisis at all. Texas officials have been warned, since at least 1989, that the state’s power grid was at risk of failure in cold weather.
Texas’s energy grid—the only U.S. electric grid not regulated by the federal government—also failed during similar weather conditions in 1989 and 2011. After the 2011 freeze, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a more than 350-page report outlining simple steps the state could take to make sure the grid, run by a nonprofit called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), would be more resilient against extreme cold weather. Instead, the grid once again failed and was, according to news reports, just four minutes and 37 seconds away from a potential total meltdown that could have left Texans without power for weeks.
But, since ERCOT’s grid doesn’t cross state lines, FERC has no authority to mandate that Texas officials actually do anything. That responsibility, instead, falls to state leaders and regulatory bodies—especially the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT), whose commissioners are selected by the governor. Critics have now pointed out that Abbott, his predecessor Rick Perry, and the state’s Republican Party itself have longstanding ties to the same power companies that caused the decades-long problem. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, donors tied to energy and natural resources have given Abbott at least $26.3 million dollars over his career—more than individuals in any other industry. And in last year’s federal campaign cycle, several Texas Republicans were among the top recipients of campaign funding from oil and gas companies.
Abbott has appointed all three current PUCT commissioners. One commissioner previously worked as the governor’s assistant general counsel. Another was formerly employed by Houston’s CenterPoint Energy. Two of the three commissioners also worked for ERCOT itself.
“Ultimately, Governor Abbott owns this PUC,” Adrian Shelley, Texas office director for the nonprofit consumer rights group Public Citizen, told The Appeal. “The PUC is not going to be any stronger or more progressive than the charge given to it by the legislature.”
The power failures now have activists asking: Will this finally be enough to push the Texas government to regulate the state’s electrical grid?
“I think there will be hearings, some blame might get passed around to some sacrificial lambs in places like ERCOT, but within a couple of months, things will heat up in the state, and this mostly will be forgotten,” Shelley said. “To try to do something different, it starts with the voters, who need to start to demand some accountability from their lawmakers.”
To try to do something different, it starts with the voters, who need to start to demand some accountability from their lawmakers.Adrian Shelley, Director, Public Citizen
In the years since the 2011 blackout, Texas did little more than mandate that ERCOT file a series of nonbinding reports about its weather preparedness. The GOP-dominated state legislatures under both Abbott and Perry did not give regulatory bodies like the PUCT more power to mandate reforms. These represent a pattern of behavior for Texas officials.
“The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side,” FERC wrote in its report. “In that year, as in 2011, cold weather caused many generators to trip, derate, or fail to start. The PUCT investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011.”
The report also noted that power outages could compound on one another: In recent years, FERC noted, the state grid increased its reliance on natural gas. Compressors used in the gas industry, however, are often powered by electricity, so statewide outages could also lead to a shortage of natural gas in different parts of the state.
During the same time that various organizations issued reports that had no mandate power, Texas officials pushed to further deregulate the state power companies. As the Austin American-Statesman recently recounted, Ken Lay, the former CEO of the infamous Houston-based energy company Enron, pushed Governor George W. Bush to strip away rules governing state utilities in the 1990s. As a result, state legislators eventually allowed the “market to replace the regulator,” in the words of one PUCT commissioner appointed by Bush.
“Despite the recommendations issued by the PUCT in its report on the 1989 event, the majority of the problems generators experienced in 2011 resulted from failures of the very same type of equipment that failed in the earlier event,” FERC wrote. In 1989, the PUCT even wrote that it would take another freeze to deduce whether the state had learned anything from the ’89 freeze—but after mass outages in 2011, the state once again took virtually no action.
FERC noted that, no matter what utilities may say, the costs to prepare the electric grid for occasional cold-weather events “would not be unduly expensive,” and noted that, by the time the agency finished its report, some companies had taken steps to voluntarily weatherize their equipment. But the agency also warned that voluntary changes alone have not brought about the reforms needed to keep Texans safe in the cold.
“Texas has now had that second event,” FERC wrote in 2011, “and the answer is clearly that the corrective actions were not adequate, or were not maintained. Generators were not required to institute cold weather preparedness, and efforts in that regard lapsed with the passage of time.”
Now that Texas has had a third event, the question of what it will take for lawmakers to act has become more urgent.
“There are water pipes that are busted all over the state,” Joshua D. Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin who also consults on energy industry projects, told The Appeal. “This is going to cost real people real money to fix roofs, ceiling, flooring, all kinds of stuff like that. I think this one’s stickier.”
But, so far, the most visible and vocal responses to the crisis by Texas officials have ranged from U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s departure to Cancún to U.S. Representative Chip Roy’s defense of Texas’s resistance to federal oversight. Roy said he would oppose any attempt by the federal government to regulate ERCOT or Texas state utilities.
According to San Antonio’s NBC affiliate, Roy “says he feels the state has a strong grid that delivers abundant energy, most of the time.”